Monday, June 12, 2006
  DVD Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - The Ultimate Collector's Edition

If you've seen and enjoyed the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then simply opening the collector's edition DVD is bound to make you smile. As you slide the plastic DVD case out of the cardboard slip case, you see that the image on the front of the plastic case is the still frame. Fans of the film know what I mean. It's adequate to refer to it as THE still frame, that one iconic and unforgettable image from the movie when the camera simply freezes, one image locked in place before the viewer. The sound, however, continues... leaving the viewer to decide for himself what's actually going on in the story. The conclusion that most viewers draw is that something inevitable has happened. Staring at that unforgettable still image, though, leaves a world of possibilities open in the back of your mind.

That's really what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is about: Possibilities. Choices and potential; some roads not taken, others ridden to hell and back. It's a story about two men willing to try anything for success... and the film itself is the document of a movie director who was willing to stick his neck as far out there as his main characters were. On the surface, this movie is a western. But when it hit theaters in 1969, nobody had seen a western like this one. Director George Roy Hill took some amazing chances with this film.

For instance, the story itself radically changes directions half-way through, sending the heroes into circumstances so different from what's come before that it's almost like two different movies. It's rare that a movie can shift like that without falling apart. Full Metal Jacket pulls it off. In a different way, so does Alien. And, by making a story shift like no Western before had ever made, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled off that switch with amazing subtlety.

Hill's decisions regarding the movie's musical soundtrack were surprising for 1969, too. About half an hour in, the movie basically stops for an interlude that amounts to the world's first music video. Who'd ever seen such a thing in 1969? Now, it's a given. Today, when you see a movie, you just know that the soundtrack's hit single is going to be featured prominently in a scene of it's own. George Roy Hill invinted that technique in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What's more, this is one of the few movies that does it seemlessly.

It's also a buddy movie. In fact, it's fair to call it the first buddy movie, the template for all the movies like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours and Midnight Run that followed it. Each of those movies is more or less a success on it's own merits... but it's fair to say that they all borrow a little something from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Of course, the main characters of this film are real, historical outlaws from the old west. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really existed, really robbed trains, really robbed banks, and really high-tailed it to South America once the heat was on... just like their characters do in the movie. Of course, the movie still finds a way to make them heroes instead of villains... even if the real outlaws didn't share their movie counterparts' leading-man looks:

In this collector's DVD set, the movie itself is as much fun as ever. Lines you've heard before retain their freshness and humor. The on-screen chemistry between Redford and Newman may be the most natural the screen has ever seen. Supporting parts by Katharine Ross, Jeff Corey, and Strother Martin are still fun to watch... even if Martin's is still irritatingly brief. Strother Martin was one of the best, most enjoyable character actors ever, and it's always annoyed me that he passes through this film in the blink of an eye. The brevity of Martin's role is still my major complaint with the movie itself. The rest of it is as enjoyable as ever. The gunfights are still gripping, the scenery is still beautiful. In short, the movie still works.

If I have a complaint with the version of the film present in this collection, it's the absence of a new 5.1 Dolby or DTS soundtrack. It still sounds fine in the standard stereo, but these collector's editions usually offer something for the audiophile as well, and this one didn't.

For major fans of the film, this collector's edition is really worth looking for. A number of special features are included, including documentaries about the making of the movie, a surprising amount of interview footage with the stars and principles, and, best of all, a twenty-five minute documentary about the real Butch and Sundance. That documentary thrilled me to no end, especially with regard to how much of the movie it revealed to be factual. For instance, there really was a railroad employee named Woodcock who really did refuse to leave the train, and really did stay in while it was dynamited on more than one occasion. I always assumed that was a comic exaggeration. Knowing that the friendly-but-adversarial relationship between Woodcock and Cassidy was real added to my enjoyment of the film. Knowing that Butch usually really did miscalculate with the dynamite was fun to find out, too. The documentary also includes information about famous scenes such as the river jump, the fight between Butch and Harvey Logan, the super-posse lead by Joe LeFors. How much of it was real and how much of it was fiction? You'll be as amazed as I was to find out.

And you'll be amazed by the new footage when you see how much Redford and Newman have aged:

Has it really been thirty-six years? I guess it has.

The actors might be showing their age, but their classic film isn't a bit worse for wear.

I'd write longer but I have to run out and buy the special DVD....
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