Lord Help Me, I Can’t Change

The Unrevised West of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

illustration by Tom Ralston

If the West existed, they wouldn’t make movies about it; if they didn’t make movies about the West, it wouldn’t exist.

To be sure, that gambol is pure provocation, a blob of essayistic hem-hawing at the outset. I’m trying to provoke a reaction! I’m trying to treat my words like buckshot in the hope that the field of spray will stand in for what a good, clean shot could do. In the absence of aim, I flurry. I’m hemming and hawing.

Why not take the time to aim good? “I’m better when I move.” Why not shoot it dead and be done with it? “Well that’s because everything’s different now—you got to plan more, prepare more.” Why not run away from it? Maybe because by un-dismissing its splattery approach to myth and reality, we might remember to not live dismissively. Maybe by focusing on it in rapid—and unfocused!—bursts, something true and pure about the West and the western might emerge. And so the provocation, like the western, becomes a tool for theorizing realities. In this way, how we engage with something we wish to dismiss outright might propel us through the mythological towards a better being.

‘It’ is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a western about the West made in 1969. And that’s my provocation: I do want to dismiss it.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (hereafter Butch Cassidy to save letters, and also because I like him better) is simultaneously glitchy and stretchy, a disjointed three-act play that claims to be about 1969 without ever theorizing what ‘the West’ means to an America deep into its perpetual imperialist project in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It’s useful to measure Hill’s film against the ecosystem: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971)—all showing the American West as a crime and a grift, an evasion and a fantasy of that evasion. They position a counterculture—even in the context of dominant culture (ie. movie stars, movie stars descended from movie stars)—as something that must oppose all cultures insisting upon their own inevitability. These films and their authors also seek out opportunities for blowing up film grammar in the context of that seeing, usually through careful and caring examinations of the violence of humanity and the violence of art. Mostly, these films demand that their filmmakers justify making the film they’re making, which remains the bare minimum a filmmaker can do. Butch Cassidy insists on itself as an inevitable portion of the American cultural machine without ever taking that machine to task, while also lazily insisting that it’s a film about raging against the machine.

Perhaps even more egregious, it collapses the space between myth and reality without ever asking why that space is so easy to collapse in the first place. This eliding proves fatal: the western is, after all, the film explicitly concerned with theorizing this very space. That Butch Cassidy collapses these poles while also shrugging off that collapsing as “eh, because violence?” winds up semi-advertently reinforcing some of the sourest, cruelest traditions of law and society and liberty that the American colonial project has produced. When all a righteous citizen can be is an outlaw, when an outlaw is just a metaphor, when a metaphor is just the process by which annihilation masquerades as liberation, what’s left is the most cowardly ending of any Hollywood movie. By ignoring the reality of the West—that it is a foundationally genocidal project in both 1899 and 1969—Butch Cassidy is left only to mythologize itself, becoming an act of formal occupation and a particpant in a splattery tradition of un-revisionist Westerns.

Why linger, then? Because the western is also the real movement of the camera (and not the body) through the doorway. It’s the real-time theory of why we look into a world we can’t or don’t or won’t understand. The linger, the look—the western—means we actually do want to understand.

A step back: Butch Cassidy is a 1969 film. The screenplay was by William Goldman, an emblem (if perhaps a relic) of a kind of Hollywood professional writer class whose work feels like a study in adaptation. Whether via fiction—Harper (1966) from the Ross Macdonald potboiler, The Stepford Wives (1975) from Ira Levin’s satire, a slew of Stephen King projects including Misery (1990) and Hearts in Atlantis (2001)—or via non-fiction—Butch Cassidy’s ‘real-life’ outlaws, All the President’s Men (1976) from Woodward and Bernstein’s journalism, Chaplin (1992) as in Charlie—the occasion of Goldman’s prose always seems to argue that anything might become a film, perhaps that everything should. Goldman was, after all, the consummate adapter of his own work, turning five of his own novels into feature films (all scripted by him), among them Marathon Man (1976) and The Princess Bride (1987). Of his legacy, one obituary noted, “Goldman is probably celebrated most for a masterpiece of just three words, a brutal haiku of nihilist pessimism which he put in his Adventures in the Screen Trade in capitals: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.”

Butch Cassidy was directed by George Roy Hill, a theater and army veteran who worked extensively in television, often directing episodes for Kraft Television Theatre, a multi-camera anthology program that fostered the careers of many actors—a shortlist of talent includes James Dean, Jack Lemmon, Cloris Leachman, Grace Kelly, George C. Scott, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward, and one Paul Newman—as well as boosting sales of Kraft’s new Cheez Whiz product. Hill parlayed his television and theater work into feature films, moving workmanlike from the Tennessee Williams adaptation Period of Adjustment (1962) to the Dean Martin-starring Toys in the Attic (1963) and The World of Henry Orient (1963)—Peter Sellers’ first American-made film. Around and through these other actor-centric pieces, Hill directed one ennui-tinged exercise in masculine urges for Robert Redford, the Goldman-scripted The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), and one for Paul Newman, the strangely loving Slap Shot (1977). Before those, of course, was the more-than-considerable success of Butch Cassidy, and the even bigger smash, The Sting (1973). Of his death, one obituary read: “Few Hollywood directors have achieved such fame and success as the Oscar-winner George Roy Hill…Even fewer enjoyed such eminence for so short a time.” 

(The vulgarity of auteurism attempts to explain away an object’s mythology by reading its reality pieces like tea leaves. This is also the vulgarity of obituary. I don’t suspect that interrogating William Goldman and George Roy Hill solely according to their historical tendencies fully accounts for Butch Cassidy. Context, however, both historical and psychic, remains an essential ingredient in the western. I don’t think that a writer needs to believe in being alive to write an engrossing story about dying, and I don’t think that a director needs to be on a culture’s fringes to tell an outlaw story. I do think that if we don’t interrogate our historical tendencies, we reproduce rather than move beyond them. We make obituaries rather than memorials.)

Butch Cassidy is an outlaw story that ends in death, the story of two bank robbers who—after pulling one job too many and rousing the scrutiny of a scorned railroad financier—flee a super-posse of lawmen to exile and hopefully safety in Bolivia. It is, by many accounts, a classic American film, “selected by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress”—a sentence I read on Wikipedia sometimes, to varying levels of suspicion.

I didn’t see Butch Cassidy for the majority of my in-progress life. I saw it recently. It frustrates me like family. Before I saw it, I saw a black and white photograph of two men in cowboy clothes whenever I opened the door to the boiler room in the townhouse I was born in. If I snuck in to get an earful of the boiler’s secret symphony of plups and glups, there they were. Who were those guys? Uncles, I bet. The pictures we kept in our house were people we knew, I knew. Sometime later in life—but before I saw Hill’s movie—I determined that they were Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Who put them there on that pipe? Who knew them? Who are these guys?”

When you open a door once-ish a week for many years and see a still image over and over and over again, it lingers like lip prints on the cloud top of a glass of cola. Or: my brain was fizzed by those two men in the cowboy suits. Hawk-severe handsome, attractive like the sun, radiating blue eyes through black-and-white. Perhaps the nicest thing Butch Cassidy can be is a photograph of two Hollywood actors hidden in a half-forgotten home feeling.

Which is the germinating incident of the film, maybe, the idea to write the story of real-life Wild West outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (“Butch Cassidy”) and Harry Longabaugh (“The Sundance Kid”) in the 1969 bodies of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. You can’t write about Butch Cassidy without writing about the histories behind the bodies it moves around like Wild West Ken Dolls.

Redford is the kinda-tenderfoot, still tiptoeing around superstardom through the mid-1960s. He plays the good soldier a few times, gets his first big part in War Hunt (1962) where he meets future collaborator Sydney Pollack, acts opposite Alec Guinness in Situation Hopeless…But Not Serious (1965). He wins a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer for Inside Daisy Clover (1965). He makes a pair of dramas, one for Pollack in This Property Is Condemned (1966) and one for Penn in The Chase (1966), where he meets another frequent partner in Jane Fonda. By the time that pair stars in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1967), there’s something like a Redford Persona (“blonde”), but this collection of roles feels scattershot, every image the early filmography of a working actor.

In 1969, ‘Paul Newman’ is already a little mythological. After the relative box-office failure of two films from 1956—the deeply weird, chintzy epic The Silver Chalice; the bubbled roar of The Rack—Newman lands back-to-back-to-back hits, first filling in for the recently-deceased James Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and then garnering his first Academy Award nomination for the smash Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). He wins Best Actor at Cannes in 1958 for The Long Hot Summer, the film that reconnects him with Joanne Woodward, the actor who’d become Newman’s partner both onscreen and off. And then we’re off: leads in Exodus (1960) and From the Terrace (1960), his first spin as Fast Eddie in The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963) for Martin Ritt and Torn Curtain (1966) for Hitchcock, Harper (1966), Hombre (1967). And then the touchstone, Cool Hand Luke (1967), the counterculture ligament to Butch Cassidy (1969).

(To write about the history of movie stars and movies in the present tense is to treat them like the action in a fiction, in a novel, in an ode. Ishmael didn’t joined the Pequod, he joins the Pequod. Clarissa didn’t bought the flowers, she buys them. The mythological is always happening, a past that could start again at any invocation. To make sense of the gravity—and here, I mean literal, cellular weight—that an actor brings to a role, it helps to account for their time, for the stuff on their Grecian Urn.)

And so Paul Newman wasn’t ‘Cool Hand’ Luke Jackson but Paul Newman never isn’t ‘Cool Hand’ Luke Jackson: the actor carries the myth, especially in the absence of a theater that asks an actor to be differently. Butch Cassidy lacks that theater. It’s a story built on the assumption that we are who we’ve been, except it blows this magical literalism up to mythic proportions, carving its characters out of stone and statuefying their world. It remains a story about two men who, barring the decision to change their lives and survive, double-down and receive something worse, something like an infinity of annihilation, which of course, the film thinks might be poetic, or worse, admirable. “There are other ways of going straight,” they’re warned. They choose annihilation. 

The film’s navigation of myth and real life requires a clever bit of double parking; nothing kills resonance like cleverness. This is a story about real people (“Butch Cassidy” and “the Sundance Kid”) and also unreal people (“Paul Newman” and “Robert Redford”) and how they’re the same. Butch Cassidy becomes Luke Jackson Hud Harper Brick, the legend-in-the-making, an intelligent object of grace and despair, eminently alluring but also aloof, chilled. The audience desires him as Etta (Sundance’s erstwhile girl, Katharine Ross, outstanding) does: we can’t have him, and we won’t. Think about the bicycle scene, the future beamed in like sun through clouds, the shaggy western picture grinding to a halt for a time-out-of-joint fetish reality where B.J. Thomas always sings “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and Butch Cassidy rides you around on a bicycle. Is he charming? Does his smile crack the sky? Does his clowning make it seem like all the serious things in the world could melt away at any moment? He knows the serious things, of course, but he also knows the value of slowing down, eating an apple, showing off for you. And do you want that? You want that. Butch Cassidy is Paul Newman.

There’s less of a codex for the Sundance Kid—he’s made fewer movies to this point, see—but he still looks like who he is, which is Robert Redford. He’s stunted but maybe only because he’s quiet, quick to violence but also subject to feeling violently, overwhelmingly, too muchly. There is a sense that you’re always about to learn his secrets, which, of course, you—like Etta—do not. Spurred by the frustration of having to live in exile, his Bolivia-side confession that he was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey is a crack in the myth of the Sundance Kid but also an immensely amusing joke (to me) that people who look like Robert Redford are born in the state of New Jersey, where I live.

Less amusing is the scene where Sundance brandishes a gun at a woman after sneaking into her house and watching her while she undresses. He gravels, “Keep goin’, teacher lady.” She does, and he groans, tells her to let down her hair, cocks his gun to make her undo her brassiere. This has all the trappings of the rape scene that Martin Ritt shot for Newman’s Hud not six years earlier, with none of the camera’s anxiety or that film’s freighted horror. When the woman finally reveals—seemingly at the moment of assault—that this is at least semi-consensual, that she’s Etta, Sundance’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, it’s too late: the camera isn’t a time machine. The audience can only see this scene on the terms in which it was written, which is to say, a scene that is, for 90% of its run before the punchline, a reality where rape is being perpetrated. 

The camera isn’t a time machine. It sees what it’s shown, and though it can comment and theorize on the reality in front of it, it doesn’t inherently critique. Occasionally, it allows (and sometimes encourages) what it sees, and is thus responsible for the creation of a second reality, the fantasy. I don’t want to dismiss this scene, despite its gross tossed-offedness. I suspect the film’s expectation that the camera will absolve the reality it depicts is a hint at what I find noxious about it. I suspect the camera banks on the viewer buying Robert Redford, which is to say, the myth. 

Butch Cassidy requires Paul Newman and Robert Redford to play real-life versions of their fake (or: mythological) selves, a gambit that further fails as it subsumes their better instincts under the gloop of quips and bantering. Redford-cum-Sundance takes the violence of Chico and the remove of Harpo, two comic extremes that strip the actor of his expert instinct to deploy that which looks good (ie. Robert Redford) inside and against that which looks good but is bad, whether that’s the U.S. Calvary in Jeremiah Johnson (1972) or the U.S. itself in All the President’s Men. Butch-cum-Paul, then, has to be Groucho, a one-liner machine un-allowed to tap into Newman’s gold-darkness, which he flexes as indiciting melodrama in 1958’s The Left Handed Gun (in which he plays Billy the Kid like a teenage domestic drama victim), and country psychology in 1975’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (where he plays Buffalo Bill Cody like a gilded, shattered mirror).

That these four performances are all ostensibly based on real people should not be ignored: if ‘the West’—which is to say, ‘America’—is the unhomely contradiction of a place on top of a place and the ensuing real manifestation of a genocide calling itself ‘country,’ its lingua franca, the western, makes a corporeal unrealness from that unreal circumstance. “For the relations between the facts of history and the western are not immediate and direct but dialectic,” Bazin wrote in his 1955 essay, “The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence.” He goes on: “Tom Mix is the opposite of Abraham Lincoln but after his own fashion, he perpetuates Lincoln’s cult and his memory. In its most romantic or most naive form, the western is the opposite of historical reconstruction.” It’s not about rendering history faithfully but it’s also not about treating the fantasy as absolute or true; the western must be the cultural object that covers, like a horse and rider, the space between myth and reality, between tradition and psychology. It makes a tense fission of what seems inevitable, which is to say, America. 

Bazin is the film critic par excellence not because he argues cohesively for what makes sense to him (he does this), but because arguing becomes a speculative process. In that 1955 essay as well as its twin text, “The Evolution of the Western,” his speculation extends past how the western is merely laudable, and suggests that the psychic space of the western, the ground between ‘tradition’ (history) and ‘psychology’ (critique), is at the heart of cinema itself. The former classification, ‘tradition,’ is the pure western, one that depicts a mythological Old West, a no-place that derives its irreality (myth) from a universal, easily-understood morality. Black hats and white hats mean we act as who we are, who we’re costumed as. Bazin measures these stories against the tragicomic courtliness of Le Cid: “there is the same conflict between love and duty, the same knightly ordeals on the completion of which the wise virgin will consent to forget the insult to her family; the same chaste sentiments which are based on a concept of love subordinated to respect for the laws of society and morality.”

It’s tempting to read Butch Cassidy along these lines of tradition: its posters and DVD casing, the still photography that backdrops its opening credits (and occasionally lines suburban boiler rooms), cry out for such classifying. The film does propose a conflict of love and duty, so long as we understand partnership to be love and outlawness to be duty. Ultimately, it’s unwilling to follow through on those terms, or even barely meet them, opting out of a love either subtextual, as in Hawkes’ Rio Bravo (1959), or supertextual, as in Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). Butch Cassidy reduces its platonic pair to flip bickering instead of ever talking; that the pair is constantly finding things out about each other is less poetically revealing than it is obnoxious. 

We might understand outlawness as a logical—and therefore dutiful—reaction to living under capitalism in America: this logic is demonstrated in Penn’s earlier Newman vehicle, The Left Handed Gun, and his touchstone, Bonnie and Clyde. Perhaps even more resonant with the ending problem of Butch and Sundance than Bonnie and Clyde’s deaths—something we understand as ultimately tragic, if fundamentally misguided—is the trio at the center of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005). As Butch coos (again, sarcastically), “You know, when I was a kid, I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero,” how not to think of Otis Driftwood, one third of Zombie’s murderous trio, and his warning, which applies as much to the audience seeking gory thrills as it does to his would-be victims: “You had to come all big-stick, walking tall like a big fuckin’ hero. Got yourself to blame, hero, look at you now. You’re gonna fuckin bleed to death…see what happens to heroes, boy?” 

The deployment of Bonnie and Clyde and The Devil’s Rejects as correctives may strike some readers as cheap shots, primarily because neither is formally a western. To this point, I tip my black hat but also charge that if there is a western film, it’s that which makes sense of the violent no-sense of land resettlement in America—cowhands rustling a herd as in Red River (1948), or Mormons fleeing persecution as in Wagon Master (1950), to be sure, but also the limitations of the country song to stave off collision in Nashville (1975), the remapping of land and ensuing extraction of sentiment in There Will Be Blood (2007), the collision of myths above rubbled settlements in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

This last example is perhaps the connective tissue needed: the western is the film without a hero, or at least the film wherein the hero must pass through their own heroism, as in Bazin’s ‘psychological westerns.’ These are not, it should be noted, more perfect or interesting entries in the genre: Bazin’s admiration for the western in its pure form is due precisely to the way it performs its morality, as a kind of “ethics of the epic and even of tragedy,” something Bazin goes on to liken to “a greatness near perhaps to the child-like, just as childhood is near to poetry.” The appeal of the cowboy song, then, is in how it renders what is, as opposed to ironizing it as in, say, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” whose appearance is understandable only as a kind of leer, a wink, an apology of form.

Instead of more perfect, Bazin frames the deepening of psychologies in westerns like My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948) as “baroque embellishments of the classicism of Stagecoach (1939).” These embellishments are owed, Bazin postures, “doubtless in relation to the level of perfection reached in 1940 but also in terms of the events of 1941 to 1945.” As the West changes, the western reacts.

On first glance, this feels like familiar territory, the easy binary of ‘the western’ and ‘the revisionist western’—a misleading binary, as most are. Such a binary implies that westerns were made a certain way for a certain period of time and that westerns made at a certain time were made differently. ‘Revisionist’—lobbed by contemporary film critics to the point of non-meaning—becomes a stand-in for any western in need of reclamation. It becomes the project by which formal western elements (a concentration on the years between 1865 and 1895, a certain flirtation with horses and gunfights, a settled notion of Good and Evil) are challenged, either sub or super-textually. Tacitly, I suspect, it becomes a way to like westerns without liking westerns.

And so, Peckinpah and Altman are foundationally ‘revisionist,’ help nurse the term up from its acid westernist roots, from Jodorowski’s El Topo (1970) and Leone and Corbucci’s whole ouvres. ‘Revisionist’ is lobbed at any western with a conscience, especially consciences deployed towards the 21st century: Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) atomizes the western’s mythic violence while Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) restores agency to Indigenous people amid white supremacist fatalism. Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) mythically dissects mythic figures, Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) centers women not as domestic ancillaries but active anti-heroes, and Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) makes a spectacle of the West’s dependency on violence against Black people. Recent celebration of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) centers on the way it revises predominant myths of cowboys, of who gets to be them, and what they do. Colloquially, at least, these films have all been called revisionist, as has Hill’s Butch Cassidy. 

But what if there isn’t a revisionist western? Before Hollywood made westerns, there was a West; after westerns, there was nothing before the West. That’s the difference between some arbitrary capital letters, maybe (more provocations!), but it’s also the space between myth and reality. What if what we call revisionist is just, in Bazin’s words, “baroque embellishment”? The close-up of Justus D. Barnes as he unloads his gun directly at the camera in The Great Train Robbery (1903) possesses just as much metatextual awareness of the line between seeing/ shooting as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) does. Law and Order (1932)—the first filmic depiction of the shootout at the O.K. Corral—is as aware of the spectacle of recreation/ reenactment as its more modern progeny, whether that’s My Darling Clementine (1948) or Tombstone (1993). 

The western film is a fundamentally revisionist project: it’s made to prove that the West existed, and its making, then, is proof that the West was made, not natural. The films in the shortlist above are laudable, but they’re laudable inside the container ‘western’; to describe them as fundamentally exceptional to a genre’s tendencies comes close to the A24-ization of cinema, which is to say, the insistence that “art” is opposed to genre, that “art” unfolds as its own genre. But thereby hangs another essay.

There are no revisionist westerns. There is the western film, which psychologizes and terrorizes Western imperialism, and there is the propaganda film, which insists that the West always was, and ought to be kept that way. The line between the two is blurry. Griffith made westerns: his short melodrama Was He a Coward? (1911) is one of the first films shot in Southern California as well as one of the first to problematize the chasms between modernity and tradition, between civilization and the Wild West. It functions as a question instead of an answer, as opposed to Griffith’s propaganda, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which advances cavalric occupation, and worse, likens white supremacy to artistic innovation. Ford made propaganda, too, literally for the U.S. Government as a Naval Commander in WWII, and also in spurts of his narrative films: the Cavalry trilogy—Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950)—too often excuses the psychological failings (greed, racism, classism) of its characters as inevitable reflections of enlisted life, rendering myth and reality alike in the same breath. The propaganda film ameliorates tensions, inspires the sensation of settling, which is akin to the settlement, the physical manifestation of such insistence. 

Ford, though, reveals his artistry as one also resistant to such settling, usually choosing vibration instead of stillness, even in those Cavalry films. If The Searchers (1956) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) are easily recognizable as intentional investigations of the monuments of ‘the western film,’ a sense of instigation still haunts Ford’s gloppier moments. Because if Fort Apache ends with an apocalyptic oorah, a super-textual zeal for the enlisted man that borders on mania, if its throbbing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” soundtracks John Wayne preparing to lead another straight line of genocide on the Apache people, how to make sense of the lies he’s telling? “You’re wrong there,” Wayne’s Captain Kirby York scolds the reporters as they ask him about the blaze of glory that led Henry Fonda’s Col. Thursday and George O’Brien’s Capt. Collingwood (they’re playing characters, of course, but mostly they’re “Henry Fonda” and “George O’Brien”) to annihilation. “They aren’t forgotten because they haven’t died. They’re living, right out there, Collingwood and the rest. And they’ll keep on living as long as the regiment lives.”

To return to the original frustration: they’re not regimented, but Wayne might as well be talking about Butch and Sundance. After the film’s long midsection—gloopy, yes, but when it comes to moving men around on horses, there aren’t many better specimens than these two—Butch and Sundance and Etta flee to Bolivia, hoping to escape from the posse that their outlawing has attracted. Before they embark overseas, Hill shows their week-long dalliance in New York City via a shuffle of still photographs, mirroring the sepia photography that begins the film. It’s the one gracenote I find laudable about Butch Cassidy’s fatalism, and I won’t dismiss it. Remember that bicycle scene? Remember the afternoon off? Neither is possible any longer. The New York trip contains a dozen bicycle scenes, a million B.J. Thomas songs, a bushel of Paul Newman cracking wise and blushing through the joke; these events are elided in a swoop of montage, cut into still death, which is of course how the film ends. Or: “the future’s all yours, you lousy bicycles.”

Butch Cassidy isn’t a traditional western; its no-future fatalism is centered squarely on its presence as a film in, and reacting to, the American 1969. Nor is it a psychological western: what exactly do we know about these characters’ desires, especially with their motivational and tonal herky-jerking? At one moment, they’re struggling to keep pace in the heady changes between an Old West they used to steal and a modern world they don’t fit into—the next, they’re bickering like Desi and Lucy. A generous read perhaps cracks these personality swerves up to intentionality, maybe the screenplay’s suggestions that the human brain is a complex junk drawer of motivation. I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that the film hasn’t quite asked why it exists, or rather, if it should. How else to make sense of an ending that embraces nonexistence? 

They’re driven to Bolivia by outlaw actions that don’t even justify themselves via the degenerative pranking of Easy Rider or the shoddy ‘times is tough’-ing of Bonnie and Clyde. ‘The Man’ (which is to say, the ‘Super Posse’) isn’t the law or justice as Cool Hand Luke metaphorizes. ‘The Man’ is incidental, a posse of men who aren’t ever disclosed to Butch or Sundance or the audience. ‘Incidental’ is an operating procedure that colors the whole film: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are outlaws because they are, behave the way they do because they do, run when they’re chased, shoot when they’re shot at, and die when they’re supposed to. 

I’m sweating to convince this essay and myself that ‘revisionist’ isn’t quite the right word for any western. If the western exists, the West is revised; if the West existed, it wouldn’t require revision. Not only is Butch Cassidy not revionist (which is to say, it isn’t consciously interested in interrogating prevailing myths) but it is not a western. If there is a western film, it is the cultural object that thinks in mythic terms about the real violence perpetrated on behalf of Western expansion. This expansion is physical and mental; the western must oppose ameliorating such movement.

It’s along these lines of inquiry that Butch Cassidy falters, exposing itself as flippant where it might be conscientious, despairing where it might be open to a future. It’s all over the film’s deployment of violence, the prima lingua of the western film. Prior to the ending shootout, violence is reserved for Etta (in Sundance’s lurid come-on) and then an ultra-stylized slow-motion execution of Bolivian bandits, the first and last time such style is deployed.

I don’t think that we can, as a rule, dismiss the filmic depiction of white cowboys perpetrating violent acts, especially against people from South or Central America. I think we must mandate that it is handled with care and un-spectacle, require that it is deployed towards seeing a world where such action is as heinous filmically as it is in reality; such deployment should move us towards a world where such violence does not occur. 

But when violence exists in fits and starts, when it is neither real nor mythological but rather partial (which is to say, given to preference), it becomes reckless. When Butch and Sundance make their last stand against the Bolivian army that may or may not be working in conjunction with the shadow posse that’s hunted them since the American West, there’s perhaps an opportunity for grace, almost for indictment: to try to make a living in this world—in 1969 or 2022—is to come up against forces that we don’t ever quite see and will always, always be overwhelmed by. You can’t outrun them, and the reality they mandate is annihilation.

That conclusion is despairing, risks a silence like suicide. I don’t think we need movies like that, but I’m also not willing to dismiss the ones that scratch in that ugly earth. The western is ugly earth. When Bonnie and Clyde are laid out in a lawman’s tommy-gun flurry, we remember that this is what happens when we oppose systems. When Wyatt and Billy are run down, execution-style, we remember that violence that appears senseless in America is the product of that country, not a side effect. When Baby and Otis and Captain Spaulding drive headfirst into an annihilation of Texas Ranger bullets while “Free Bird” screams, we remember that this is what ‘hero’ means in America: racist murderers shooting at racist murderers. There is no easy ride. The western film is the process by which we are made aware of the collision of inherent national violence (reality) and the yearning to make sense of this senselessness (mythology). To paraphrase Pauline Kael, as fitting a descendant of Bazin as there ever was: the western film needs violence; violence is its meaning.

Butch Cassidy elides its final violence, while also subjecting its viewer to it. It implies the death of its heroes, raining them with a flurry of gunshot sounds but only after the screen has frozen on their still image, suspended in a blaze of glory that never happens. It insists that it is what it is. It will not change what it is. Is it senseless, the apotheosis of young men dying every day in the calendar year 1969 for a country that uses those deaths to insist upon itself? Is it shooting back at that country? Is it the country itself, a whiteness parasite implanting itself on somebody else’s land and calling it art? 

It’s none of these things. It’s a picture of two Hollywood actors you may or may not recognize.