The Rear-View Mirror: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

If there was alien life out there that had discovered a method to objectively measure charm and they used that to discover intelligent life in the universe, they would surely have discovered the Earth after the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, directed by George Roy Hill, written by William Goldman, but most importantly starring one of the greatest double acts in Hollywood history, Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the titular characters. The effortless chemistry between Newman and Redford, combined with Hill’s assured direction and Goldman’s wit, make the film a master class in ’60s cinema. There are few films that are as purely enjoyable as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

And yet, what I remember best about the film, and what I most look forward to whenever I rewatch it, is the way it mixes its anachronistic late ’60s goofiness (that music!) with a distinctly melancholy streak. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fun movie, doubtlessly, but from the beginning that sense of fun is suffused by a hint of sadness, which is mainly due to this: we are watching an ending. In fact, we are not just witnessing the final chapter of an era but an epilogue. Both of the protagonists are relics and their days are numbered; we’re basically watching Butch and the Kid trying desperately to stave off the inevitable. It’s not only, and perhaps not even mainly, the real Old West that is coming to an end so much as it is the mythical West of Hollywood cinema, the Old West as a playground for scoundrels, rogues and rascals. We would still get such figures in later films, such as the 1994 film remake of TV’s Maverick, but at that point many of the films were exercises in pure nostalgia, the commodification of something already gone.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is no stranger to nostalgia, as much for movie westerns as for the Old West itself, but it makes a big difference that this nostalgia is mainly expressed through characters that themselves are out of time, that are trying to outrun obsolescence for yet another day. For all their considerable charm, our outlaw heroes are desperate: they are on the run and they are quickly running out of places to run. It’s no wonder that in the end the only thing that can prevent the inevitable is to freeze Butch and the Kid in time altogether.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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