by Kater Leatherman
It’s been well over 50 years since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released Oct. 23, 1969. Directed by George Roy Hill, it starred Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy, Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid and his lover, Etta Place, played by Katherine Ross.
The true story of two infamous outlaws who robbed trains and banks before fleeing to South America was hailed as a ground-breaking Western. It won three of six Academy Award nominations and grossed over $102 million ($725 million today).
At the time, the movie hit a nerve. America was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Protests drew thousands into the streets opposing the war machine they believed was supporting a misguided adventure. A film depicting two anti-heroes fighting back against authority effectively captured the spirit of the 1960s.
The movie, originally titled The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy, was written by William Goldman and bought by Richard Zanuck for $400,000, the highest amount ever paid for an original screenplay.
Goldman, who won an Academy Award, wrote the story with Newman and Jack Lemmon in mind. But Lemmon wasn’t interested because he didn’t like riding horses. Marlon Brando thought it was too much like Bonnie and Clyde. Steve McQueen was favored but backed out when he couldn’t get top billing.
It was Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward who suggested the lesser known stage actor Robert Redford for the role of Sundance.
The first day of shooting, Sept.16, 1968, took place between Silverton and Durango, Colorado, on the Narrow Gauge Railway with the only existing period train in operation at the time.
In the story, E. H. Harriman — the Bill Gates of his day — ran the Union Pacific Railway. After Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang robbed his train a few times, Harriman retaliated by forming a super posse and outfitting a train car to transport the detectives and their horses.
In the script, the fierce but unsuccessful chase to catch Butch and Sundance was portrayed in a 27-minute sequence that included stunning views through Zion National Park, Sun Canyon and St. George, Utah. Conrad L. Hall won the academy award for cinematography.
During the making of the film, Ross was dating Hall, whom she would later marry. Because she had an interest in photography, Hall allowed her to operate one of the less important cameras for a scene where it wouldn’t have mattered if she was an amateur. Some of the crew took offense, including director Hill, who was so furious he banned her from the set except when she was needed for a scene.
“It was very devastating and, in a way, that haunted me for the rest of the film,” Ross said in a 1994 interview.
Newman and Redford thought otherwise, praising Hill for his great eye for detail and performance. As an actor, Newman said it didn’t get any better than working with Hill, a director who was not only perverse enough to make it lively, but always knew exactly what he wanted from a scene.
For Newman’s romantic bicycle ride with Ross, the studio sent a stunt double who practiced for days. When it came time to shoot it, he thought it was too dangerous. Other accounts say he wasn’t able to do it. So Newman stepped in and did everything except for the backwards crash through the fence, which was done by cinematographer Hall.
In the bike scene, the first of three musical interludes in the film, Burt Bacharach had to talk Hill into a pop song with lyrics. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head would go on to become Burt Bacharach’s biggest hit and B. J. Thomas’ signature song. For best original score, Bacharach won the Academy Award.
In the famous jump into Durango’s Animus River to escape the unrelenting posse — the scene where Sundance admits he can’t swim and Butch laughingly tells him the fall would probably kill him — a platform was built 6 feet off the edge of the cliff for them to land on.
Because the water wasn’t deep enough, the actual jump was done by two stuntmen at the Fox Ranch in Malibu, California, where they set up a 70-foot crane above the water. The jump was then shot through a sheet of glass painted to look like the cliffs around Durango.
To recreate the trip to New York before Butch, Sundance and Etta sailed for South America, Hill wanted to shoot it at a Fox studio where they had built a magnificent turn-of-the century set for Hello Dolly! But Zanuck didn’t want them showing the street to the public before the Dolly! release. So instead, Hill decided to take stills of the three actors and make a montage of period photographs with them pasted in. Add Edith Head’s well-crafted costumes and Bacharach’s multilayered score, and you have a movie that is also charming.
While working on location in Mexico, Paul Newman began an 18-month affair with Nancy Bacon, a divorced Hollywood journalist on assignment to do a story about him. According to Shawn Levy’s biography, Paul Newman: A Life, Redford helped him hide the affair. Eventually, Bacon broke it off because of Newman’s heavy drinking, claiming that “he wore a bottle opener on a chain around his neck and drank up to a case of beer a day, followed by Scotch.”
When the film was test-screened for audiences, it was sent back for editing because the studio thought the viewers laughed too much (Western comedies didn’t do well at the box office). When it was finally released, the reviews were lousy.
Roger Ebert thought it was “slow and disappointing,” and gave it two-and-a-half stars. Gene Siskel claimed it was “too cute to be believed … not memorable.” But audiences loved it and, within a few weeks, the movie rose above any negative criticism to become the top grossing film of 1969.
Kater Leatherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.