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Film Friday: «Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid» (1969)

This week has been so incredibly hectic that I did not have time to post my usual "Film Friday" article on schedule. As a result, we are having instead a "Film Sunday," in which I am celebrating Robert Redford's 80th birthday, which was on Thursday, by telling you a little bit about one of the films that he is mostly associated with.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) tells the story of notorious bank robber Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman), the leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang, and his loyal companion, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). As they return to they hideout in Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, they discover that the rest of the gang, annoyed at Butch's long absences, have selected Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy) as their new leader. Butch contests this decision, leading Harvey to challenge him to a fight, which Butch quickly wins by distracting his opponent. Still, Butch embraces Harvey's idea to rob the Union Pacific Overland Flyer train twice, agreeing that the second robbery would be unexpected and therefore more money might be involved.

The first robbery goes very well, especially since the local sheriff (Kenneth Mars) fails to organize a posse to track down the gang. After the pair rests at the home of Sundance's girlfriend, schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross), the gang begins the second train robbery, which goes terribly wrong. Not only does Butch use too much dynamite to blow open the safe, but also a second train arrives carrying a six-man team of lawmen that have been instructed to hunt Butch and Sundance down until they are both killed. Finally escaping their pursuers, which they are able to identify by a man wearing a white skimmer hat, the duo flees to Bolivia and take Etta with them. With her as an accomplice, they soon became successful bank robbers, although their confidence drops when they see a man wearing a white straw hat and fear that the posse is still after them. Butch suggests "going straight," so as to not attract attention to them, but a deadly encounter with a group of bandits on their first day as honest workers reaffirms their propensity for violence. Sensing that they will be killed if they return to robbery, Etta decides to go back home. A few days later, Butch and Sundance attack a payroll mule train in the jungle, taking the money and the mule. Arriving in a small town, a boy recognizes the mule's brand and alerts the local police, leading to a gunfight with the outlaws. Badly wounded, they collapse in a nearby building, where Butch suggests their next destination should be Australia. Unaware that a large contigent of soldiers has joined the police outside, Butch and Sundance confidently rush out of the building to make their escape, only to be caught in a hail of bullets.

Butch Cassidy: Kid, the next time I say, "Let's go someplace like Bolivia," let's GO someplace like Bolivia.

As with any legend of the American Old West, many conflicting stories about the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid abound. Nevertheless, historians seem to agree that Butch Cassidy was born Robert Leroy Parker to British immigrant parents in 1866 in Utah. In his early teens, he left the family ranch and took a job at a dairy farm, where he formed a close friendship with a cowboy and small-time cattle rustler and horse thief named Mike Cassidy. Parker admired the older man, who taught him about training horses and shooting a gun. However, after getting into trouble with the law, Cassidy fled the area and Parker himself departed Utah in search of new opportunities. In 1889, at the age of 23, he performed his first bank robbery, when he and several companions stole over $20,000 from a bank in Telluride, Colorado. Around the same time, Parker started using the name "Cassidy" in honor of his former mentor and referred to himself as "Roy Cassidy." He eventually moved on to Spring Rocks, Wyoming, where he found employment in a butcher's shop and, according to myth, became known as "Butcher Cassidy," which morphed into "Butch Cassidy."

In 1894, while still in Wyoming, Cassidy was found guilty of stealing a horse worth $5 and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. Upon his release, he reunited with his fellow bandits and turned to robbing banks and trains. Meanwhile, Cassidy befriended Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, who was residing in a tent near him at Robbers Roost, a remote outlaw hideout in southeastern Utah. Born in Pennsylvania in 1867, Longabaugh moved west as teen and adopted the colorful nickname of "The Sundance Kid" while serving an 18-month jail sentence for stealing a horse near Sundance, Wyoming when he was 20 years old. In 1899, Cassidy recruited Longabaugh into his gang, which soon robbed a Union Pacific Overland Flyer train near Wilcox, Wyoming. The robbery resulted in a massive manhunt carried out by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, forcing Cassidy and Longabaugh to flee to New York, then Argentina and finally Bolivia. Longabaugh's female companion, Etta Place whose biographical details are largely unknown accompanied the duo in their escape.

Paul Newman, Katharine Ross and Robert Redford
In Bolivia, Cassidy and Longabaugh became respectable ranchers for a time, before returning to robbing banks. On November 4, 1908, near the town of Tupiza in southern Bolivia, two men believed to be Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed a payroll as it was being transported by mule to the Aramayo mine. Three days later, the supposed bandits reached San Vincente, where the villagers recognized the mule's brand and alerted the local authorities. During the ensuing confrontation, the Bolivians reportedly shot down the suspects or one of the outlaws killed his badly wounded partner to put him out of his misery and then turned the gun on himself. Afterwards, the bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in a San Vicente cemetery. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence linking Cassidy and Longabough to the robbery and shootout. In fact, both Cassidy's youngest sister, Lula Parker Betenton, and William A. Pinkerton himself claimed that their deaths were false and that both men managed to escape back to the United States, where they lived for a number of years under many aliases.

Writer William Goldman first came across the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the 1950s.  "Cassidy was the most popular gang leader of his time along with Jesse James," stated Goldman. The Hole in the Wall Gang, as the group was colectively known, was in fact the biggest and most successful gang in the Old West. "And yet," Goldman continued, "Cassidy was no good with a gun, nor was he a fighter: he must have affable!" The more he thought about this outlaw duo and their adventures and misadventures in the United States and later in South America, the more he was attracted to them and simultaneously amazed that no film had been made about them. During the Christmas vacation of 1965, while teaching at Princeton, Goldman finished what became the first draft after eights years of  thinking and researching the lives and legends of the two leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang. Goldman later stated: "The whole reason I wrote the... thing, there is that famous line that Scott Fitzgerald wrote, who was one of my heroes, 'There are no second acts in American lives.' When I read about Cassidy and Longbaugh and the superposse coming after them - that's phenomenal material. They ran to South America and lived there for eight years and that was what thrilled me: they had a second act. They were more legendary in South America than they had been in the old West... It's a great story. Those two guys and that pretty girl going down to South America and all that stuff. It just seems to me it's a wonderful piece of material.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford
The first script, originally titled "The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy," was shopped around to several studios. One executive famously rejected it because of the flight to South America. He wanted the outlaws to stay in the U.S. and fight the superposse to the death. When Goldman argued it really happened the way he wrote it, the executive insisted he didn't care because "John Wayne don't run away." Goldman rewrote the script, "didn't change it more than a few pages, and subsequently found that every studio wanted it." Richard Zanuck, then the head of 20th Century Fox, purchased the script for $400,000, the most that had been paid for a screenplay up to that time and twice as much as he was contracted by his board to spend on a single script.

Goldman had written the script with Jack Lemmon in mind for Butch and Paul Newman for Sundance. Some reports claim Newman initially passed on the script, but the actor later said, "From the second I read it, I knew it was going to be a movie that everybody connected with it could look back on with some sense of pride." Lemmon, however, turned down the role; he did not like riding horses, and he felt he had already played too many aspects of the Sundance Kid's character before. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen became interested in playing Butch and wanted Newman to consider doing Sundance. At this point, George Roy Hill signed on as director, but he said he would only do it if the roles were reversed. Newman did not want to play Butch, pleading with Hill to watch what he considered one of his worst performances in the comedy Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958). "I'm a terrible comic actor," Newman insisted, but became more convinced when Hill told him he did not have to go for the jokes, but to just play it straight. 

Robert Redford and Paul Newman
When McQueen departed the project due to billing disagreements with Newman, Hill decided he wanted to cast the less known and less established Robert Redford. The studio refused and began courting Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Zanuck thought Redford was no more than a bland pretty boy and Newman at first considered him too much of a "Wall Street lawyer" type. Eventually, he sided with Hill partially convinced of Redford's rightness by Newman's wife, actress Joanne Woodward and the two pressured Zanuck until he relented. Redford's later recollection of his assessment of the script was a bit more qualified than Newman's: "There was probably a little fear that it was maybe either a little too clever or too much fun and games, but it was still a very attractive script. Very well written." After Redford signed on as Sundance, the name of the film was changed to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to highlight the fact that Newman was the star. Joanna Pettet was first offered the role of Etta Place but was forced to turn down the role due to her pregnancy. Katharine Ross was eventually cast for the role of Etta.

In addition to some studio interiors and exteriors, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed on location in various parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and for the Bolivia scenes, Cuernavaca and Taxco, Mexico. The cast and crew enjoyed the location work. "We had the best locations possible, to my mind," Redford said. "We had Zion National Park [Utah]; Durango, Colorado...You rode through that, it was a joy." While filming in Mexico, almost the entire crew and cast suffered from severe diarrhea due to drinking polluted water. Newman, Redford and Ross were exception to this because they preferred drinking soda and alcohol.

Newman and Redford developed a close bond during the making of the film. Redford later said: "We found a common ground of humor and values off the set that could be worked into the work on the set." Newman said he and Redford "drank a lot of beer in Mexico and had a great deal of fun...probably the most fun I ever had on a film." Newman often kidded Redford about his tardiness, once suggesting they should rename the movie "Waiting for Lefty" (Redford is left-handed). They later co-starred in the Best Picture winner The Sting (1973), which was also directed by Hill.

Katharine Ross, Paul Newman and Robert Redford
Butch Cassidy's youngest sister Lula, who was still alive at the time, often visited the set and her presence was welcome to the cast and crew. During lulls in shooting, she would tell stories about her famous brother's escapades and was amazed at how accurately the script and Newman portrayed him. Before the film was released, Fox found out about her visits and tried to convince her to endorse the film in a series of advertisements to be shown in theatres across the country. She said that she would, but only if she saw the film first and truly stood behind it. The studio refused, saying that allowing her to see the film before its release could harm its reputation. Finally, at Redford's suggestion, she agreed to do the endorsements — for a small "fee."

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had its world premiere at the Roger Sherman Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in September 1969, a month before being released to the general public. Although the critical reviews were initially mixed, the film became the biggest moneymaker of the year, grossing over $100,000. The film won four Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Song ("Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head") and Best Screenplay. It was nominated for three more: Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Sound. The Best Picture that year was Midnight Cowboy (1969), the second highest-grossing film of the year. The affection both Newman and Redford felt for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their characters is evidenced in the names they have given to their favorite personal projects: Redford's Sundance Institute, a center for training and supporting new filmmakers, and Newman's Hole-in-the-Wall camp for children with debilitating illnesses.


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