Checking in on Butch and Sundance

“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid tosses that specific shard of wry flattery at Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy multiple times over the course of 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In a movie awash in charming, loquacious dialogue from Newman, it’s that laconic delivery from Redford that gets at the film’s core. It’s about unlikely, yet perfect relationships. Yes, in the context of the film, between characters on screen. And for those of us in the Beehive State, the relationship between Utah and filmmaking.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is often referred to as the first postmodern western—the earliest film from the genre with the pacing, aesthetic and character arcs that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 2020 Netflix original. Aaron Sorkin in 2019 said it could be better described as the first modern buddy movie. The relationship between Butch and Sundance as told by legendary screenwriter William Goldman turned the story of a couple waning bank robbers named Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh who were forced to flee to Bolivia into the tale of two charmingly heroic outlaws that launched a thousand imitators.

Newman was a known quantity in 1969, but Redford wasn’t yet an icon. Tightly framed shots of the 33-year-old’s quietly intense gaze changed that. Imagine what would have happened if Steve McQueen hadn’t turned down the role. So it was with Utah as well. If audiences could peel their eyes from the on-screen chemistry between Redford, Newman and Katharine Ross, they’d be drawn to the film’s other star, the backdrop of Utah’s landscape. Butch beats up the would-be usurper of The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang in Zion’s Kolob Canyon. Butch and Etta’s polarizing bicycle-mounted duet was in Grafton near the Virgin River. Imagine what would have happened if they’d filmed in Johnson County, Wyoming where the real gang holed up.

Without “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” is the Utah/US Film Festival ever pulled from obscurity to become an international phenomenon? Does the Utah-based Sundance Institute become the preeminent organization supporting the growth of independent artists? The film may be as old as the moon landing, but it’s every bit as relevant today as it was when it was released. You owe yourself a rewatch, not just for the timeless story and vintage Redford, Newman and Ross performances, but to see Utah get its big break.

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Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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