Review: Butch and Sundance: The Early Days

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

There are undeniable similarities between Butch and Sundance: The Early Days and Richard Lester’s reworking of popular mythology, Robin and Marian. The earlier film, written by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman’s brother James, contained several seemingly deliberate takeoffs on Butch and Sundance in the dialogue, misadventures, characterization and relationship of Robin and Little John. In Butch and Sundance: The Early Days we encounter the same kind of buddy-comedy once again, with the two young men (Tom Berenger, William Katt) consistently rejecting heterosexual love in favor of their own interdependence. The departure from Butch Cassidy’s two little sons is much harder for Butch than the farewell to his wife (Jill Eikenberry); and there is a scene in which Butch and Sundance—not Butch and Mary—are treated as the boys’ parents. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days also shares with Robin and Marian an emphasis (generally uncharacteristic of Lester) on landscape to delineate character. Lester and László Kovács create the film’s best moments out of such memorable phenomena as the sand-palace mesas among which Butch first proposes partnership to the Kid (then walks from one edge of a mesa to the other, and asks, silhouetted in longshot, “How do I get outta here?”); the snowdrifts among which the Butch-Sundance relationship becomes cemented in a tradeoff of heroic sacrifices, and behind which they gradually disappear in a visual denial of the heroic stature they sought to achieve by bringing diphtheria serum into an infected area; or the floodwaters that make a creek out of the main street of Butch’s hometown, where Sundance faces the trauma of killing his first human being.

For all that, though, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days reminds me most, in the Lester oeuvre, of The Three Musketeers—a lighthearted film that never let us forget it was, at core, a comic look at serious people in serious situations. There is much of The Three Musketeers in the way Butch and Sundance shoot all kinds of things but nary a single person in an impossibly madcap saloon fracas; or the way another side of their life together is suggested in Sundance’s line about “getting sick of all this fun.” The sense of doom in Sheriff Bledsoe’s assertion that “there’s more law now than ever before” isn’t borne up in the film, in which Butch and the Kid effortlessly avoid justice, even in the person of a youthful Joe LeFors (Peter Weller). The sheriff’s ominous line works only as a reference to the LeFors superposse’s dogged pursuit of Butch and Sundance in the 1969 George Roy Hill film. So this lighthearted, episodic comedy is never unified by a sense of larger importance; its weight is very much that of The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, largely competent fluff until transformed by the appearance of The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days cries out for the same kind of sequel, and it’s just a shame that Lester can’t erase George Roy Hill’s work and make it himself.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS
Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: Allan Burns, after characters created by William Goldman. Cinematography: László Kovács. Production design: Brian Eatwell. Editing: Antony Gibbs. Music: Patrick Williams. Executive producer: William Goldman.
The players: Tom Berenger, William Katt, Jeff Corey, John Schuck, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Weller, Michael C. Gwynne, Brian Dennehy, Jill Eikenberry, Arthur Hill.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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