“Most of what follows is true,” reads the final opening-title card of director George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. To craft this hybrid of untraditional plotting, contemporary humor and homage to the great outlaws of the American West, screenwriter William Goldman spent several years researching the real Butch, Sundance and their Hole in the Wall Gang, who were responsible for a notorious rash of thefts throughout the American Southwest and South America in the late 1800s.
Mixing fact and fiction, this modern take on the Western genre presents a wily and affable Butch (Paul Newman) and his no-nonsense sidekick, Sundance (Robert Redford), as they try to keep up with changing times. When the gang switches gears from robbing banks to robbing trains, they incite the fury of bank manager E.H. Herriman, who vows to destroy them. He makes good on his threat, and soon only Butch and Sundance are left. As the two are tracked across the country by Herriman’s relentless posse, they drop in on their mutual lady friend, schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross), and ask if she’d like to make a fresh start with them in Bolivia. The freewheeling, hopeful threesome heads off to South America while the posse lurks, patiently waiting to find the two outlaws.
When Hill was putting together the team for Butch Cassidy, the studio brass at 20th Century Fox raised eyebrows over two of his bold decisions: casting Redford as Sundance and hiring Conrad Hall, ASC, as the director of photography. The executives deemed Redford too preppie and young for the role — they wanted an uncooperative Steve McQueen instead — and only relented after Newman came in to vouch for his friend. And after viewing Hall’s lush anamorphic work on the Western The Professionals (1966), the studio agreed to Hill’s choice of cinematographer. Ironically, Butch Cassidy made Redford a huge star, and Hall won an Academy Award for crafting the film’s richly layered images.
Fox Home Video recently released this Blu-ray edition of Butch Cassidy, and in one of the supplements (borrowed from an earlier home-video release), Hall says he tried to show the actors’ eyes as the “focal point of acting to help create the mood and feeling” in particular shots. He also shares his exuberance for doing some of his own operating and notes that he was given incredible vistas to work with on location in Utah, Colorado and Mexico.
Butch Cassidy pays tribute to old silent Westerns with its opening sepia-toned sequences, and that look soon transforms into vistas that are alive with nature’s vibrant colors. Although this transfer appears more faithful to the film’s color balances than the standard-definition DVDs issued in 2000 and 2006, it’s unfortunate that better source materials were not used; a distracting level of grain is evident periodically and a steady deterioration of blacks is often noticeable in particularly contrasty sequences. Overall, it’s a disappointing transfer compared to other recent HD transfers of titles from the same era. The DTS 5.1 sound mix lacks distinction from the included mono mix but does manage to give some flash to music cues and gunshots.
The supplemental features combine elements from previous home-video releases but also leave out many of the extras those platters offered. The most interesting supplement, though slightly choppy, is the audio commentary shared by Hill, Hall, documentary filmmaker Robert Crawford and lyricist Hal David, which originally appeared on the 1994 laserdisc release. A second audio commentary, borrowed from the 2006 DVD, features Goldman.
There are two additional supplements borrowed from the 2006 DVD: a 36-minute documentary featuring interviews with the principal cast members, Goldman, Crawford, composer Burt Bacharach and others; and a 25-minute piece on the history of the real Butch and Sundance. Borrowed from the 2000 DVD is a pivotal outtake with Hill’s commentary. Also featured are the picture’s three theatrical trailers.
The Old West has seldom looked as rich and colorful is it does in Butch Cassidy, thanks to Hall’s memorable efforts. Though this Blu-ray edition is not as crisp or complete as it could have been, fans can hold onto those older DVDs to enjoy the extensive supplements not found in this package.