[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
There are undeniable similarities between Butch and Sundance: The Early Days and Richard Lesterâ€™s reworking of popular mythology, Robin and Marian. The earlier film, written by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldmanâ€™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 Cassidyâ€™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 Sundanceâ€”not Butch and Maryâ€”are treated as the boysâ€™ 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 LÃ¡szlÃ³ KovÃ¡cs create the filmâ€™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, â€œHow do I get outta here?â€); 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 Butchâ€™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 Musketeersâ€”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 Sundanceâ€™s line about â€œgetting sick of all this fun.â€ The sense of doom in Sheriff Bledsoeâ€™s assertion that â€œthereâ€™s more law now than ever beforeâ€ isnâ€™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 sheriffâ€™s ominous line works only as a reference to the LeFors superposseâ€™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 Queenâ€™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 itâ€™s just a shame that Lester canâ€™t erase George Roy Hillâ€™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: LÃ¡szlÃ³ KovÃ¡cs. 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.