Tag Archives: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The World According to Garp (1982)

The name “George Roy Hill” might not be a household name here in 2016, but if the man himself doesn’t ring a bell you probably still know his films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are his best, riding high on the indomitable pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That pair would be separated for Hill’s ensuing films The Great Waldo Pepper and Slap Shot, both of which are well-crafted if not ultimately as powerful as those other two. The one that might throw you for a loop is The World According to Garp, a film from late in Hill’s career starring Robin Williams in his first dramatic role.

…that phrase doesn’t mean what it did back then, though, because “Williams in a dramatic role” isn’t as much of a novelty nor is it even something that seems worthy of being highlighted today. Dead Poets, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and Fisher King let Williams be Williams — not merely Comedic Williams or Dramatic Williams — and despite the films themselves being best suited to the “Drama” category at your local rental store you probably don’t think twice about the star being a guy who most consider to be one of the funniest ever to walk the planet.

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Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

In the wake of the 88th Academy Awards we’ve arbitrarily decided to revisit the Year in Film of three decades ago, reviewing a selection of films that were either honored at the 58th Oscars, snubbed, or overlooked altogether. Out of Africa was the major winner that year, scooping up seven trophies, but of course the question everyone always asks after the Best Picture mic drops is whether or not the winner is deserving. Spotlight, more of a traditional cinematic experience than the likes of The Revenant, was a mild surprise to don this year’s crown. If we dispense with the niceties, we might say that Spotlight — though undoubtedly a strong film about a powerful true tale, well-crafted, well-acted, well-received — simply isn’t a cinematic experience on par with Revenant. And if we did the same 30 years ago we might find a similar scenario with Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Every once in a while a movie rears its head from the past and simply begins, production credits appearing and giving way to the title, the opening credits, the first scene, and off to the races. Nowadays it’s far more common to preface all of that with casting news, screener reviews, trailers, trailers for the next trailers, interviews with the stars wherein the plot of the movie is dissected before the film is even released, etc. Rarely do we get to experience a movie as is, shorn of all the machinery. For me, Kiss of the Spider Woman was one such rarity. I knew the title and knew that William Hurt won an Oscar for his role, and that’s it. Hitting play was in the grandest sense a leap into an unknown territory of infinite possibility, even if in the quotidian sense it was just something to do on a lazy late Wednesday evening.

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Progress — that’s what Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is about. The buddy dramedy is about more than that, of course, from women-chasing to bank-robbing to cross-dressing. Five years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood’s stoic Thunderbolt and Jeff Bridges’ anything-but-stoic Lightfoot came closer to capturing the same verve and tragedy of American rebelliousness than most films in the ensuing forty years. It’s part road flick, part heist flick, part character study. In the simplest sense Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a drive-in movie, complete with laughs and adventure and car chases and a few explosions for good measure; in a more complex light Michael Cimino’s directorial debut yearns for the American Dream, for satisfaction greater than that offered by everyday life, for an accomplishment, for progress.

The comparison with George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy isn’t borne entirely of the fact that the protagonists are a pair of BFF criminals, and Lightfoot even takes direct issue with that label — “criminals” — before the final credits roll. Butch and Sundance are battling against the death of the West they love, the West in which they thrive. Bigger guns, bigger armies, bigger bank vaults — the world’s changing whether they like it or not. Still, it’s their own perception of the world that really matters, especially in Butch’s case. “I’ve got vision,” he tells the Kid, “and the rest of the world needs bifocals.”

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The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

If Robert Redford is the best model of the American Dream in all its smiling, handsome glory (and I think he is), then he must also be its most effective destroyer. Through characters like the Sundance Kid (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) who turn themselves into legends, and Bob Woodward (All the President’s Men) who turns politicians into criminals, Redford has made his career a mission to demystify the neatly packaged illusion of American exceptionalism. Yet I don’t think either of those crushes The Dream as brutally as The Great Waldo Pepper does, leaving it burning in the wreckage of a monoplane. And that’s saying something for a movie as lighthearted as this one.

It’s 1926 in down-home Nebraska, and all that’s left of World War I are the daredevil pilots who duke it out in barnstorming competitions right over our heads. Simple Midwesterners search the skies at the sound of a biplane engine while J.P. Sousa-style marches signal the arrival of our hero, Waldo Pepper. There’s only one problem–Pepper is a liar and a cheat. He never fought against the notorious Ernst Kessler in the war (he didn’t fight at all on account of his being a flight instructor), but he’ll say he did if it gets him an easy buck (on account of his being poor and desperate). But despite being a great storyteller and showman, Pepper is actually the real deal. He’s “Great,” not because he’s got money like Gatsby, but because his flying skills are (nearly) unmatched (that pesky Kessler is still alive after all). In this day and age, though, where almost every man and his grand-pappy seems to have a plane, Pepper’s gotta find a way to stand out. Continue reading The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.