Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Film Atlas (USA): Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Country: United States of America
Title: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch and Sundance are two outlaws in 1890s Wyoming, members of the successful smalltime Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Butch is the brains and Sundance the crack shot. Despite differing personalities, the two are best friends and irresistible thieves. However their latest scheme, robbing a Union Pacific train both coming and going, makes them the target of an unprecedented manhunt. Finally cornered on a cliff, the pair memorably leaps into a river below and absconds to Bolivia, with Sundance’s schoolteacher girlfriend in tow, where they reboot their career as bank robbers. For a time their life of romanticized crime is idyllic and their moods improve, but the nagging threat of being tracked wherever they go eventually wears down their morale. They try going straight for a while as security guards on a payroll route, but Mexican bandits give them their first taste of real violence. Finally forced into a showdown surrounded by the Bolivian army, the two antiheroes, still cracking jokes, go out in a blaze of glory.

The United States is home to Hollywood, headquarters for many of the oldest and best-known studios like 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, RKO, Universal, Columbia and United Artists. Despite competition from India, Hollywood still dominates, for better or worse, the cultural mindshare of the movie-going public, setting trends, establishing stars and breaking records at international box offices. The US has also fostered a thriving network for independent and experimental film in cities across the country.

I’ve seen almost ten times as many films from the US, my home country, than any other country which makes it even more impossible than usual to think of a single film to represent it. But Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid encapsulates a lot of the trends associated with American cinema: it’s a western, a star vehicle, an action-comedy hybrid, a buddy film, a revisionist history and a glorification of outlaws who nevertheless get their due in the end. Though made by a relatively lesser-famous director (George Roy Hill), it’s an early example of New Hollywood, a movement that brought rejuvenating technical, thematic and narrative sophistication and European art film influences to the mainstream and made household names of American auteurs like Stephen Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and George Lucas.

Crucial to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s success was the onscreen chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the central roles. Wisely discarding stuffy old historical accuracy, the film depicts them as handsome, charismatic, classy, droll, good-humored and non-violent. The fact that they are on the wrong side of the law only increased their allure and tapped into the zeitgeist’s love affair with anti-authority rebels.  The script’s judicious blend of gruff banter and gritty action gave life to the well-worn trappings of the western genre, and maintained a pace of unflagging entertainment. That said, viewers are divided over the film’s famous scene featuring the Academy Award-winning song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” which serves as a sort of intermission or, less kindly, a jarring  interruption. 

However this sequence, along with an oddly tinted montage, a fade-to-sepia freeze-frame ending and frequently stylized editing that has you laughing one moment and mutely tense the next, are testaments to Hill’s willingness to explore the medium despite making what is ostensibly popcorn cinema. Meanwhile his ambiguous treatment of modernization, mistrust towards the anonymous ‘Establishment’ and unabashed glamorization of criminals gave audiences food for thought and marked an influential shift in the perennially refashioned metaphor and mythology of the American West. 

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