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.