When one thinks of a Western film, a particular set of images may immediately come to mind: gallant cowboys, bank robberies, horse chases, high-stakes gunfights, and so on. These elements are present in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but this movie is different from an ordinary Western in that it has a distinctly late-‘60s twist to it. Traditionally, Western movies have contributed to the American Frontier myth of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the hero, a cowboy, embodies the conservative values of viewers in the United States of America. The qualities a traditional Western hero should have are, according to folklorist Beverly Stoeltje, courage, a connection to nature, and intelligence that lacks for none, as well as “dedication to the Protestant capitalist work ethic and to gentlemanly qualities” (Stoeltje, 249). This version of a cowboy stems from the influence of Theodore Roosevelt, who rebranded the cowboy to embody his reactionary political views during the period of change that came after the Civil War. Thanks to Roosevelt’s reinvention of this Frontier figure, the cowboy went from being, in the eyes of Americans, a “disreputable and rowdy worker” (248) to being an American symbol of heroism, adventure, and conquering previously uninhabited lands. This “new cowboy” was resourceful in the face of the unknown, and his story made western expansion in the U.S. an exciting prospect. Thus, the Frontier myth and the cowboy as a hero reinforced the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism already imbued in the collective white American psyche during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, most Americans are still familiar with Roosevelt’s image of the heroic cowboy, especially due to the wide popularity of Western films.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, however, turns the genre on its head and transforms a once purely heroic and gallant cowboy figure back into a more realistic, modern character. The film itself embodies the “peace and love” type of values held by much of America in the late 1960’s, rather than the values of America during the Frontier myth’s prime. Although the imagery in the film sticks to the traditional Western mold, several themes break from the more traditional and conservative American values commonly depicted in Westerns. For example, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) are not even true heroes but rather train robbers going against the system who are forced to flee to Bolivia after being tracked all the way through the American West. They are not fearless (as we learn when the Sundance Kid bashfully admits that he cannot swim) and their wit cannot always get them out of a scrape (as we learn when the men pursuing the pair keep catching up with them). The two heroes are humorous characters, uncommon in a Western film, simply stumbling their way through robbing banks, running from the authorities, and adjusting to life in a new country. Even the film’s score eschews the traditional Western audial aesthetic like John Williams’ famous score in The Magnificent Seven for a mellower, more 1960s-reflective vibe.
One pertinent example of the film’s 1960s values is that the film does not write out sexuality as a part of its main love story, as other Westerns might have done previously. Rather, director George Roy Hill chose to introduce the romantic relationship between the Sundance Kid and the beautiful Etta (Katharine Ross) to viewers with a scene in which the Sundance Kid sneaks up on Etta in her home and directs her, at gunpoint, to remove her clothes and take down her hair. Viewers do not realize that the two even had a prior relationship until the end of this scene, when Etta tells the Sundance Kid she wishes he wouldn’t come in so late. This type of eroticism is not shown in the more traditional Western films of the early 20thcentury; in fact, such a scene would have likely been considered near pornographic during that time. At another point in the film, Etta and Butch discuss their romantic feelings for each other as well, acknowledging the complexities of sex and love in a more comprehensive way than do the one-dimensional, apparently sexless romances depicted in traditional Westerns.
One of the most interesting signs that this Western is not aligned with the values of those made in the genre’s prime but rather to those of the 1960s is the scene toward the end of the film in which Butch and the Kid, who have given up robbing banks in favor of a “straight” lifestyle, are tasked with the paid job of delivering money to their employer to feed the company’s payroll. While they are journeying back from the bank to their employer, they are accosted by a group of Bolivian bandits. The mood is hostile, and Butch and the Kid attempt to diffuse the situation without resorting to violence; however, due to a language barrier, they realize they may have to shoot the bandits, whether they want to or not. Butch, in a moment of hesitation, reveals to the Kid, “I never shot anybody before.” Unfortunately, one of the bandits draws his gun quickly after Butch’s admission, and the pair kills the whole opposing group. They look solemnly at the carnage before them, and the Kid says, “Well, we’ve gone straight. What do we try now?” The characters’ guilt after killing a group of people is an element one would not have seen in a traditional Western, in which the death of any “Other” type is hardly addressed and holds no significance to the heroes. However, the murders of the Bolivian men become a heavy burden on the consciences of Butch and the Kid, reflective of the ideals of peace popular in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Overall, this film has garnered critical acclaim for its new take on the Western genre. The film was even included on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time, ranking at number 73 (“AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition”). Its unique take on the Frontier myth adds depth and humanity to the heroic cowboy character initially created by Roosevelt to represent conservative, white American values in the late 1800s. By taking an older genre fueled by the values of white Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and reinventing it to fit the changed values of the late 1960s, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a sense redefines what it is to be American in a new era of peace and love.
“AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition.” American Film Institute. American Film Institute, 2007. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Dir. George Roy Hill. Perf. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1969. Film.
Stoeltje, Beverly J. “Making the Frontier Myth: Folklore Process in a Modern Nation.” Western Folklore 46.4 (1987): 235-253. Web. 16 February 2016