Previously in this series, I spoke about how fantastic George Roy Hill’s THE STING was. Prior to this marvellous example of Hollywood production, the director worked with the acting duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford on this film. While not quite reaching THE STING’s perfect standards of excellence, BUTCH CASSIDY excels in all aspects, just like THE STING. It is an artfully created, deceptively charming film, written and directed with the same amount of sly intelligence THE STING would be four years later.
BUTCH CASSIDY is a western, but it’s also a fantasy, and this fantastical aspect can be deceptive. Newman and Redford act out their roles with hilarious charm, denying death throughout the course of the plot, as if by refusing to admit to their perilous circumstances, it is impossible for them to die. This is the fantasy aspect: there is no real sense of danger until the final moments of the film; suspense is mixed with humour to fool us into believing these characters immortal.
In the end, however, by putting the characters in a situation where they believe escape is possible, but the viewer knows the end is inescapable, the charm is gone; previously loveable, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) are now pathetic figures: our heart cries out to warn them. But we can not, and they are blown to bits. This jarring ending can be seen as immature in itself, a cheap shot at emotions made vulnerable, but it confirms that BUTCH CASSIDY is no fluff piece: like THE STING, it is written with a careful intelligence that belies its amiable fantasy-romance exterior.
This disorienting ending has the two leads blown to bits by what amounts to a “reverse” deus ex machina: instead of inexplicably arriving to save them, the battalion of soldiers’ presence confirms that they must die as they feared they would: two-bit outlaws in a land where no-one knows their name. This end confirms that the spell wrought throughout the course of the film is wrought with intention. By bringing what took two hours to build crashing down in about a minute of film, by smashing the fantastic illusion to bits, George Roy Hill and writer William Goldman are accomplishing a marvellous coup: using the vehicle of a friendly Hollywood blockbuster, they manage to bring Brechtian ideals of audience alienation to millions of unsuspecting film-goers.
Bertolt Brecht is a German playwright who completely revolutionized the stage in the first half of the 20th century. To my mind, he is the most important playwright since Shakespeare, and many of his theories have been applied to cinema (obvious examples include the films of Godard and Fassbinder). One of these concepts was the “verfremdungseffekt,” or the distancing effect, which sought to remove the audience from the drama on-stage so they would not become embroiled in the fantasy and lose sight of the work’s function (another important Brechtian concept). BUTCH CASSIDY can be interpreted in a Brechtian light in several ways, not the least of which is the ending, which absolutely destroys the feeling of escapism. Saving this potent blow for the ending is another self-conscious move on the part of the writer: obviously an entire film could not be produced in Hollywood’s studios in 1969 that sought single-mindedly to alienate the audience, so the fatal blow should be saved for the end in order to cause the most reaction.
The ending, however, is not the only aspect of BUTCH CASSIDY that removes us from its spell. The photographic montages and sepia-toned scenes are all artificial, conscious effects intended to produce a conscious reaction. By periodically disrupting the sense of reality film obtains, the director is subtly reminding us that we are watching a movie; subtly, he is distancing us from the action on-screen.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is a fantastic film; it doesn’t reach the heights of production that THE STING obtained, but it is not necessarily a “lesser” film than that one. It is as charming, engaging, wonderful, and intelligent as THE STING. These two films represent possibly the highest standard Hollywood studios of the era have ever been able to achieve.