BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID - Blu-ray review

... the film serves as a blueprint for the modern ‘buddy film.'

DeanWink

George Roy Hill's film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is considered one of the finest buddy films to have hit cinema. The picture was released at a time when the western genre was trying to find a way to appeal to audiences who were upset with the Vietnam War and audiences who had grown bored with the notion of a traditional western picture. Screenwriter William Goldman based the story loosely upon the true story of American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With Hollywood stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford cast in the lead roles, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" mixed the grand vistas of the American western with a touch of contemporary humor along with two potent leads to create a mixture that has stood the test of time and is just as entertaining nearly forty years after the film debuted in theaters.

The film was initially to star Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, but the two men were the biggest stars of the time and they butted heads over who would receive top billing. After McQueen backed out of the project a number of other actors were considered for the role opposite of Newman. Max Olsen, Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando were possible lead actors, but after time passed and against the blessings of the studio, George Roy Hill managed to cast a relatively unknown actor, Robert Redford, in the role and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" managed to make a star out of Redford as a direct result of his performance in the film after the studio allowed the actor they considered to be too clean cut to share screen time with Newman. Today, the pairing of these two actors serves as a template for the ‘buddy picture.'

While the film loosely follows the adventures and lives of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), the story tries to remain faithful to the primary events that occurred in the two lives of the legendary outlaws. Goldman had initially face scrutiny for adhering to the historical events that found the bank robbers meeting their demise in Central America and not in a large shoot out in the Old West. Much of the perceived demeanor of the historical figures is kept by the film, but the story is given the Hollywood treatment to make the film a little more exciting and grandiose to appeal to audiences. The 110 minute film focuses on two large events in the history of the men and focuses less on much of the back story of the two legends and some of their motivations.

In the picture, Cassidy and Sundance return to their hideout called "Hole in the Wall." There they find that Cassidy has been ousted as the leader of the Wild Bunch and that the gang has decided that Harvey Logan is the new leader. Cassidy uses his stronger intellect to disarm and defeat Harvey in a knife fight and re-secure his position as the leader of the gang. However, Cassidy finds Harvey's plan to rob the Union Pacific Flyer train on its initial and return trip instead of the typical bank robberies. The first robbery does not yield an overly large payday, but the return trip by the Flyer guarantees far more money when the expectation is made that the return trip should be far safer as the train would not be robbed after it had already been done so.

Unfortunately for Butch and Sundance, the owner of the Union Pacific Flyer was very upset that the outlaws would rob his train and sends a specialized train car behind the Flyer with a load of law men, gunslingers and trackers to hunt down and kill Butch and Sundance. The second train does have far more money on board and while the safe is blown to smithereens, the robbery ultimately fails when the second train arrives and a number of the Wild Bunch is killed by the bounty hunters. Butch and Sundance find themselves travelling across the frontier and they cannot distance themselves from the horsemen that are successfully tracking them. Eventually, they manage to lose those that want them killed and Butch, Sundance and Sundance's girlfriend Etta Place (Katharine Ross) joins them as they flee to Bolivia.

In Bolivia Butch and Sundance continue their lavish lifestyle that is fueled by bank robberies and soon the two men become wanted men in the South American country. The new country treats the bank robbers well, but their pursuers soon arrive in Bolivia. To keep from being found by the men hired to kill them, Butch and Sundance decide to go straight and get honest jobs. They find themselves getting a job as payroll guards, but that does not last for long as the payroll is hijacked by Bolivian outlaws and it isn't long afterwards that the two decide to return to robbing banks and face the risks they are more accustomed to. Etta leaves Butch and Sundance to return to America. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, however, never return to America as they find themselves in a tragic gunfight with Bolivian police.

The picture does take some justice with the story behind "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." For instance, the historical record lists only one Bolivian officer killed during the shootout, but the film depicts that the two outlaws take down a large number of Bolivians before they are brought to justice. The final gunfight is shown to be far more heroic than it actually was. The movie is revisionist to entertain and thankfully, the changes made to the story do not take away from the affable gunslingers and the adventures they had undertaken. Goldman fought hard to keep intact as much as the real history as he could and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" effectively mixes fact with fiction to make a convincing Western film that helped define the notion of a ‘buddy picture.'

Much of the success of the film and the primary reason it remains as entertaining today as it did in 1969 is the chemistry and partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The outlaws were considered to be quite affable and it is unknown whether any of the men had truly killed anybody in their earlier careers. This notion is echoed by the performances of the charismatic Newman and Redford. It is said that Cassidy was a well loved figure during his time and it takes an actor of Paul Newman's stature and likability to fully deliver the spirit of the many he portrays. Both actors bring to life the intelligent and charismatic outlaws, but the strength of their performance is how well the two men mesh together. Newman and Redford had not worked together before this film, but they do well in appearing to be lifelong friends.

The film is a beautifully shot western that appeals to a more contemporary audience than the more serious westerns that spent more time on the open range than it did in the barroom. The film contains a little more humor than the typical western and this suits Newman and Redford well. It features some absolutely stunning vistas during the picture that is a reminder of the American wild west of yesteryear. The more primitive nature of Bolivia is also captured very nicely by the film's cameras and while the centerpiece of the picture is Newman and Redford, the actors are supported with splendor by the gorgeous backdrops and sunsets shown in the picture.

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is an entertaining and likeable picture that isn't as revered as an old John Wayne picture or the far younger Clint Eastwood film "Unforgiven." A number of Westerns are remembered more fondly than the George Roy Hill film, but this is unfortunate as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is a worthwhile western that may not be as hard edged as the ‘bigger' genre pictures, but you'd be hard pressed to find another western that depicts the partnership of the two famous outlaws. The final shootout may not be as exciting or bloody as "The Wild Bunch" and John Wayne's presence is not felt in this film (as some feel the only western is a John Wayne western), but "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" injects a little humor and a lot of character between its credit sequences and with Robert Redford and Paul Newman providing powerful performances, this is a classic western in every sense of the word ‘classic.'

Video:

I am torn over the video transfer of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." There are a few sequences that are quite stunning and the MPEG-2 mastered 2.35:1 generally looks very good for a film that dates back to 1969. Detail is certainly better than DVD quality and the coloring is pretty good, but "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" cannot beat out "The Searchers" in a high-definition shootout. I consider the old John Wayne film as the high water mark in classic catalog releases and it is a stunning transfer and when you compare a few shots from that film to this picture, it is easy to see the flaws in this high definition transfer. While "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" easily bests the previous release of the film on DVD, it is only average on Blu-ray.

The problems with the transfer can nearly all be blamed on the source materials used. The film is ridden with marks of age from the print used. There are specs of dirt, a few scratches and some other disappointing flaws that are a direct result of the print used to master the film for high definition. The film looks as dusty and worn as the Old West and that is unfortunate. Film grain is another problem with the transfer and the grain is quite apparent during the darker sequences which exhibit poor shadow detail and a black level that is closer to a dark grey than it is a true black. Some of the exterior shots in the picture during daylight looks incredible and easily represents high definition. While I wasn't excited about much of the transfer, I found the coloring was pleasant. The hues show a little age, but are generally natural and colorful.

The digital transfer itself shows some color banding and visible gradients during some of the darker sequences, but typically does the job well. However, the picture is very stable and when the source materials allow for strong detail and a clean presentation, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" shines. While I can't go as far as saying the film is a superb looking picture on the Blu-ray format, it is an above average representation of a picture that is nearly forty years old. If a cleaner print would have been used to master the film, it could have been a true sight to behold.

Audio:

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is presented onto Blu-ray with a brand new English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio soundtrack that sounds fairly good given the vintage of the film, but it hardly does the high definition sound format any justice as the mix is decidedly front-heavy with little to no usage of the rear surround channels and .1 LFE subwoofer channel. Purists will enjoy the English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono soundtrack and that option exists for Spanish and French language listeners as well. Comparing the multi-channel surround mix to the basic mono mix does show that the new soundtrack has some decent movement across the front channels. I noticed a few moments of bleed into the rears from the Burt Bacharach score and felt that BJ Thomas' song "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sounded fantastic. I was almost moved to rushing out and trying to find a CD from the nearly forgotten artist. The mix is technically sound and is quite clean with easily intelligible dialogue that never once wavers. While the film doesn't have much presence beyond the front speakers, it is nicely done and sounds clean throughout.

Extras:

The supplements of the Blu-ray release are quite lengthy and culled from a previous DVD special edition release. The disc does not feature all of the materials from that release, but the important bits are present and accountable for. Two commentary tracks begin the bonus materials. The first commentary track is presented ‘Criterion Style' and the Commentary by Director George Roy Hill, Lyricist Hal David, Documentary Director Robert Crawford Jr. and Cinematographer Conrad Hall is an edited together piece that presents a solid amount of material. Everybody chips in to say something and fans of the film should be quite pleased with the final effort. The second Commentary by Screenwriter William Oldman is a dry affair that is heavily detailed, but tedious to sit through. Oldman does dive into the details and differences between fact and fiction, but he is just not a talented enough orator to make this a two hour listen I wanted to complete.

Two lengthy featurettes are also included. The documentary titled All of What Follows is True: The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (35:29) features screenwriter William Goldman, stars Paul Newman, Katharine Ross and Robert Redford along with former Fox executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown and a few others as they discuss the making of the film. This solid documentary covers many aspects of the making of the film from genesis to opening weekend and the impact the film has had. The second, The Wild Bunch: The True Tale of Butch & Sundance (25:14) has many of the same personalities return from the first featurette, including museum curator Don Rumus and a number of other historians to debate the validity of the story as they discuss everything from the cliff jump to the bicycle riding. This is narrated by the familiar voice of James Gammon who may best be remembered as the manager of the Cleveland Indians in the two "Major League" films.

The Blu-ray release ends with some minor bits from the previous release. The "Tent" Deleted Scene with Optional Commentary by George Roy Hill (4:06) is a long lost scene that was found and restored that shows Butch, Sundance and Etta watching a motion picture before she is to leave for America. The three get up to leave, but are stopped by a short film on the "Hole-in-the-Wall Gang." Etta continues to leave while Butch and Sundance are horrified by how they are depicted. This mirrors the events in the film as Etta leaves before their deaths on screen, as she left Bolivia to avoid witnessing their eventual deaths. The audio for this track was never found so the deleted scene is subtitled. The Theatrical Trailers contain the films teaser trailer and two theatrical trailers. All-in-all, this is a nice set of features, but I would have liked a music video for "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head" or a karaoke track of the song.

Closing:

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is a film that is often overlooked when it comes to the classic films of the Western genre. Robert Redford and Paul Newman show why they are Hollywood legends in their portrayals of legendary outlaws and the film serves as a blueprint for the modern ‘buddy film.' While the picture does take its liberties with historical events, it depicts the two men as they were perceived to be. The movie is both entertaining and classic. The Blu-ray release of the film is hindered by its vintage and some aged source materials. The picture quality suffers with a dirty and sometimes decrepit looking source print and DTS HD is overkill for audio as this is a front-heavy mix that is closer to mono sound than it is multi-channel surround. The supplements are pulled together from the best bits of the previous DVD release. I must admit that I feel all of the previous pieces of value-added content should have made the migration to Blu-ray and this BD-50 platter and while "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is a nice step up in technology over the previous DVD release, the omission of bonus materials could have one questioning if it is a worthwhile step up on Blu-ray and whether or not the format is delivering on all of its promises.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
6
Extras
7
Film Value
8