20th Century Fox, 1969, 110 minutes
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katherine Ross, Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, George Furth, Cloris Leachman, Ted Cassidy, Timothy Scott, Charles Dierkop and Kenneth Mars
Screenplay: William Goldman
Producer: George Foreman
Director: George Roy Hill
A respected planner of bank robberies, Butch Cassidy aka Robert Parker, and his partner the Sundance Kid aka Harry Longabaugh, were the key members of the Wild Bunch, a floating group of men who robbed trains and banks in the late 1890s. Fed up with the robberies, the Union Pacific, the Pacific Express and the US government offered a combined reward of $5,000 for each of the outlaws. Unlike the James-Younger Gang or Billy the Kid, or even themselves a few years earlier, the outlaws were not being hunted by posses led by sheriffs who would give up after a few days, but by professional lawmen, who were relentless. Recognizing that the increased number of guards on express cars and the spread of telegraph and telephone lines linking an organized law enforcement system signalled the end of train robbery as a profession, Cassidy and Sundance wanted to retire, and they emigrated to Patagonia in Argentina in 1901 because it had become famous for its ranches. Both Sundance and Cassidy sent letters back to their relatives, unaware that agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency had bribed the local postal clerks to open their mail, so the detectives soon knew that the outlaws were in Argentina. Blamed for a robbery committed by two American men in February 1905, a warning from the local sheriff enabled them to evade capture. Drifting around in Bolivia and Peru, Cassidy and Sundance alternated between working and robbing banks and payrolls. They are believed to have died in a shootout when surrounded after a payroll holdup in Bolivia in November 1908.
Famous bank robber Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) confides to his partner The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) that he is thinking about going to Bolivia to rob banks, believed to be filled with silver and gold from the mines. Meeting up with the other members of the Hole in the Wall Gang, Cassidy deals with a leadership challenge from Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy), and then leads the gang to rob the same train two times in a row. When another train suddenly appears during the second robbery, six men emerge to quickly take out two of the gang, and follow Sundance and Cassidy when the rest of the gang splits up. An attempt to hide in their favorite brothel fails, so they find a sheriff who is an old friend to make a deal for them, but he warns them that their time is over. After a pursuit that lasts days, they finally elude their pursuers, but learn that renowned Marshal Joe Lefors is leading the posse, which works for E. H. Harriman, president of the Union Pacific, who will not give up, even if it costs more money than they had stolen. Seeing no future in the United States, Butch convinces Sundance and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place (Katherine Ross) to go with him to Bolivia. The first robbery is a failure because they don’t speak Spanish, so Etta teaches them the phrases they will need, as well as takes part in several robberies. When Lefors shows up in Bolivia, they go straight and work as payroll guards until their employer is killed. Unwilling to accept the hard work of running a ranch, they decide to go back to robbing, which causes Etta to return to the United States. Some time after, they stop in a town to rest after a robbery, but a local notices they have a stolen horse, and they find themselves surrounded.
While a great deal of research was done by screenwriter William Goldman, the chronology of the gang’s downfall was altered to produce a more cinematic script. Cassidy was considered a successful planner because he planned for contingencies like posses, so he always prepared fresh horses on the escape route to enable the gang to outdistance any posse, thus avoiding the situation that occurs in the movie. In fact, the real Lefors had chased them after one robbery but only found their relay horses. Learning of Harriman’s decision to hunt them forever, regardless of the cost, a furious Cassidy comments that Harriman is a bad businessman, and he is right. Rather than a sole villain who takes a personal interest in the gang, the robberies had driven the Union Pacific, the Pacific Express and the US government to offer a combined reward of $5,000 for each of the outlaws. The Union Pacific also hired the Pinkertons, who flooded the area with agents, including Charlie Sirango, expert tracker and undercover agent. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that law and order was taking over in the west. The destruction of the gang took place over a couple of years, and they were not pursued by a small, fast-moving group of elite lawmen, but by a massive network of professional lawmen and Pinkerton agents connected by telephones and the telegraph.
Although the painfully long chase is inaccurate, it showed that the outlaws could not remain in the west. Either they surrendered or they died, so they left. The arrival of law and order was illustrated by a gorgeous scene at the beginning of the film, when Cassidy visits a new bank, complaining that it isn’t as beautiful as the old bank, which kept getting robbed. To be honest, since the pursuit lasted thirty minutes, director George Roy Hill could have told the story in a series of scenes like the first one in the bank to portray the changing era, but that would have involved giving more screen time to other members of the gang, turning the film into an ensemble piece, rather than a buddy picture.
While the fictional outlaws are unrepentant bank robbers who never consider honest work, the real men used the money they stole to fund the purchase of a large ranch in Argentina. Goldman knew that Cassidy decided to leave the US when he learned that Harriman had put together a superposse, so the posse never actually pursued Cassidy, and he knew that the two men had owned a ranch in Argentina for several years. He deliberately structured the script to tell the story of two legendary bank robbers, who suddenly disappear, and start over again in Bolivia, where they once again become famous because he was fascinated by the idea that two American outlaws could became famous again in South America.
Early in the film, Cassidy resolves a leadership challenge from the formidable Harvey Logan by kicking him in the balls, which the real Cassidy would have known would promptly result in his death. The real Harvey Logan, AKA “Kid Curry”, was the most dangerous member of the gang. A small man, only 5”7′ and 140 pounds, he was extremely polite but was suspected of killing more than thirty men. However, the miscasting of the actor playing Logan is a minor problem, compared to the portrayal of the gang. The screen gang is made up of only six men, including News Carver (Timothy Scott) and Flatnose Curry (George Dierkop), a tiny fraction of the actual gang.
Men on the run from the law usually made their way at one point to Robber’s Roost, Brown’s Park or the Hole in the Wall, so they gradually came to know each other. Cassidy had earned a reputation as a master planner of bank robberies, so everyone wanted to work with him. Drawing from a pool of over a hundred men, he usually operated with roughly ten men, who varied from job to job. Most of the men were in their mid-thirties and had worked as cowboys while drifting in and out of crime. The gang eventually became known as the Wild Bunch, although the authorities had no idea of the identities of the members, since the membership rotated and everyone used aliases. The other main members were Ben “the Tall Texan” Kilpatrick, Harry Tracy, Patrick “Swede” Johnson, Camilla “Deaf Charley” Hanks, Dave Atkins, William “Bill” Crozan, Jesse Linsley, Walter “Wat the Watcher” Punteney, Sam “Laughing Sam” Carey, Texan Joe Walker, Tom O’Day, Bob Meeks and Elzy Lay.
When Cassidy and Sundance celebrate after the first robbery, they drunkenly debate enlisting in the Spanish-American War (1898), and then admit their real names to each other. It may seem strange, but most of the members of the gang were wanted by the law, so they had adopted aliases before joining the gang.
Finally, the climatic finale is much more climatic than the real outlaws’ likely fate. Surrounded, they kill many federales but eventually decide to charge rather than bleed to death from their wounds. In reality, the men eluded the pursuit after a robbery but an alert mayor in a small town figured they matched the descriptions of the wanted outlaws, so a small posse of soldiers and locals attempted to arrest them. A soldier was killed during the initial attempt, and the two outlaws were surrounded by armed villagers so they could not reach their horses. When the soldiers finally approached the house the next morning, they found both men dead. Witnesses believe that Cassidy shot Sundance and then shot himself. Although the authorities knew that they were the men who had recently robbed a mining camp payroll, no one knew that they were the famous outlaws, and they had no identification as such. It is more than likely that they died since none of their friends and family ever heard from them again.
I had not seen the film for over a decade and I wondered whether it had aged well, but I enjoyed every second.
Despite the movie’s massive financial and critical success, Goldman initially had trouble selling the script. Studio executives wanted the outlaws to fight the superposse, not run away to South America. Westerns were based on confrontations, and the heroes of the movie basically avoid confrontations. In fact, there is an astonishingly small amount of violence in the film until the climatic shootout. In order to make the audience enjoy the film, Goldman made the relationship between the two outlaws the focus of the movie, so viewers would like them and keep watching to see what happened to them. The early scene where Cassidy kicks Logan in the balls was intended to make it clear that Cassidy was not a traditional tough guy hero who followed a code of manly honor. Actually, it was the first time a big budget film showed a character being kicked in the balls, so the producers had to fight the censor board over the length of the shot.
Redford nails Sundance, cold and quiet, but very fast with a gun. Newman’s Cassidy is smart, friendly and likable. The actors have an amazing bond. Even their final dialogue when they know they are going to die is an amazing mix of pain, banter and desperate hope. It is a pity that they only made one other movie together, The Sting (1973). Despite the impressive chemistry between the actors, Steve McQueen was originally supposed to play Sundance, but withdrew because Newman would receive top billing. Instead, the producer followed the suggestion of Joanne Woodward, Newman’s wife, and cast Redford, who was relatively unknown at the time. Recognizing that Redford was not well-known, he is introduced during the gambling scene to make him credible as an equal partner to Newman.
The humor in the movie is due to the actors’ decision to play their irritation at each other’s screw-ups straight, never winking at the camera. In particular, the scene when Etta grills the duo on the Spanish phrases they need for a successful robbery is a delight.
The opening credits appear as part of a short silent scene of a train robbery that was filmed by the second-unit director, who had made silent films with director Cecil B. DeMille. Later in the film, the outlaws and Etta travel to New York City where they live luxuriously and sightsee before sailing to Bolivia. The still pictures of them in New York and on the ship are beautiful, especially the ballroom scene where they are the only ones left at the end of the party. All of those images are actual pictures from the time with the actors’ faces added to the pictures.
Even though viewers know they are a couple, the first scene of Sundance pointing a gun at Etta Place and making her strip is creepy.
Although there are only three musical numbers in the film, the soundtrack is superb. In fact, I find myself listening to it on Spotify whenever I need cheering up. Newman enjoyed trick bicycle riding and did his own stunts when the director decided at the last minute to add the Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head scene.
While it is primarily a buddy film, the supporting cast is excellent. Woodcock (George Furth), the clerk on the train with a praiseworthy sense of duty, is a pleasure to watch. Refusing to open the door because he works for E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific, Woodcock is apologetic towards Cassidy, constantly reassuring him that he would happily open the door if it was his money. However, the standout is Percy Garris, the outlaws’ employer in Bolivia, played by the awesome Strother Martin. I can literally feel his exasperation when he comments: “Morons! I have morons working on my team!”
Tired of westerns where the hero never runs out of bullets or needs to reload, Hill spent a lot of time making sure that the outlaws would only fire six shots before reloading during the final shootout.
Since Hill did not want to see the characters die, the film ends with a still image of them charging to their deaths.
Admittedly, the movie does not tell the full story of the Hole in the Wall Gang, but it sure is fun.