Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (Fox, 1979)
Such was the enormity of Fox’s 1969 box-office hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (click the link for our review of that), a sequel – or a prequel anyway – was inevitable. The big Newman/Redford picture was, as a Western, not that good, and the totally dire Raindrops are Falling on Your Head sequence in particular pretty well sank it deeper than the Titanic. But it was quite humorous, reasonably charming and hugely popular. Its stars were winning and handsome and the banter between them drôle and witty. People who never went to Westerns went to this one. On a $6m budget it grossed well over $100m then, and it is still earning.
Prequels and sequels had their problems, though, sequels especially, given the ending. As the last freeze frame didn’t actually show the boys shot to death I suppose they could have escaped the massed rifles of the Bolivian army (we reviewed the sequel Blackthorn the other day) but we were definitely left to think they perished in a hail of bullets. A prequel, then. But prequels could suffer from another problem, which Roger Ebert highlighted in his review, namely that the Newman/Redford vehicle “made an inexorable progress toward its end, toward the hail of bullets that would sooner or later find Butch and the Kid. In their deaths, they cast a poignant light on the events that went before. The inescapable problem of Butch and Sundance: The Early Days is that it ends so long before the emotional conclusion of the story that it’s just two lives in midstream.” Yes, that’s right. It’s all too light and inconsequential. If the two characters hadn’t been called Butch and Sundance you would wonder why on earth the movie was being made.
Having said that, the film is proficiently made and nicely photographed, by László Kovács in New Mexico and Colorado, and the principal actors (Tom Berenger and William Katt) are engaging and do indeed look in certain lights like a younger Newman and Redford.
Director Richard Lester was more than competent, especially at lighter fare (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II) and if he was no Western expert (this was his only outing in the genre), that hadn’t stopped George Roy Hill, for the 1969 movie was his only Western too. That shows, if you are a Western buff, and these two movies are best viewed as buddy comedies which happen to be set in the West rather than true Westerns.
The story starts, as does a later TV movie which covers the same ground, The Legend of Butch and Sundance (see below) with Robert Leroy Parker unable to promise not to break the law in order to gain parole for fear of lying but proposing a deal whereby he won’t break laws in Wyoming, only elsewhere. This time he is backed up by Jeff Corey as crusty old lawman Ray Bledsoe, who likes the boy and trusts his word. Corey is one of the better things about the movie. Of course he had played the same part in the 1969 movie, so it’s a bit odd that he looks ten years older than that yet this one is set ten years before. Oh well.
Soon Parker (who already calls himself Cassidy after a boyhood hero) meets up with Harry Longabaugh who is trying to rob a casino and ‘borrows’ Cassidy’s gun to make his escape. Butch joins the pursuing posse in order to find Longabaugh and team up with him. Thus the two begin their career of harmless fun, robbing and looting over various states (though not Wyoming).
The posse is led by Joe Le Fors (Peter Weller) in a straw boater. He is the ruthless lawman determined to bring Longabaugh to justice and not at all understanding like good old Jeff Corey. Joe Lefors (1865 – 1940) was of course a historical lawman, best known for his arrest of Tom Horn for the murder of Willie Nickell. He did in fact play a minor role in the 1887 recovery of a herd of cattle rustled by the Hole in the Wall Gang and in 1899 he took part in a posse to capture Butch Cassidy and those responsible for what would become known as the Wilcox Train Robbery. He didn’t lead the hunt for Butch and Sundance, though, and some contemporaries (such as Charlie Siringo) thought him a mountebank but in this movie anyway Lefors (or Le Fors) is the boys’ lurking nemesis.
The boys have two nemeses in fact, because badman OC Hanks (Brian Dennehy, another plus point for the movie) is convinced that Butch betrayed him to the law and he wants revenge. Luckily for Butch, he shoots Sundance by mistake, which annnoys Sundance and there’s a showdown gunfight.
There are a few entertaining moments, such as when Sundance is asked to knock a woman out.
Luckily there’s no bicycle and that interlude was replaced with the lads learning to ski, with, thank heavens, no song. The railroads are evil, of course, as they (nearly) always are in Westerns. Butch angrily remarks that the railroad companies have children working for them.
Butch is married, to Mary (Jill Eikenberry), and has two young sons, but is obliged to abandon them when on the run. He robs one bank to pay for a sharp lawyer to get his mentor Mike Cassidy acquitted.
There’s some Newman/Redford-style repartee. “You know, I’ve been thinking…” says Sundance. “That’d be dangerous,” replies Butch.
Innocuous, quite pleasant, but in the last resort eminently missable, this movie can be watched without cringing or falling asleep but would not appear in anybody’s top hundred Westerns.
The Legend of Butch and Sundance (TV, 2004)
As we have seen, the story of Robert Parker and Harry Longabaugh (known to most as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) exercised a fascination on Americans, indeed the world, even when they were still alive (and no one knows for 100% certain where, when or how they died, although we have a shrewd idea) and received an enormous boost with the hugely popular 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Still today the characters remain among the most famous of all in what people love to call the Wild West.
In this made-for-TV version, we first meet Butch (David Clayton Rogers) as Parker and are told that his father was a preacher (in fact he was a Mormon elder in Utah). This upbringing has given the boy a strict, if curious sense of morality. Caught for horse theft and imprisoned, he comes up for parole. The judge is minded to release the young fellow on a promise of good behavior but the prisoner can’t swear not ever to break the law again, for fear of lying. They come to an agreement: Parker agrees never to break the law in Wyoming again. Good enough, says the judge, and off goes Parker, meeting up with his mentor Mike Cassidy (Michael Biehn), to depredate in Colorado and Utah, which of course is morally acceptable to a religious youth.
Now we meet Etta Place (Rachelle Lefevre), a photographer, and two-gun Harry from Sundance (Ryan Browning). They clearly have a ‘thing’ going. Etta hesitates at the wildness of the young fellow but at the same time is attracted by it. But she can’t commit herself until her elder sister, who is rather plain (Michelle Harrison), has found a man.
Mr Rogers, Ms Lefevre and Mr Browning are photogenically glamorous in a 2000s Californian sort of way. Central casting has tried for a younger but recognizably Newman/Redford look for the protagonists, though not too Katharine Ross for Etta. I didn’t know any of these actors and in the case of all three this was their first and to-date only Western.
The villain of the piece is Durango (whom Etta politely calls Mr Durango), played by Blake Gibbons. By comparison, Mr Gibbons is a hardened veteran of the genre, having been in an episode of both Guns of Paradise and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, the straight-to-video Prairie Fever and the Michael Landon Jr-written and directed Love’s Abiding Joy. In The Legend… he is a gang member who has sold out to the law. The best thing is the way he has a clay pipe tucked into one of the bullet slots on his bandolier and matches in his hatband.
Well, Mike Cassidy is murdered by Durango (in reality the best guess is that Cassidy fled to South America but of course we don’t know) and Parker takes over both command of the Wild Bunch and his mentor’s name, being known hereafter as Butch Cassidy. He has a sort of friendly rivalry with the Sundance Kid, as the gang call Harry, both in marksmanship (in truth Cassidy was no gunman and as far as is known never shot anyone) and for the affections of Etta. The triangular relationship is in fact quite subtly handled. There does indeed seem to have been a three-way affair: Etta probably did divide her affections between the two, even if she was more ‘officially’ the consort of Mr Sundance.
One of the train robberies is shot in a chiaroscuro way which reminded me slightly of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford of the year after. I wonder if Assassination director Andrew Dominik and DP Roger Deakins had seen this on TV before doing theirs? Probably not, and anyway, the Dominik/Deakins version is ten times better. Still, the Iglor Medlic cinematography on The Legend of Butch and Sundance is quite nice in parts (his only Western) and some of the Calgary, Alberta locations very attractive. Visually, this TV movie is not at all bad.
There’s the standard and pretty well obligatory nod to ‘the end of the West’. Well, it is the 1890s after all. Butch says things like, “The frontier’s almost gone. Cities springing up like weeds.” Butch and Sundance are shown as recalcitrants, hold-outs for the old way of life, and of course, as always in these movies, the railroad companies are evil, even worse than the banks. Hell, Mike Cassidy says at one point, the railroads own the banks. This gives a spurious moral justification for robbing trains.
The boys fake their deaths and go off to Mexico where they go semi-straight but the evil nemesis Durango sniffs them out and comes south of the border after them. Things build to the inevitable Butch/Durango showdown, but this fizzles rather as it takes place back in Wyoming and Butch can’t do anything naughty there. Remember his promise to the judge?
The Legend of Butch and Sundance is harmless enough, a bit on the bland side, but a fair bit of fun here and there and probably worth a look if it comes on TV. The main actors certainly don’t have the spark that Newman and Redford had, and the writing (John Fasano, an associate producer of Tombstone) doesn’t give them quite enough quips or repartee but, though, at the risk of damning it with faint praise, for a TV movie it’s OK. It certainly won’t be the last time Sundance and Butch appear on the screen, that’s for sure.
Well, there we’ll leave the famous outlaws. You can have too much Butchiana, I reckon. Next time, on to other things.