Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is classic Paul Newman in arguably his most iconic anti-hero role.
The film is a product of its time in every way, from the non-conformist, anti-hero protagonists, to the unconventional romance, and the loose ending.
Let’s get to the plot.
It’s the 1890s, the last years of the American Wild West. The tone of the film is immediately set when we see our two outlaw anti-heroes, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford), make it out of a couple of tough situations with guns, wit, and humor. There’s endless teasing and banter between these two along the way. Our guys make trouble, and get into lots of trouble. But we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously because through it all, Butch and Sundance are having a blast.
Sundance is the fastest gun around, and Butch is a quick-thinker. It’s a good combination of skills to have if your own gang tries to turn on you, or if you’re robbing a train and the employee guarding the safe makes it difficult.
Both of which happen.
Robbing Trains & a Love Triangle
Butch and Sundance are best buds—they always have each other’s backs—and their respective talents complement the other’s. They’re handsome, charismatic, and constantly saying clever things. We like them, and want to see what they’ll do next.
Butch, Sundance, and the rest of the “Hole in the Wall Gang” basically rob Union Pacific trains left and right for the first bit of the film, with a break here and there to visit some ladies of the night, or Sundance’s schoolteacher girlfriend, Etta.
Who incidentally has feelings for Butch as well. And vice-versa.
Butch and Sundance run into some trouble with their crime spree when the Union Pacific Railroad hires a specialized posse to track them down and kill them, payback for all the money they’ve stolen. The longer the chase goes on, the more serious the boys realize the situation is: if they’re caught, they’re dead. As a sheriff friend tells Butch and Sundance while helping them hideout:
“Your times is over, and you’re gonna die bloody. All you get to do is choose where.”
It’s tragic foreshadowing, and we know it.
Off to Bolivia
Butch and Sundance meet back up with Etta, and decide the smartest thing to do is to go to Bolivia. The boys ask Etta to come with them. Etta knows, and so do we, that whatever criminal success they have in Bolivia can’t last forever. We get a little more tragic foreshadowing when Etta says:
“The only excitement I’ve known is here with me now [meaning Butch and Sundance], so I’ll go with you…I’ll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.”
The threesome have a great run in Bolivia for a time, successfully robbing several banks despite their comical lack of Spanish. But we know the end is near the day that Etta says:
“I might go back ahead of you.”
She leaves for the USA the next morning.
A Classic, Tragic Western Ending
Ultimately, it’s not the Union Pacific super posse who gets Butch and Sundance: it’s the Bolivian army. But our guys don’t go down without a fight.
Butch and Sundance don’t meet their bloody end until they’ve almost run out of ammo and are completely surrounded. And even then, Butch and Sundance still jump out of cover together, guns blazing and…
That’s the end of the film.
Unresolved? Maybe, although we certainly know what happens to Butch and Sundance, even if we don’t see it. Perhaps “loose” or “untied” are the best words to describe the ending of this classic film.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: An American Second Act
The writer of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay was novelist William Goldman, author of such popular books as Marathon Man and The Princess Bride, both of which were later famously made into films. Goldman had been interested in the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid since the 1950s. He researched the lives of Butch and Sundance for almost a decade before writing the Cassidy screenplay. As such, Goldman’s vision for his screenplay was strong:
“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 seconds acts in American lives.’ When I read about Cassidy and Longbaugh [Sundance’s real name] and the superpossee 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…It just seems to me a wonderful piece of material.”
With the extraordinary real-life “second act” of Butch and Sundance as inspiration, the screenplay for one of American cinema’s most iconic films was born.
“John Wayne Don’t Run Away”
The problem was, with its anti-heroes and their nontraditional “second act,” none of the studios wanted to buy Goldman’s avant-garde screenplay.
As Goldman peddled his script to the studios, the unanimous issue studio moguls had with it was that the protagonists run away to South America. They viewed this as a cowardly move, the antithesis of what Western heroes should do.
When Goldman argued that that was what really happened, one studio executive told him:
“I don’t give a shit. All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.”
But Goldman stuck to his guns. He kept the fleeing-to-South-America storyline, and merely changed a few pages in the script before taking it back to the studios for a second look. Perhaps it was just the pretense of change that mattered, for all of the sudden, everyone wanted to buy Goldman’s script.
In the end, it went to 20th Century-Fox.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Newman's Original Choice
Paul Newman was immediately interested in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid script. He saw a good story, good characters, and knew the story was something special.
But Paul wasn’t interested in playing Butch Cassidy.
Paul agreed to do the film under the assumption that he’d play the Sundance Kid, with maybe Jack Lemmon taking the Butch Cassidy role. Eventually, Cassidy director George Roy Hill broke the news to Paul that he was expected to play Butch. After some back and forth arguing–Paul Newman was nothing if not tenacious–Paul sat down and re-read the script:
“I went back and read the script that night, and thought, hell, the parts are really about equal and they’re both great parts. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be Butch.’”
With Newman now slated to play Butch Cassidy, the search for the perfect Sundance Kid began. Warren Beatty wanted in on the film, as did Marlon Brando. But the studio wasn’t sold on either of these guys. What 20th Century-Fox was interested in was getting the other “King of Cool,” and so Steve McQueen was courted for the role of Sundance.
And it really looked like McQueen was in: Steve was interested, and negotiations began. But then ego got in the way.
Steve McQueen reportedly felt a rivalry of sorts with Paul Newman, despite–or because of–their shared interests and status as major stars.
When McQueen found out that Newman would get top billing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he said no way. But in 1969, no one could compete with Paul Newman. Billing was non-negotiable. Which meant that Steve McQueen was out.
Joanne Saves the Day
Ultimately, it was Mrs. Paul Newman, the lovely Joanne Woodward, who brought Robert Redford into the running for Sundance.
By 1969, though Redford had been in several films–and even had a hit Broadway play, Barefoot in the Park, under his belt–he was not yet a major star. But Joanne had an eye for talent, and she’d seen Redford’s work. She knew he’d be the ideal Sundance.
And when Joanne spoke, her husband listened.
Robert Redford got the role. And it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a bonafide star.
The casting of Newman and Redford was absolute perfection (thanks, Joanne), and was the major contributor to the film’s status as the top grosser of 1969, and it’s undeniable classic standing today.
After their pairing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the public would forever clamor for more Newman/Redford films, though the two only appeared onscreen together once more, in 1973’s The Sting [aff. link].
On a personal level, the Newman/Redford teaming in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was also a huge success: the film marked the beginning of a great friendship that lasted until Paul’s passing in 2008.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The Bicycle Scene
The famous bicycle scene, where Katharine Ross and Paul Newman ride the old fashion bike to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head,” was a very last minute addition to the film.
Director George Roy Hill decided the film needed a bit more romance, and thought the scene would accomplish this, and add emphasize the love triangle between Butch, Etta, and Sundance.
Most fans of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid agree that the bicycle scene is one of the highlights of the film. So it’s surprising to learn that a few notable names from the movie didn’t care for it, and found the song out of place: Robert Redford hated it, and B.J. Thomas’ agent regretted ever allowing him to record “Raindrops” for the film, so sure was he that it would spell the end of Thomas’ career. (Boy, was he wrong.)
Paul Newman Does His Own Stunts
Director Hill initially hired a stuntman to do the bike riding for Paul in the scene. It was an old bike, and Hill understandably didn’t want his star getting hurt.
But then a funny thing happened: the stuntman refused to do some of the tricks Hill required of him, arguing that the antique bike was too rickety and dangerous for such things.
While Hill and the stuntman argued, Paul breezily rode by, feet on the bike seat, hands on the bars, riding that old bike like it was the easiest thing in the world.
The stuntman was fired, and Paul did all his own stunts and riding in the scene. (Except for the part where Butch backs the bike into the bull ring…because, you know, there was a big angry bull.)