‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ at 50: Looking back at the first modern film

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The red-letter date in history is aesthetically beautiful, but often misunderstood; the world is less defined by individual moments that alter history so much as it is by the story behind moments. Yet, in studying history we nevertheless choose to embrace these dates, because at the end of the day, they are the culmination — and therefore the face — of their stories. 

The same rationale can be applied to cinema. Upon its release, the classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary Thursday, did not revolutionize film. And yet as a product of the ‘60s and the end of the Hollywood Golden Age, with its radiant depiction of incomprehensibly cool outlaws Butch Cassidy and his gunslinging friend, the Sundance Kid (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) “Butch Cassidy” itself became a red-letter film in cinema history: the first truly modern American movie. So while this feat may not have altered the medium (the film school generation and the rise of New Hollywood would have taken the ‘70s by storm, regardless), a sepia-drenched still from the film’s famous New York montage still sits atop the doorway of the modern age of film. 

Of course, being both “old” and a “western,” it’s difficult to pitch the film’s importance to younger audiences today. But in truth, what makes “Butch Cassidy” so modern is that it neither belongs to old cinema nor exists as a straight western. By the time of the film’s release in 1969, both were well on their way out the door. 

Following the Golden Age of Hollywood in the ‘30s, the film industry began to spiral. The Paramount antitrust case of 1948 had barred major studios from owning theaters, and, when combined with TV viewership’s steady increase in the ‘50s, the price of movie tickets sky-rocketed in the ‘60s to over double its Golden Age price. The result was a major blow to studio influence and revenue. While 65% of the U.S. population went to movies weekly in 1930, by 1969 that number had dropped to just 10%. Likewise, westerns, once synonymous with Hollywood’s Golden Age, were also fizzling out. The all-American version of the West seen by John Ford and John Wayne, with painted vistas and American male glory providing a vitally artistic canvas, had slowly dissipated, replaced with Italian plains, fuzzy TVs and mournful revisionism. 

But the deaths of Golden Age cinema and westerns were just a few of the changes wrought as a WWII era world transitioned into the mid-20th century. The counterculture movement of the ‘60s brought with it a staunchly rebellious and euphoric view of life that rejected the tragic failures of a post-war world. And from this cultural rebellion, a historic film renaissance soon bloomed across the Atlantic. The “French New Wave,” characterized by a total rejection of the stale and conservative filmmaking of the past, would ultimately inspire radical filmmaking change in the United States.

Clearly, the wheels of change for the United States and American cinema were already barreling full-speed down the highway by the time Redford and Newman trotted through a crimson Utah desert on horses. But “Butch Cassidy” was ultimately the film to put it all together. Built on a script by masterful outsider William Goldman (the first modern spec script) that worked overtime to subvert the dying norms of the western, “Butch Cassidy” (and director George Roy Hill) drew heavily from French films such as “The 400 Blows” and the disillusioned yet vibrant angst of the ‘60s to tip the scales of film into the modern era.

 There is no objective definition of what constitutes a modern film. And yet “Butch Cassidy,” with all this influence, came close. That modernity was present in both its western heros’ willingness to run from danger and in its mocking jabs at American exploitation. It was there in its handsome stars, who radiated blinding charisma, and in the weave of their hyperaware dialogue. And it was there in the eccentric willingness to pause a grab-bag picture of tragedy, violence and rebellion with a jaunty, sun-baked moment of two friends riding a bicycle to the hymn of a cheery pop song

It was liberated pop culture.

Of course, that’s not to say “Butch Cassidy” didn’t have a vital impact on the world of film. A pioneer in the genre of buddy-comedy, Butch and Sundance’s verbal dueling and loving codependence would form the basis for the dominant buddy-cop films of the late 20th century (from “Lethal Weapon” to “Rush Hour”) and to the modern day. Similarly, the constant torrent of quips from the film would influence the writing of modern popcorn blockbusters from Marvel movies to the “Star Wars” franchise. 

But fundamentally, “Butch Cassidy” exists as a red-letter date in film history not for what it changed but because it was the face of that change. And 50 years later, we still care because, in its tiptoeing into the future of American cinema, it delivered a modern masterpiece.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].