Since I'm spending most of my days writing about philosophy, I've decided to limit my writing on this blog to the topic of film for a little while. Today, the subject is another one of my favorites, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (soundtrack, funny enough, by Burt Bacharach). The press release of the 1969 film hailed it as "The (Mostly) True Story of the West's Most Charming Outlaws." When the film was released, Redford had just done Barefoot in the Park and Newman had delivered his turn (in one of my top-ten films of all time) as Cool Hand Luke, so these two actors were, in fact, the most charming charmers-- outlaw or otherwise-- at the time.
Westerns are not usually described as "charming" films, nor are they generally funny... which is one of the reasons that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was such a ground-breaking film. In fact, the genre of "Western" only ever received two makeovers as far as I am concerned: first, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, second, with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. That just goes to show you how deeply engrained the tableau of the Western really is in the American psyche... like it or not.
I just want to comment on one theme in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which doesn't occur until about halfway through the film, that is, the idea that outlaws can never "go straight." Not because they don't want to, which Butch and Sundance most definitely did, and not because they are essentially "bad" people, which Butch and Sundance certainly weren't... but because the circumstances of our lives sometimes--nay, most of the time--determine the possibilities that we see available to us. (Full disclosure: my emphasis on this theme is in part a response to Chet's suggestion, in his comment on my There Will Be Blood review, that I believe that human beings are "autonomous subjects" that can be extracted from their "social and economic conditions." Let me go on record as saying that I don't believe that.) As much as I loathe to admit it in my own life, our past decisions (autonomous or otherwise) inevitably serve as pruning mechanisms to the tree of our future possibilities. Sometimes that pruning allows us a set of better and more productive possibilities than would have arisen without the pruning, and other times... well, other times it forces us to choose the "least worst" alternative.
It's true that, in the end, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes off as a martyrs' story. And even though the film ends in that sepia-toned freeze-frame (pictured below) of the two bandidos yanquis heading to their doom, with the nameless voice shouting Fuego!, we're still rooting for them to make it out some way, somehow. And, yet, but... we can't root for them, at least not as long as we remain in the frame of the traditional Western, where bad guys must always get their come-uppance. But unlike the Westerns before it, we were never asked in this film to identify with the lawman or the law... and that is what makes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid revolutionary in the cinematic sense.
Much to my own detriment, admittedly, I've never been one to hold "the lawman" or "the law" in high regard. I'm much more an advocate of, in Derrida's formulation, justice beyond or before the law. (And, to be honest, I'm much more a fan of the kind of complicated sense of "forgiveness" and "redemption" that serve as the implicit themes of Westerns generally, and the explicit themes of Westerns like Unforgiven.) My kind of limited regard for the law, I can attest, will definitely prune one's possibility-tree... and might even land one in jail for more than few hours, as it did to me several years back. But, whatever, I think my particular affection for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes from this love of the lovable outlaw, of whom I know and love many.