Butch and Sundance: What Roger Ebert May Have Missed

Butch_sundance_posterRecently I stumbled upon Roger Ebert’s surprisingly negative review of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from the Chicago Sun-Times on October 13th, 1969. As a former film student, I hold an extremely high level of respect and admiration for Ebert’s accolades and I can only dream of replicating the amount of success he achieved. With that disclaimer, I staunchly oppose his erroneous critique of what I consider one of the greatest films of all time.

Ebert begins his review by identifying the two problems he notices. The first is the money invested in Paul Newman. He insists it led to “bloated production that destroys the pacing,” stating “this good movie is buried beneath millions of dollars that were spent on ‘production values’ that wreck the show.”  At that time, Newman’s talent had already earned him four Best Actor Academy Award nominations. He deserved a big payday and if it weren’t superstar actor Paul, then Dustin Hoffman was another studio top choice for the role of Butch. In fact, the title was originally The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy, because higher billed superstar Steve McQueen was originally to portray Sundance. When he backed out, the title was reversed in favor of Newman. Warren Beatty and Jack Lemmon were also in line to play the Kid before Robert Redford was tapped, so it’s obvious the studio always intended for a big name to be attached to this project.

Furthermore, the film cost 20th Century-Fox an estimated $6 million and raked in $102 million at the box office, whereas another Academy Award Best Picture nominee that year―Hello, Dolly!― cost the studio $25 million to produce and grossed a measly $33 million. Ironically, Ebert did not review the Streisand musical, but I would have been intrigued to hear his thoughts on those numbers.

His second problem: “William Goldman’s script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.” Well, this script went on to win the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story or Screenplay Based on Material not Previously Published or Produced.

Aside from Hollywood recognition, I believe the fact that it doesn’t possess a typical “John Wayne” style of Western feel to it is what makes the film truly unique. The witty dialogue, combined with the bickering between these two completely different protagonists, creates a special cinema experience where we are allowed to watch this “brotherhood” develop. Throughout the film they learn facts about each other as we learn them, from their real names to where they grew up. Butch is like the older brother. He’s a leader who’s older and wiser, while Sundance is the younger, less intelligent follower with amazing gun skills; creating a classic example of “brains and brawn,” a theme the dialogue reassures us of repeatedly throughout:

Sundance: “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

Butch: “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Ebert seemingly likes the first half of the film up until the Super Posse arrives. I particularly love how their scenes were shot and handled. We’re fed the repeated line “Who are those guys?,” which allows us to find out as the characters do, adding to the suspense of the journey. Like Butch and Sundance, we never see their faces nor hear any dialogue from them. Every shot occurs from the protagonists’ POV in long/full shots and all we have to go on is what famous screenwriter Blake Snyder refers to as a “limp and an eye patch” to differentiate the characters (Joe Lefors -white straw hat – and Lord Baltimore- Native American).

Finally, he gripes about the final scene, from the dialogue not being believable to the Bonnie and Clyde-style ending. First of all, I love the set-up. They are surrounded, completely outnumbered by the Bolivian army. Holed up in a room, they don’t know it yet but they are doomed and here comes the most ironic/iconic line in the film:

Butch: “You didn’t see Lefors out there, did you?”

Sundance: “Lefors? No.”

Butch: “Oh, good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.”

The final image is a still shot of the two in a blaze of glory prior to being gunned down. It’s a beautiful shot and a perfect way to end the movie. Bonnie and Clyde-like? Sort of, but we don’t witness our heroes’ demise. It’s more subtle than Arthur Penn’s visual. We know what happens; we don’t need it shoved down our throats.

Questions for debate in the comments section:

1. Do you agree with my take on this film or Roger Ebert’s?

2. Could Bonnie and Clyde’s ending still been as effective had it left us with a still shot of them looking at each other once they realize what’s about to take place?

Craig Pisani is an avid moviegoer and aspiring screenwriter with Bachelor’s degrees in both Cinema and English.

  • ganderson

    While I like BC&tSK a lot, and consider it one of the great western films, I have to take Ebert’s criticism in the context of the times. Remember that its contemporaries were two other superlative westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ and Hank Hathaway’s ‘True Grit’ – both also 1969. Just three years earlier we watched yet another – ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’. All three films were solidly entrenched in the western tradition, albeit with their own solid twists on the genre. With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, BC&tSK was a stunning departure from the western saga of the era. It’s probably not too out of place considering later films of the type, but with my 1969 teenager’s glasses on, I have to admit, it was pretty “cute” and “witty” and a real genre-breaker. So, I give Ebert a lot of slack, based on the cinema zeitgeist of that year.
    However, one of the things I cannot forgive George Roy Hill about is “Raindrops are Falling on My Head.” I don’t remember if Ebert called out the music in his review, but there has been no more completely out-of-place or stupid song in any other major film. I still fast forward or mute through the bicycle scene.
    I have never drawn similarities to the ending of ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ though I can admit the comparison. The conclusions of B&C and ‘Butch and Sundance’ are very different in tone – B&C’s ballet of death was quite jarring and, for me, discolored the entire film. BC&tSD, on the other hand, had what i think of as almost a wistful conclusion – a “what might have been” feel – and, though the implied violence was strong, the fact that it was implied made a big difference. I can still look at the conclusion of ‘Butch’ almost with a fondness in keeping with the theme of the waning of the old west. Not so B&C.
    Thanks for a thoughtful post, Craig — great motion picture!

  • david hartzog

    Nice try, but i never cared for BC either. It had some great dialogue and excellent performances all round, but I’ll take The Wild Bunch any day. Or 3:10 to Yuma, Warlock, Forty Guns, Once Upon a Time in the West, Death of a Gunfighter, Ulzana’s Raid, Man of the West, jeez there’s a lot of great ones.

  • Gord Jackson

    Craig, I think you make many very good points. Unfortunately, in spite of three or four viewings (at least) I just cannot warm up to BC&SK. I wish I could, just as I also wish I could warm up to THE STING. But I can’t. Don’t know why because Newman and Redford are great together on screen.

    • Frosty

      Yeah, I agree – “The Sting” was a terrible movie. I hated the music.
      “The Exorcist” should won best picture that year(1973).

    • Kingpong

      The bottom line is that what counts the most is the opinion of the patrons who liked this
      movie. BC and the SK was an awesome movie and most liked the pairing of Newman and
      Redford. Also, what counts is the box office receipts. And the success of their next pairing in The Sting showed the actors’ box office appeal. The use of Scott Joplin’s music was a brilliant choice and brought class and was the “icing on the cake” for the movie.

      • “The Quick Flick Critic”

        I could just as easily have written what you have expressed here, Kingpong. I echo your take, and can not agree more.

  • “The Quick Flick Critic”

    “Butch” is my all-time favorite movie. As such, I am completely bias. It is a western. It is a character study. It is funny. It is poignant. It is violent. It is thought-provoking. It is beautiful to behold in it’s scenery. And the music is uniformly outstanding.
    In all these years I have NEVER seen any other movie like it. Nor do I anticipate that I ever will.
    And, lastly, “They’re AGAINST the wall already!”. ;o}

  • williamsommerwerck

    If you have time to waste, you might want to look at my negative review on Amazon.

    The film’s basic problem is the script’s tone. What, exactly, is the point of turning 19th-century outlaws into “hip” 20th-century characters? I have no idea. Would an “honest” film (to the extent such a thing is possible) have bored a modern audience? It would definitely have been much more difficult for William Goldman to write. All he had to do was write arch or funny scenes about the events of Butch and Sundance’s lives.

    I’m also an unproduced screenwriter, Mr Pisani, and know how hard it is to write a dramatically valid screenplay — which Goldman’s cutesy, overly self-aware script is not. It’s more of a romcom than it is a Western. (I’ve seen only three films penned by William Goldman, and two of them — this one and “Maverick” — aren’t very good.)

    The casting doesn’t help. Newman has the energy and style to pull off the role. Redford and Ross are good-looking and/or dull.

    Though “Bonnie & Clyde” has its share of errors and misrepresentations, it treats the characters seriously, and is a far better film.

    • “The Quick Flick Critic”

      What the hell’s wrong with entertainment?

      • williamsommerwerck

        A lot, if it’s pointless and insults my intelligence and/or aesthetic sense.

        • “The Quick Flick Critic”

          Sometimes ya just gotta let art flow, man. & lighten up a little…

  • owlwise12@yahoo.com

    What a fascinating discussion!
    I love the film, and partly for its supposed flaws. It seems to me that a great many period films not only reflect the times in which they were made, they often comment directly on them. To my mind, BC&tSK was always meant to be a commentary about the 1960s as much as a period Western. Even the maligned “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” is noted in Goldman’s script as reflecting the fact that popular songs of that era were frighteningly close in tone to contemporary songs. Certainly there’s a 100% authentic, gritty film about the duo waiting to be made at some point; but for me, the greatness of this film is that it indeed tsraddles & embraces 2 different centuries.

  • Frosty

    I hated the “Raindrops” interlude. It slowed the movie down and had nothing to do with the story. It’s like a B.J. Thomas commercial. And it’s truly a lousy song.
    Also, what’s the big deal with the cliff scene from the movie?
    It wasn’t dramatic or funny, but it’s always shown as a clip from the movie.

  • lcfbill

    Cool, easy and funny all the way through. Not profound but profoundly enjoyable. This one went completely over Roger’s head.

  • footcenter

    Very much a movie of the 60’s , with much counterculture sensibilities. Still a wonderful piece of entertainment with great performances by the stars. Not meant to be a traditional western, rather the anti John Wayne

    • “The Quick Flick Critic”

      Leonard Maltin has called it “a character study disguised as a Western.” He nailed it from my perspective. My favorite movie. Ever.

      • California Sunshine Girl

        I appreciate this definition:: western in only vague disguises. The characters
        carried out by the actors gave us a 1960’s viewpoint.

  • Chester Nishisaka

    Every time I watch this movie, which I’ve done quite often, I say, “What a great classic. What an enjoyable and wonderful movie”. Those witty exchanges between Butch and Sundance, what great film writing. Yes, I highly agree with your take on this film. If Roger Ebert was to rewrite a review for this film again, he might give it a positive one today.

    As for the still effect for the ending of the movie, what a classic end to a great movie. The best ending you could have, and would not be effective with a Bonnie and Clyde style ending. Don’t forget, earlier in the movie, that slow-motion scene has already been shown when Butch and Sundance are confronted by bandits trying to steal the money to be paid to the miners.

    This is one of my Top 10 Westerns of all-time.

    • “The Quick Flick Critic”

      Hear, hear Chester!
      I’ve always thought that to depict the slicing of the pair into mincemeat by the hail of gunfire from virtually the entire Bolivian National Army would have been a gratuitous and an inappropriate finale, considering. Considering we witnessed that the lives of these outlaws wasn’t all quips and grins when they shot down the banditos in slow motion earlier in the film as you’ve pointed out. Also, the relentless ambush shooting and rapid fire editing of such so brilliantly presented prior to the ending still stands as some of the most affecting images of violence I’ve ever seen committed to the screen.

  • Daisy

    I guess this film was so over-hyped that I expected a lot more from it than it actually delivered. But it was a film of its time; more of an amiable Bonnie & Clyde than a real western (and I hate westerns as a rule). I’ve always suspected that its true appeal was for fans of the actors more than anything else.

  • Nicolas

    Not only did Ebert give this film a bad review, I believe that he also considered it the most over rated film by others, and Gene Siskel on the show they used to have apparently agreed with him. It was influenced by Bonnie And Clyde, but also by Jules and Jim by Francois Trufaut. One sometimes wonders if a film critics bad review, or good review are influenced by other factors, such as were they not able to get an interview with a star, or where they given some special treatment by a studio. Why for example would these two film critics give Lethal Weapon II a better review than the Butch Cassidy flm?

    • “The Quick Flick Critic”

      Great ?, Nic! However, each of these guys, both of whom I like, always maintained that they never “got into bed” with movie studios for that very reason. They didn’t want to contaminate their objective view of the art they were critiquing. I believe ’em. Don’t always agree with ’em. But then that’s pretty much the point when all is said and done, right?

  • Gunslinger

    BC&SK was truly an entertaining movie when I first saw it (1969), but it was Paul Newman & Robert Redford playing themselves as 1960’s “anti-hero’s” with a couple of Western Characters overlaying the story. I almost never watch the movie, just because I hate that song. But it did bring two almost forgotten Western Outlaws to the public. No it wasn’t good “history”, and the real Butch & Sundance were far different people, and yes, the story had some superficial facts straight, but was nevertheless just entertainment – and by the way that’s why I go to the movies, not for some “message”. So, as a Western is was a failure in my mind. But as entertainment it was very good, with the exception of that song interlude……I’ll still watch it occasionally but fast forward through Teardrops…..
    But from true Western Fans, you’ll hear that the Hats, Clothing, Guns, Saddles were all inappropriate to the times. The costuming may have been entertaining but it was not nearly period correct. It was basically a comedy…..

  • Roger Lynn

    no it was a great film Rog was wrong a lot,.,.he and siskel loved Annie Hall one of the worst Best Picture Oscar winners ever

  • Capoman

    I sometimes think critics are critical of a movie just to justify to the world that they’re critics. There are times when after seeing a movie I wonder if the critic saw the same movie I did.

    • “The Quick Flick Critic”

      Spot on, Capoman. Different sensibilities, different perspectives. Many of us actually prefer not to be among the masses of “lemmings”. And so the world turns…

  • hiram

    It’s far too cute (and knows it is) to be any kind of serious addition to the Western genre. I could, as the song goes, write a book, but de gustibus non disputandem. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.

  • Mike

    the thing that surprises me in reading several of the Comments is the fact that some of the people writing them are completely, it seems, ignorant of Roger Ebert. You don’t have to always agree with the critic and I certainly disagreed many times with Roger Ebert but I love to read his opinion..because I always know that he loved movies just about as much as anyone ever could.

  • Joe

    On paper the Roger Ebert review may initially have some merit. However, I have watched this movie many times and enjoyed the dialog, the developing relationship between friends. A male brotherly love story. The bickering and facial responses between Newman and Redford are so real! The ending was both sad and heart warming to know these friends lives were ended together. A song in the middle of western that may or may have fit the early 20th century was, at first, questionable, however, it now seems to fit the story so well. Ms. Ross was a good choice for her role and one of the most telling parts of the movie is the scene in which she suggest a ranch and farm to both Newman and Redford, They both reject the career suggestions. At this point the camera pans to Ross’ face the music score begins and the look on her face spells eventual doom. So many of scenes are portrayed in the movie. Great film! Roger Ebert was “far off”!

  • Huge movie fan

    I find myself torn here. I have never seen butch so i can’t weigh in on it’s merits. Here’s what i do know. I tend to agree more with maltin than ebert. I love westerns but i’m more of a traditionalist of the genre. I love newman, but despise redford. With all that said, i think this topic is fascinating and finnally tipped the balance for me to finally bring myself to watch the film. I do hope it’s not as cute as people are saying but above all i hope it at least strives to be a western. Westerns need to have a certain feel. Someone mentioned maverick, well, i enjoy maverick. I think it’s the perfect western comedy because while it is a little childish and slapstick, it still feels like a western. It’s a situation that is humurous, but it fits the period. So thank you all for weighing in. I look forward to watching butch casdidy and the sundance ki

  • Helen S

    I’m not a big fan of westerns which may be why I like this movie so much. I like the way the characters discovered things about each other and the repartee’. On the whole, I thought it was very entertaining. I respected Roger Ebert’s POV but, I didn’t always agree with it.

  • Jackie

    I agree with your review not Ebert’s! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my all-time favorites and I thought it was exceptionally well done! I am not a big fan of westerns in the first place, but this one was “different” and grabbed me from the beginning. It remains one of only a handful of westerns I can say I really loved. Besides, who could resist that duo – Paul Newman and Robert Redford? You couldn’t get two better more talented actors to play the roles of Butch and Sundance and they succeed beautifully! The ending was also very different and it seemed to leave you hanging but then again we all knew what the outcome was so we therefore knew what the ending was! We didn’t need to see it. It was a very creative and ingenious way to end the film; and I agree — we know what happens, we didn’t need it shoved down our throats. I loved this film! It is indeed a classic!

  • CBDeBill

    Frosty, Butch Cassidy was released in 1969. The Excorcist was released in 1973. I saw Butch Cassidy in 1969. I found it very entertaining at the time. I still regard it as a good film but it doesn’t hold up for me as well as other films that I admire.

  • CBDeBill

    Sorry Frosty. I misread your comment regarding The excorcist vs The Sting.

  • Carfish

    I agree with your take. It is a Classic. Butch & Sundance’s comments are still bantered about all the time in my family. I thought the pairing was great as it was again, in The Sting. And I agree the subtle ending in Bonnie & Clyde would have still been just as good. I remember seeing it at a theatre ( I was a teenager) and wincing because I liked those despicable star-crossed lovers!

  • Thick_Like_A_Pickle

    “We know what happens; we don’t need it shoved down our throats.”

    I could not agree more. A very similar ending was used in the 1966 classic samurai film Sword of Doom (an absolute must see if you missed it). We all know what’s going to happen and rather then watching it unfold gratuitously on screen we are instead left with an indelible image of the key characters in their defining moment. It’s powerful and it works.

  • Sputnick

    I always felt there had been enough blood and violence in Bonnie and Clyde up to the climactic scene. The twitching, writhing, bullet riddled bodies were unnecessary. The ending could have stopped with the famous snapshot looks between Clyde and Bonnie, then cut to an anonymous lawman firing a machine gun until it was empty… then smoking… then he lowers it. It would have shown the final victory of the anonymous society over the famous “rebels.” And, by the way, I still love Butch and Sundance.

  • Al Hooper

    Roger Ebert was a fine reviewer, but when he was wrong he’d pull a clangor. His review of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was wildly off the mark. Maybe he had indigestion that day. History (and the effusive reaction to the film at the Academy Awards) suggests that Roger might have been dealing with issues that took his mind off the game. However, we forgive you, Roger. We all make mistakes.
    – Al Hooper (E-HOOPER.COM)