William Goldman’s Western Cowards

‘Butch Cassidy’ and Running From a Fight

When people talk about the revisionist western, they always want you to know that here, finally, Hollywood got the West right. The real west, they always say, not that Randolph Scott nonsense where good guys wear white hats and bad guys where black hats.

By the real West, they usually mean more graphic violence, andmore swearing, because the real West was, if nothing else, R-rated. When screenwriter William Goldman died earlier this month, I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again, his entry in the revisionist western catalog.  An original script of Goldman’s, it came out in the US in 1969 alongside Peckingpah’s The Wild Bunch and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Those movies are what people generally mean when they think of a revisionist western. They feature amoral, ultraviolent anti-heroes as protagonists, who were, apparently, reflective of an increasingly violent, amoral time (Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, etc). And maybe so.

Goldman’s movie is equally revisionist, but for reasons that are purely Goldman. His leisurely first act, where we meet Butch (Paul Newman), the idea man, and Sundance (Robert Redford), the gunslinger, has them rejoining Butch’s Hole in the Wall Gang for a train robbery, which goes well. Then they meet up with the woman they both love, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), and we endure Newman and Ross riding a bicycle over BJ Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Where Peckingpah shoots his Gatling gun spatter-violence in slow motion, and Leone has Henry Fonda gun down a family, Goldman’s Butch blows a train car to smithereens with too much dynamite that only sends the characters flying backwards onto their butts. As money from the blown safe floats down around them, Sundance asks, in one of the biggest laugh lines ever spoken in a western, “Sure you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” Even the guy in the railroad car that got blown up returns a few scenes later when Butch and Sundance rob him again, and then he’s just bandaged up, like Daffy Duck after an Elmer Fudd shotgun blast to the face.

No, it’s not the violence. And it’s not that they’re outlaws, as movie westerns have always romanticized gunmen, back to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). No, Goldman’s real revision of the western comes after they rob the same train again. A second train pulls up, and a four lawmen posse charge out on horseback. Right away, Butch knows something’s wrong. These guys are dangerous. He orders his gang to leave the money and run. Those that don’t listen get killed, easily shot down by these marksmen.

Butch and Sundance head for the hills. They run and run, only stopping to look over their shoulders and ask, “Who are those guys?” And this is the great revisionist moment William Goldman brought to the American western. Our two western heroes, or anti-heroes, or whatever you want to call them, spend the rest of the movie running away from a fight. No, they’re not going to meet anybody on Main Street at high noon, or at the OK corral, or settle it like men.

If there’s a precedent for Butch and Sundance, it’s not John Wayne or Gary Cooper so much as a Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road films. Like Bing, Butch is a conniver, constantly talking his partner into one scam after the next, and both (sort of) vie for the same woman. As the four horseman gain on Butch and Sundance, director George Roy Hill layers them into the soundtrack like a thundering herd, a menacing stampede always just over the last hill.

Goldman’s story isn’t big on plot. It’s all character comedy and one situation. That is, Butch and Sundance running away from those guys. Butch, Sundance, and Etta run to New York and then down to Bolivia, where they figure it will be easier to rob South Americans. Turns out it’s not, but Butch is often wrong.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid definitely fits the western genre.But rather than get darker, a la Peckingpah or Leone, Goldman’s sensibility has a lot more to do with Paddy Chayevsky’s The Americanization of Emily or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. After World War 2 and Korea (Goldman served as an army typist from 1952-54), there was definitely a desire among vets to expose fake heroics, movie heroics especially, for what they are. In westerns, heroes always face down the bad guy, or the good guy, depending.  And Goldman violated that sacred rule.“Every studio but one rejected it,” he recalled years later, “The studio head said, ‘Well, I’ll buy it if they don’t go to South America.’ I said, ‘But they went there!’ He said, ‘I don’t give a shit. All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.’”

No, he don’t. But Butch and Sundance do. Like Chayevsky’s Lt. Commander Madison (James Garner), and Heller’s Yosarian (Alan Arkin in the movie), both self-proclaimed cowards (more like survivors, really), Butch and Sundance would rather live another day then face down an enemy they can’t beat, no matter how nobly they go down.

Scaling down the movie hero to human dimensions is something Goldman excelled at, and it made his characters indelible. Dustin Hoffman’s mousy Thomas “Babe” Levy in Marathon Man, Redford and Hoffman’s somewhat slippery Woodward and Bernstein, two junior reporters up against the Nixon White House in All the President’s Men, or the allied forces of A Bridge Too Far, in which a botched military operation in the Netherlands leaves the proud soldiers we meet at the beginning of the film gradually reduced to their basic humanity as the Germans defeat, kill, and capture them.

Goldman’s movies are full of such heroes. Eventually, in South America, surrounded by the Bolivian Army, Butch and Sundance die a very 1960s death, outmatched and outgunned by the establishment, a la Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and The Wild Bunch. They go out guns blazing, finally, but it’s not like Goldman gave them a choice.


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Ben Schwartz

Ben Schwartz has written for Billy Crystal, David Letterman, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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