Viewer Guide: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Men Go to Battle

August 23, 2019 | Richard Peña


Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

This week’s classic is Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, one of the best-loved classics of the Sixties, starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross, written by William Goldman and directed by George Roy Hill.

Based on the true story of the real Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid—otherwise known as Robert Le Roy and Harry Longabaugh—this 1969 blockbuster hit rewrote the rules of the western by mixing comedy with a certain amount of irreverent, anti-establishment sensibility that appealed to the rapidly changing tastes of a younger audience demographic that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been caught dead at a western.  The movie also introduced the magical pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and pioneered a contemporary reimagining of the “buddy movie,” where the “bromance” between the two male co-stars was ultimately of much more dramatic concern than the relationship with the leading lady.

Set in 1890s Wyoming, Paul Newman plays Butch Cassidy, the outlaw leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang, a team of bandits whose area of expertise is robbing banks in America’s remote western territories.  Weary of being on the run, Butch urges his younger sidekick—the sharpshooting Sundance Kid, played by Robert Redford—to join him in seeking an easier life in South America.  But upon returning to their gang’s mountain hideout, Butch and Sundance become embroiled in series of events that will ultimately force the pair far from home—making them battle for their own survival.  Along the way, the duo links up with Sundance’s schoolmarm girlfriend Etta Place, played by Katharine Ross, who becomes accustomed to the outlaw life rather quickly. Etta ends up joining the pair on the lam, but on one condition: she won’t stay around to watch them die.

Screenwriter William Goldman began researching his script for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in the late 1950s, and despite several Hollywood bigwigs initial objection to the heroes “running away” to South America, the script went on to prompt a bidding war that was ultimately won by 20th Century Fox.  Marlon Brando considered teaming up with Paul Newman for one of the roles, but after Brando dropped out the part of Sundance was offered to an A-list of then contemporary male stars, including Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty.  Although Redford had been in the movies already several years, he still was not considered a major star; his pairing with Newman however proved to be box office gold, as well as his ticket to superstardom.  Newman and Redford would memorably reteam four years later for another a blockbuster outing directed by George Roy Hill, The Sting.

At the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony, the film picked up Oscars for Conrad Hall’s cinematography and Goldman’s screenplay as well as for Burt Bacharach’s film score and theme song, angering some critics since it didn’t conform to the expectations that westerns needed straight country music. Despite their objections, B.J. Thomas’ recording of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” went to the top Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for four weeks in 1970.


Men Go to Battle (2015)

This week’s indie is Men Go to Battle, a moving Civil War story from 2015 directed by Zachary Treitz.

Set in 1861 during the early days of the Civil War in the border state of Kentucky, Men Go to Battle features David Maloney and Timothy Morton as Francis and Henry Mellon, a pair of hapless brothers barely eking out an existence on a hardscrabble farm.  Or at least what used to be a farm: in its current uncultivated condition, it offers next to nothing in the way of sustenance for Francis and Henry.  After a bad drought in ’54, the brothers just haven’t been able to keep up.  With winter approaching, Francis and Henry are increasingly desperate to sell a parcel of their land, but the friction between them begins to grow.  Henry regards Francis’ more genial nature as careless and spendthrift, while Francis finds the taciturn Henry to be a negative stick in the mud.  The truth is that both are equally ill-equipped to function on their own, as well as prone to questionable lapses in judgment; when a comic attempt to roast a chicken goes dangerously wrong, the duo are forced to seek the assistance of a local doctor, coming face to face with a well-to-do society they can only look upon as outsiders.  Yet wars have a way of turning both countries and individual lives upside down, and when the Civil War breaks out, the lives of both Francis and Henry will veer off in directions neither could have imagined.

Men Go to Battle is that miracle of miracles: a convincing, insightful period film made on next to nothing. Focusing on small incidents and personal relations, the film offers an extraordinary portrait of life in a border state, capturing the dynamics of class, gender and race in simple yet poignant encounters. The battle scenes are especially admirable; debut director Zachary Treitz conveys the terror and confusion of young men facing death on an unimaginable scale. Men Go to Battle was screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, winning Treitz a jury award for “Best New Narrative Director.”  Treitz and co-writer Kate Lynn Sheil—who portrays Josephine Small in the film—drew on Treitz’s own family history in writing their script.  Apart from her writing career, Sheil’s extensive acting credits including recurring roles in such series as High Maintenance, Outcast and House of Cards.

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