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Blu-ray Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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Opinions change with time – that which is viewed as brilliant today may be viewed as wholly trite and/or indescribably horrid tomorrow.  The opposite is also true – that which is viewed with derision at one point later very well may be confirmed as pure genius.  It is for that reason that one can't, strictly speaking, mock The New York Times for its negative review of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid upon its initial release in 1969.

In said review, Vincent Canby writes that the film "is very funny in a strictly contemporary way."  Of course, it is impossible to watch the movie now, 40-plus years later, and not laugh.  Canby also writes that within the work "you keep seeing signs of another, better film," and while Goldman acknowledges in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade that there are some problems with the script, the idea today of asking for a better version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is vaguely ludicrous (a project I did in graduate school promoting a remake and explaining how I was going to "fix" the film notwithstanding).  In his closing Canby states that the stars of the film, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross  "succeed even if the movie does not."  Again, while virtually everyone today would agree that all three actors give great performances, there are probably very few souls out there who would suggest that the film – both as a whole and in parts – does not succeed.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not a traditional Western, it certainly follows these men at a time when the Old West was dying if not dead, but it is as good an entry into the genre (providing you don't have a strict interpretation of said genre) as was ever made.  It is funny and serious, lighthearted and sad, and features Newman and Redford at their level best.  George Roy Hill's direction of Goldman's script shows these two men battling not just the law, but time itself, attempting to relive the good old days that have since past them by.  These are men who may be having fun doing what they're doing but still wish that robbing trains didn't require sticks of dynamite.

The film is a buddy movie, a Western, and a comedy all rolled into one.  It also manages a good deal of drama, particularly with the Butch, Sundance, and Etta's ill-fated trip to Bolivia.  Though the film definitely offers comedic moments in those scenes, they are funny in an if-I-didn't-laugh-I'd-cry sort of way.  Nothing confirms more than their trip to Bolivia that Butch and Sundance are men of a different era, one's who long for a time that no longer exists – if it ever did.

Perhaps that's why the film works as well as it does so many years later.  Our nation has a fascination with nostalgia, with history as we would have had it been instead of history as it was.  Butch and Sundance want the Old West where robbing a bank was as easy as walking into it and asking nicely for the money; a time when bankrobbing was done with childlike simplicity.  So many of us want the nicer, simpler times of our childhood, times which were probably neither nicer nor simpler, but certainly seem that way now.  Butch and Sundance get the opportunity to try to make their world the way they wish it could be, something many of us probably wish we could do as well.

In terms of the audio and video presentation of this Blu-ray release is really quite better than anyone has any right to expect from a 40-plus year-old film.  The vast majority of the film looks good, with rich colors and excellent definition.  There are some shots that contain slightly more grain than others and feel a little flatter (and, unfortunately one shot which doesn't seem to match in color and brightness the shot which came before it).  There are also some scratches here and there, but far less than what one might expect from the film.  If one wants to discuss the transfer to HD specifically it is quite good, the source material however isn't the greatest and the issues in the video presentation of the film seem to stem from that.  The feature does come with a DTS-HD 5.1 channel Master Audio track, and it too performs well (the original mono track is also included).  One won't notice very much hiss or static at all, and while the surrounds aren't often used, but the gun (and dynamite) blasts do ring through loud and clear.

The release comes with two different commentary tracks, one with Hill, lyricist Hal David, documentary directory Robert Crawford Jr., and cinematographer Conrad Hall as well as one with Goldman.  There is also a good making of featurette, another piece on the true story of Butch and Sundance, a deleted scene (which has commentary will Hill), and trailers.

It is entirely possible that at the time of its initial release Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wasn't so clearly the long-term winner that it has proven itself to be.  It doesn't take more than a single viewing of Hill's film today though to know that the film is a classic.  It would be foolish of me to state that the film will be still viewed as a great movie 40 years down the line, but it is absolutely worth buying on Blu-ray today.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
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