I just came from our annual office tradition on the final work day of the year where we toast the achievements of the year that was and look towards the one to come. At this meeting, a co-worker noted that, no matter how good a year someone has, it always seems like people say “good riddance to this terrible year” when you get to this point. Therefore, in an effort to deliver more happiness and positivity to the world, I am dedicating my entire year of write-ups to the best films on my list. Not the top 12 in order but every film will be the best something on my list. To get things kicked off, I figured I would start with my top rated western, which is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, dir. George Roy Hill).
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tells the story of two bank/train robbers (Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) in 1899. The pair lead the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang in a series of robberies, notably robbing a train on a journey and then robbing it on the return journey as well. Evidently this did not sit well with the unseen owner of these trains, who hires a world class team of lawmen to hunt them down. Eventually Butch and Sundance make it to Bolivia, along with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta (Katharine Ross) before the law finally catches up with them in a fantastic final shootout.
After initially meeting with mixed reviews, time has been very kind to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with most pundits listing it among the greatest films of all time. Obviously, I agree with this. It is the first of several notable film collaborations of Newman and Redford, both of whom deliver outstanding performances – displaying a natural chemistry that would become their trademark. The dialogue (written by William Goldman) is fantastic as well – particularly in the knife fight scene at the beginning. (Rules? In a knife fight?) With so many great elements, it feels dirty to nitpick on the flaws. Ross is not on the same level as Newman and Redford. It drags a bit in the middle. The Burt Bacharach score is sometimes jarringly out of sync with the action it underscores. But none of those things lessens the enjoyment of what may be the first true buddy western.
I will watch every frame of this movie at least once per year, but any chance I get to watch the first half hour or so is worth taking as well. From the opening card game (which features a young and unrecognizable Sam Elliott) through Butch and Sundance jumping off the cliff into the river below is as fine a sequence of filmmaking as has ever been made. While I am not typically partial to westerns (they all feel more or less the same to me), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stands above all of them due to its two stars and the brilliant words they are given to say.
FUN FACT – One of my favorite bits of Oscar oddities (not even really trivia) is that in 1969, two of the greatest westerns of all time were made. This film and The Wild Bunch. The Oscar for Best Picture that year went to a movie with “cowboy” in the title but is in no way a western – Midnight Cowboy.
Just Watch says that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is streaming on HBO Max. It is also available to rent or buy on most platforms, including AppleTV, Redbox, and Amazon Prime.