The year was 1969, an age of rebellion—when villains could be heroes, and do-gooders were rejected by a progressive generation with a thirst for freedom. It was the year of EASY RIDER, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, and the classic buddy western, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. George Roy Hill’s most iconic film, from William Goldman’s Academy Award-winning script, drew from what was known to be—or at least thought to be—true at the time. Biographers of both Robert “Bob” Leroy Parker (Cassidy), and Harry Longabaugh (Sundance) have since uncovered new information that had been unknown when 20th Century Fox released the picture to an adoring audience in the final months of America’s most culturally complex decade. Still, the film captured the veracity of these two extraordinary lives in a broad strokes approach, and the result is a film that has influenced scores of filmmakers, and has triumphantly stood the test of time.
Butch and Sundance begin their screen adventure in 1898, one can assume. There is talk of joining the war effort against Spain, talk of going straight. As William Goldman noted, “Running away was radical.” Western stars are supposed to stand and fight, but not these guys. They knew this super posse in hot pursuit could easily overtake them. Bob Parker spent the majority of his life on the run. He was never a fighter, at least not until the very end. He prided himself on his rap sheet—one that would never include murder. Born to a Mormon family in Utah, Parker grew bored with most everything in life. After meeting a cowhand named Mike Cassidy, Parker found himself seeking thrills in the form of lawlessness. In his early years, Parker ran with a pair of outlaws—Matt Warner and Tom McCarty. It wasn’t until 1889 that the 23-year-old assumed his favorite alias, George Cassidy (and ultimately Butch), likely derived from his days working as a butcher. There is no mention of this in the film, and only little detail is revealed about Butch’s past, other than the fact that he spent time as a rustler.
According to most sources, Paul Newman’s portrayal as the amiable, almost loveable bandit was right on. Biographer Robert Patterson quotes an anonymous old-timer as saying of Butch, “I wouldn’t want to have been in the teller’s cage when he came through the door of a bank, but if I ever met him in a saloon, I sure would have bought him a drink.” This sentiment has been echoed by most who knew him. Butch was a great guy. He simply dabbled in some pretty bad things, and he could never shake them from his life, whether he truly wanted to or not. He was “full of devilment,” recalled a girl who knew him in his early days, often enjoying a practical joke or two. Newman was pushing 45 when the film shot, chronicling a Butch Cassidy from ages 32 through 42, though there’s no strong indication that that much time has passed. But his courteous disposition, sense of humor, build, and piercing blue eyes were just what the part called for.
As for the more cryptic Harry Longabaugh, or the Sundance Kid, Goldman and Hill had less to work with, and though Robert Redford’s turn was critically acclaimed, the role was certainly a less accurate depiction of the famed outlaw. For one, Longabaugh had dark hair and dark eyes. He was good with a gun, and fast, but he wasn’t a killer, as the film implies. In fact, his philosophy was the same as Butch’s—steal, don’t kill. Sundance also claims to be from New Jersey. Harry was from Pennsylvania and then traveled to Illinois before heading out west. Sundance also makes it clear in one of the Bolivia scenes that he wouldn’t know how to be a rancher if he opted to go straight. The real Sundance had ranching experience, both in his younger days and after he fled to South America.
Very little is documented about Etta Place, played by Katharine Ross. Whether or not she was romantically involved with Butch or Sundance is unknown, though the film suggests the latter of the two. Historians also question her profession when she wasn’t running with the outlaws. Many are comfortable with her having worked as a prostitute, but some prefer to believe she was merely a schoolteacher—Goldman being one of those. This gives her more of an innocence on screen, and the casting of Ross was appropriate considering Place was, in fact, a traditionally beautiful woman, the most attractive of any of the women that hung around the Wild Bunch, says Robert Patterson.
The film was bound to make a few character errors here and there, but it impressively captured actual moments in the lives of these two notorious figures. The film accurately includes both the Wilcox and Tipton train robberies, each time placing messenger E.C. Woodcock at the scene, refusing to let the robbers through in the name of the Union Pacific Railroad. Following the second robbery is the 27-minute chase sequence. While it’s true that the Wild Bunch were hunted by a posse, that posse did not come by train to interrupt the crime. There is no mention of the Pinkertons or detectives Charles Siringo and W.O. Sayles, who tracked the gang (referred to in the papers as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, which the film uses exclusively). It does make note, however, of U.S. Marshal Joe Lafors, who pursued them (though Lafors did not follow Butch and Sundance to Bolivia, as the film depicts). Much took place between their holiday to New York City in 1901 and their arrival in Bolivia, including a robbery back out west and Butch working as a rancher for six months in Argentina. It was likely Harry’s idea to head to Bolivia, not Butch’s. He arrived first and Butch soon followed and the two found jobs as payroll guards, as seen in the film.
Etta probably assisted in robberies throughout the trio’s travels, but there is no evidence that she joined them in Bolivia. In 1908, the now famous shootout occurred, and here is where the greatest mystery lies. Two men were indeed killed that day (and a Bolivian soldier). However, the bodies were never confirmed to be those of Butch and Sundance. Exhumations proved inconclusive. The film’s portrayal of the shootout is much more grand than what actually took place. Goldman and Hill created a story that an entire army of Bolivian soldiers stormed a courtyard to take them down. But what is commonly believed to be the truth was that only four men (an army captain, two soldiers, and a local sheriff) engaged in the firefight, leaving both bandits dead. But who did they kill? Historians Dan Buck and Anne Meadows believe it was probably Butch and Sundance, but how does one account for the dozens of witnesses who insist they have seen Butch into the early 1940s? That list includes close friends and relatives. These believers also claim that Harry Longabaugh and Etta Place lived for many more years in Mexico City. While some were undoubtedly duped by a Cassidy imposter by the name of William T. Phillips, the testimonies still support the fact that many other witnesses believed they had seen and spoken to Cassidy years after 1908.
When the film premiered, it was subjected to scathing reviews. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby said, “…it might have been funny if you’d never seen a movie before.” And even worse, Time Magazine chimed in with this: “Every character, every scene, is marred by the film’s double view, which oscillates between sympathy and farce.” But audiences identified with the story and its characters, propelling it to outstanding box office numbers, and the Academy recognized it with seven nominations, including four wins. Theories would arise that the film was actually an allegory to Vietnam—that the super posse was Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon hunting down young Americans to fight. Goldman was “staggered” when he heard those claims. In any case, it would become part of the popular culture because it wasn’t like westerns of years past. “The picture was designed for a contemporary feel,” said George Roy Hill just after completing the film. “The characters are modern rather than traditional in approach and temperament, and Bill’s dialogue isn’t actually anachronistic—it has a very contemporary rhythm and sound to it, and we didn’t want a traditional western score.”
Goldman and Hill were confident they were making something that closely resembled the historical record, with a few adornments thrown in for good measure. They made their share of mistakes, many of which have only been revealed in the past forty years. But the film transcended both the historical and the western genres. They were making a film for the masses—a comedic adventure with three absurd musical sequences and still a good degree of truth. “If the audiences don’t dig it,” Hill stressed, “I think I’ll go out of my f***ing mind.” Luckily for him, we dug it.