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Movie Review – Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

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This week I have another review of a classic motion picture for you – or at least a motion picture that is widely regarded as a classic of the Western genre. It’s also the film that helped bring Robert Redford to the big time, and named the Sundance film festival – Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. So, as I always ask when reviewing classics, does the film hold up, or has the years undermined its supports? Oh, and as a quick aside – I’m probably going to cut back on my blogging for a bit – at least for the rest of the term, as my work schedule and class schedule isn’t conductive for the rigorous schedule I was blogging before.

The Premise

Butch Cassidy, along with his friend, The Sundance Kid, is in charge of The Hole In The Wall Gang, a notorious group of outlaws who have previously been robbing banks and trains across the West. When a train robbery goes spectacularly pear-shaped, Cassidy & The Kid head south, to Bolivia, where they will end up finding their destiny.

The Good

Redford and Newman have excellent chemistry. For that matter, I’d like to take a moment to go aside and say that while I’d seen Redford in films before, I’d only seen Newman once before (in The Hudsucker Proxy) and I’m kicking myself repeatedly for not going to see some of his other work earlier. The direction is great, and the script is also excellent, with a few complaints.

The Bad & The Ugly

I don’t really have a bad and an ugly, so I’m lumping them together here, because I have one large point to make.

While I liked the sort of 3-way romance between Katharine Ross’s character and Newman & Redford’s characters, when she leaves, the audience response could be stronger. We, the viewers, know that Butch & Sundance die bloody in real life. The moment Ross’s character says, before they leave for Bolivia, that she’s not willing to watch them die bloody, and if it looks like they are, she’ll leave – they’re foreshadowing this point. At some point, she’s going to leave, and when she does, the audience is going to realize that things are going to go pear-shaped. The film should emphasize this some. We should get a bit of a feeling of dread. I didn’t get that then, and it didn’t happen until Butch is hit for the first time during the climactic shootout.

That said, as someone who has seen the Wild Bunch, and knows that the director wasn’t going for the conclusion of that movie (in terms of the Peckinpah slow-mo bloody death scene), by build up the sensation of dread a little more in the audience here, at Ross’s character’s departure, you can get the audience in a state of mind that – as soon as Butch’s plate is shattered by the bullet, you know that they’re dead. Is it grim and nihilistic, yeah. But, then again, I’m approaching this from the perspective of an fan of anime and eastern cinema, which are no strangers to grim and nihilistic endings – just look at the endings of Cowboy Bebop Hero, Kagemusha and Violent Cop. So, when you have a western film (both in that it’s a Western and in that it’s made in the West) where the heroes die at the end, why pull your punches when you kill them, even if you aren’t going to outright show them dying bloody? If it’s a downer ending, than so what? You got an emotional response out of your audience – you got your audience to care enough about the film that they sympathized with the two outlaws, and felt bad when they died. That’s doing your job right.

Notes for a Role Playing Game Campaign

For all this film’s merits as a good film, it frankly, also stands a stark warning to the GM (Game Master) of what not to do. On the one hand, the repercussions that Butch and Sundance (the PCs – Player Characters in this example) see in the US over their robberies are reasonable. More advanced tactics against the trains will, ultimately, lead to more advanced tactics used in hunting down the robbers. Much as the Grand Theft Auto games have the wanted meter, if you have PC outlaws who are robbing trains, banks and committing other acts of banditry in the same area, or against the same target (like a particular railroad), people will use more  aggressive and sophisticated tactics against them, possibly even a super-posse.

However, in the campaign sense, when the GM managed to get Butch and Sundance away from banditry, as payroll guards, he then screwed them. He didn’t just have the NPC (Non-Player Character) bandits shoot the PCs employer first, he had the character killed in a single shot, deriving them of their new, legitimate, livelihood. Now, with games like Aces & Eights, this can happen.  That’s fine – it’s not a fault of those systems. However, what that means is, ultimately, is that as the GM, fudging dice rolls is good. If you don’t like fudging, or think it’s cheating – that’s okay too. That’s what warning shots are for. Having a TPK (Total Party Kill) come organically out gameplay is fine. That’s the way things happen and it usually results in a situation that the group will remember (hopefully favorably) for some time to come. Railroading the party into a TPK leads to the GM being beaten senseless, and awakening to find his or herself dangling from the ceiling by his or her ankles, with his or her entire DVD and video tape library replaced with copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Consider yourself warned.

The Verdict

This is, frankly, one of the best westerns ever made, and I’d even recommend it to people who aren’t necessarily fans of the western. That said, I’m not sure if I’d put this on my “Everyone Needs To See This At Least Once” list, but I’m leaning in that direction.