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You can trace the quippy fun of Marvel blockbusters straight back to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford
Paul Newman and Robert Redford
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
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The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

1969 must have been a wild time to be alive. America was fighting with itself over civil rights and Vietnam. Teddy Kennedy crashed his car and killed a woman, thus effectively ending the romantic fantasy of the Kennedy dynasty. An entire generation came together to celebrate itself at Woodstock one week after the Manson Family butchered eight people, turning the hippie dream dark just as it was peaking. The moon landing brought America together to marvel at something, but it also served as a sign that technology had sped up to a degree that plenty of people found hallucinatory. For America, 1969 was a time of crisis, of rupture.

Judging by the movies, America’s myths were in crisis, too. Consider the Western, which had, up until then, been the main way this country conveyed its own legends. One of the year’s big hits was True Grit, a likable and hammy old-school oater. John Wayne, nearly 40 years after becoming a movie star, finally won his first and only Oscar, as the one-eyed grump Rooster Cogburn. Wayne plays a meaner, more crotchety version of his old stock character. But he’s still John Wayne, stolid and swaggering, a comforting vision for a certain breed of American moviegoer.

Elsewhere, though, the John Wayne image was decaying before the world’s eyes. In Midnight Cowboy, 1969’s Best Picture winner and one of the year’s highest-grossing pictures, Jon Voight struts around as a parody of old-school movie cowboys like Roy Rogers. But Voight’s character is in Warhol-era New York, desperately trying to sell sex to anyone who might be interested. Voight’s Joe Buck is one freak among many, and he’s also an idiot—the only person in the movie who doesn’t understand that his frontier act has grown stale. At one point, he defensively splutters that John Wayne isn’t gay.

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, only a minor hit in 1969, punctured the John Wayne mythos just as effectively. The Old West desperados of The Wild Bunch are vicious and bloodthirsty killers, happy to gun down an entire town of innocent bystanders if it’ll win them some money. If there’s any moral weight to those characters, it’s only because the lawmen are even worse. In Easy Rider, another 1969 blockbuster, Western outlaws don’t ride horses. Instead, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper roar across deserts on motorcycles, embittering yokel squares and trafficking cocaine rather than dodging marshals and robbing banks. Jack Nicholson became a star largely because of his supporting role in Easy Rider, and he quickly emerged as a new form of masculine Hollywood ideal: knowing, vicious, horny, free-spirited, in touch with his own inner wild man.

Most of the big hit movies of 1969 were in touch with the emerging drug culture and the anti-authority sensibility that had come to overtake a generation. Movies showed the entire family structure breaking down. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a hit comedy, has a pair of married couples naively and innocently toying around with polyamory. The military wasn’t immune, either. In Robert Altman’s MASH, Army doctors subvert their violent, bureaucratic superiors and have a lot of laughs doing it.

Films weren’t shy in their attempts to depict the actual physical effects of drugs. Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy both have freaked-out acid-trip sequences. Meanwhile, True Grit only had one scene that registers as being only slightly trippy, and that’s presumably an accident: the scene where John Wayne interrogates Easy Rider star and director Dennis Hopper. (Wayne reportedly chased Hopper around the set with a loaded gun.)

But if 1969 was a crossroads year for America’s sense of itself at the movies, then the year’s biggest blockbuster was the one that figured out how to walk the line—to build on the myth of the Old West while adapting that myth into a wild and irreverent present. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is the story of two legendary outlaws, and its heroes are dashing, courageous figures. But they’re also clowns. Throughout the movie, Butch and Sundance take the air out of each other, and they revel in their ability to undermine the forces of law and order, just like the doctors in MASH.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is a movie that knows it’s a movie. Director George Roy Hill opens the film with scratchy silent footage of Butch and Sundance, linking the film with the long cinematic tradition of the Western, the text reminding you that the people onscreen are “all dead now.” The picture starts out in sepia-toned black-and-white, and it ends that way, too. Like Bonnie And Clyde, the myth-exploding 1967 hit, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid ends with its heroes dying at the hands of law enforcement. But Bonnie And Clyde shows them actually being blown to bits. In the later movie, we fade out with Butch and Sundance charging out to face a Bolivian army division, frozen in an action pose, allowed to live forever with their guns blazing even if we know they’re about to be torn to shreds.

Butch and Sundance were, in fact, real people. Screenwriter William Goldman, working on his first original script, spent years researching the story, besotted by the idea of bandits who’d become legends twice, first in the U.S. and then in Bolivia. But Goldman, who sold the screenplay for a then-record sum of $400,000, also knew that he was building on the text of the American Western, taking what he liked and ditching the rest. He transformed it into a buddy comedy, with Butch and Sundance needling each other even as they risked their lives for gold and glory. This didn’t sit well with everyone at the time; a young Roger Ebert complained that Goldman’s script is “constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.”

Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy is indeed a funny sort of Western hero. Newman was a huge star at the time, but there’s not too much vanity to the way he plays Butch. Butch is a scheming motormouth, but he’s also an appeaser, always trying to defuse the tense situations that inevitably arise in Westerns. He makes it through most of the movie without killing anyone. And in what might be the film’s best set piece, he wins a knife fight by kicking a guy in the balls.

Butch Cassidy, in other words, gets away with a lot. He can do that because he’s Paul Newman. That knife-fight scene is a tiny masterpiece in comic timing and movie-star charisma. Throughout, Butch seems to be living the outlaw life for the laughs, not because he’s desperate for money. In his train robberies, he clearly enjoys jawing with the railway’s money man. And then there’s the famous interlude where he mugs away on a bicycle to entertain Sundance’s girlfriend while B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” plays on the soundtrack. (“Raindrops” turned out to be the first No. 1 single of the ’70s, and it set the tone for a lot of the heavily orchestrated folk-pop that followed. I wrote about it in my Number Ones column earlier this year, and B.J. Thomas wasn’t happy about it.) Butch is happy to hijack and rob, but he hates the idea of a rich guy wasting money to go after him: “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him! You probably inherited every penny ya got!”

Robert Redford, meanwhile, gets to be at least a little bit of a stoic Old West badass. In the opening scene, he nearly gets into a shootout over a hand of cards, and his antagonist backs down when he realizes that he’s facing the Sundance Kid. Sundance is a feared, respected character and a world-historical gunfighter. Steve McQueen, right up there with Newman as one of the world’s biggest stars, nearly took the part, only backing out when it wasn’t clear he’d get top billing. And McQueen would’ve been great at some of the cold-blooded stuff. But Redford, who became a star in the role and who eventually named his film festival after the character, manages to make Sundance both a formidable figure and a big softie.

The Redford of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is one of the best-looking men who has ever existed on an American movie screen, even with that mustache and everything. He’s also, when he has to be, a figure of fun. Arriving at a desolate Bolivian town, Sundance throws a great tantrum. (Butch: “He’ll feel better after he’s robbed a couple of banks.”) And even as he’s facing death, he and Butch are happily making fun of each other, secure in their own mythic status.

The film even pulls a few tricks to keep Redford likable. When Sundance first encounters his girlfriend—Katharine Ross, fresh off of The Graduateit looks like he’s about to rape her. The outlaws of The Wild Bunch probably would’ve done that. Maybe the ones from Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy—all three movies had come out in the U.S. in 1967—might’ve, too. But Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid turns that expectation into a joke. Sundance and the woman are really happy lovers, and they’ve just been playing with each other. (This scene has not aged well.)

All throughout the film, Butch and Sundance are confronted with signs of their looming obsolescence. Butch has a great time playing with the bicycle, but the bicycle represents the same progress that will soon end the Old West. A salesman introduces the bike like this: “Meet the future!” And when Butch has to flee to Bolivia, he throws the bike into a ditch: “The future’s yours, ya lousy bicycle!” A crooked sheriff even makes a big speech, trying to force Butch and Sundance to understand that they have become relics: “It’s over! Don’t you get that? Your times is over, and you’re gonna die bloody! All you can do is choose where!” They choose Bolivia, and they die bloody.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is a shaggy movie, one with no traditional plot structure and no real villain. (Other than the dull march of progress, Butch and Sundance’s greatest antagonists are the members of a super-posse of lawmen, and we only see them as distant out-of-focus figures. Butch and Sundance talk about them in the same hushed tones that others presumably use to discuss them.) And yet the film still works, more or less, as a traditional Western. It’s light and jaunty and entertaining in ways that make True Grit look paleolithic. But it’s also full of hats and horses and majestic vistas. The movie doesn’t exist to shatter the facade of the Old West, the way The Wild Bunch and the Sergio Leone Westerns arguably do. But it has fun at the expense of that facade.

Not every aspect of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid has held up; I, for one, would gladly do without Burt Bacharach’s zippy pseudo-jazz score. But the film works as a monument to movie stardom, and that stardom remains undimmed 50 years later. The tone of Butch Cassidy—the constant onscreen banter undercutting the action scenes—has served as the lingua franca of blockbuster movies ever since, even as action heroes and then superheroes came to replace Old West legends. You can still see that sensibility at work in this year’s highest-grossing movie, Avengers: Endgame—which, come to think of it, features Robert Redford, cheekily breaking the retirement that he’d only announced a few months earlier. That’s an act of irreverence that would’ve done the Sundance Kid proud.

The contender: A few years after Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited for The Sting, another George Roy Hill crowd-pleaser. In its time, The Sting won a Best Picture Oscar. But in 1970, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, though it had been nominated, lost that Oscar to another massively successful buddy picture: Midnight Cowboy.

Midnight Cowboy stands as a strange relic of a changing Hollywood: an intentionally repellant personal vision that made vast amounts of money and won Oscars even though it was rated X. (The MPAA’s ratings system, which had replaced the restrictive old Production Code, was only a year old at the time.) Midnight Cowboy is a movie without a lot of story, one that’s self-consciously confrontational in its skeezy view of sexuality and in its experimental art-film techniques. But Midnight Cowboy—unlike, say, Easy Rider, much of which is practically unwatchable today—still works as a movie, largely thanks to the brilliantly vivid central performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, playing two irreparably broken people who touchingly manage to find some comfort and companionship in each other, even if one of them has to horribly murder someone to do it.

Next time: The baby boom generation begins telling its own romantic myths with the sharply sappy love story Love Story.