Kerri Battles the AFI’s Top 100 — #73: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

I don’t know if you’ve all noticed, but The List has been on a peak run of choices for the last month and a half or so that I just can’t seem to argue with. From The Apartment up until last week’s bout with The Silence of the Lambs, the AFI and I have been in agreement. I’d been secretly hoping at least one of these movies would drive me nuts because, personally, I find it much easier to rant about why something is horrifically terrible than I do to sing its praises. This week, though, I was sorely out of luck in that department. This week … well, let’s just say I may have to reorganize my own personal Top 100 to fit this one somewhere in the Top 10.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is a mostly true story that follows the real outlaws from the height of their infamy to the moment the world presumed they were dead. After a long absence scouting potential robbery targets, Butch and Sundance return to Hole-In-The-Wall, Wyoming, to find that their gang has replaced Butch as the leader. The new leader challenges Butch to a knife fight over the throne, which Butch decisively wins by punching his opponent in the nuts. Butch retains leadership, but also agrees that his challenger had a good plan — to rob the Union Pacific’s Overland Flyer train on both legs of its round trip. The logic here is that the second robbery would be so unexpected by the railroad that it was actually bound to be far more lucrative than the first. The first robbery goes off without a hitch. The second, however, isn’t quite as smooth. E.H. Harriman, chairman of the railroad, has invested in a stronger, tougher safe. The gang overcomes this obstacle by using far too much dynamite and blowing the train car to bits. As they scramble to grab the bills fluttering from the sky, another, much smaller train approaches. This train contains the best Pinkertons money can buy, including a full blooded Native American known as Lord Baltimore who boasts the ability to track anyone and anything over any kind of terrain. The gang splits up in hopes of dividing the Pinkerton gang, as well, with Butch and Sundance riding off on their own. Knowing Butch and Sundance are the real brains and brawn behind the Hole-In-The-Wall operation, the Pinkertons remain on their tail and in perfect formation. Unable to shake them, Butch and Sundance grab Etta, Sundance’s girl, and make a run for New York on the way to Bolivia. Without the constant threat of arrest in sight behind them, Butch & Sundance return to their old bank robbing tricks, using Etta as a conspirator. When the Pinkertons show up in Bolivia waiting for an excuse to extradite, Butch & Sundance decide to go straight to deprive them of the pleasure. They become payroll guards for a mining outfit and are ambushed by robbers on their first job. After shooting the bandits (the first time Butch has ever killed a man), they realize the straight life isn’t for them and head right back to outlawing with a plan to rob the next payroll delivery. The Bolivian authorities, though, prove to be more than the boys bargained for and a gunfight ensues. Tired, injured, and running out of bullets, the film ends with a freeze frame of Butch and Sundance charging into a hail of gunfire.

Yep. Just like that.

First things first: I had never seen Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid before now. I’ve been on this planet for 33 years. I was raised by a family of film buffs, spent my formative years having marathon movie nights with friends, and spent too many years to mention earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Film. How does it work out that no one ever bothered to screen this movie for me? Whose fault is it exactly that I was deprived of the pure joy of this film until now?! I can only conclude that the system is broken and, somehow, The Man is to blame. There’s no other possible explanation that makes sense. Maybe Commie Pinkos. Otherwise, this flick genuinely has everything you need for a good story — action, drama, and comedy with just enough romance and mystery to keep it interesting.  You may be rooting for the criminals, but you’re definitely not rooting for bad guys. Butch and Sundance are the guys who crack off-color jokes at the most inappropriately pivotal times because they’re always thinking one step ahead and they know it. They’re the guys trying to convince Woodcock, the low-level-groveler in a cheap suit, that, while his job description might read, “Protect E.H. Harriman’s Money,” it probably wasn’t intended to include, “Get Blown Up by TNT.” When Woodcock still refuses to open the train car door, his safety is the first thing Butch thinks of … once the door is dynamited off its tracks, of course. These are two just well-intentioned outlaws trying to get by in a world where a (probably inherited) millionaire railroad tycoon is willing to spend way more on ensuring their capture and death than they ever actually stole from him in the first place. Who could be against that?

Dudes who get kicked in the nuts, that’s who.


Making criminals endearing on screen requires a lot of effort from a lot of different contributors. First and foremost, credit has to be given to the real Butch and Sundance for leading such colorful, memorable lives that required very little embellishment. From there, you have to move on to the writer, who found their story to tell, and the director and crew, who turned a fascinating tale into an accessible and visually stimulating tale. Everyone involved behind the scenes deserves a nod. But Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid would be nothing without Newman and Redford in the respective leads. A trivia factoid on IMDb purports that Jack Lemmon was offered the role of The Kid, but had to turn it down due to scheduling conflicts with The Odd Couple. If that’s true, then thank Jebus for small favors. Newman and Redford display a natural chemistry and sense of comedic timing that never crosses into ridiculous and continually reminds you that these “characters” were real men who would have reacted in real human ways. There are plenty of movies that attempt to tell the stories of Real American Folk (Anti)Heroes. When cast as well as possible, the product might be Tombstone. When casting is based solely upon whichever 20-something actor is box office gold that day, you get Young Guns instead. But only a perfect combination of talent, fateful galactic convergence, and blind stupid luck would  you ever get a dual performance as flawless as that of Redford and Newman gave here.

Look at these magnificent bastards. Who doesn’t want to watch ANY MOVIE with these two as the stars?

This film has a lot going for it — solid writing, quality directing, impeccable acting. A lot of the other films on The List have these qualities, too. This one, though, has a quality that hasn’t shown its face very often among the other 26 films I’ve made it through so far. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is fun. There’s really no other word for it. The other listees may have been good at action or drama or romance or even outright intentional comedy, but they can each be placed definitively in a single, broad genre. #73 on the list manages to be all of these at once without ever settling to finally rest at ia single category. It’s not often that a film can achieve that sort of delicate balancing act, but the ones that do are usually the ones we keep going back to watch, even decades after their release. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is no exception. The AFI chose well in naming it to the list, though #73 seems undeservingly low…. — KSmith