I first saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the theaters during its 1974 re-release. It made quite an impression on the 10-year-old me at the time, since it was funny, colorful, exciting, and action-packed, but most of all because it had a totally unexpected ending. I left the theater stunned, feeling like I'd been kicked in the gut. It was on the way home that it dawned on me that movies could affect a person. Viewing a film isn't always just a passive way to pass the time.
Now, nearly 35 years later, the movie is still impressive and fun. The classic buddy film, it has aged very well in no small part to William Goldman's smart script and George Roy Hill's creative and spot-on direction. 20th Century Fox has released the film on Blu-ray, and while it is better than its SD DVD counterpart, both the transfer and audio are fairly mediocre.
Based (loosely) on the lives and exploits of two real-life outlaws, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) is the leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang. Along with his partner the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) and the rest of his gang Butch plans a daring robbery: to hold up the Union Pacific Flyer on both its trip out west AND on the return trip. They figure, correctly, that the corporate honchos will assume the return trip would be safer, the train already having been robbed and "predisastered" to steal a phrase from The World According to Garp.
The scheme goes according to plan (mostly), and on the second hold-up the train is full of cash. Two hold-ups in such a short time are more than the owner of the line is willing to stand for. He hires a group of trackers and lawmen, the best there is, to hunt down the pair no matter what the expense.
This is one of those cases where everything comes together perfectly and a really great movie is created. The driving force of the film is the witty banter between Butch and Sundance, and their close relationship. One of the few comic-westerns that actually works, the comedy never gets so silly as to make the film unrealistic, but the film still has some laugh-out-loud moments.
The chemistry between Newman and Redford is great too. The banter rolls off their tongues effortlessly and they treat each other like life-long buddies.
Finally the direction is unique and superb. Hill takes some chances with this film, from the sepia-toned opening scenes to the music video-like interlude in the middle and the inspired ending shot, and they all miraculously work. The film flows well and doesn't get bogged down or awkward. Watching the movie it's easy to connect with the two charming though flawed people, and that's what makes this such a well regarded film.
The Blu-ray Disc:
I was hoping to report that this classic western film looked just as good as some of the other oaters that have been released on Blu-ray, such as The Searchers or Rio Bravo. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. This 2.35:1 MPEG-2 encoded image does look better than the SD version of this film, but it isn't up to the standard set by other HD discs. The main problem is the print that was used for the transfer wasn't in pristine shape. There's more that a few spots and specks through the films running time, and grain is a present to a larger degree than I would have expected. The colors look nice, though some of them have been boosted a bit too much, the train engineer's uniform looked a little too blue but that's a minor consideration. The blacks weren't that great, with some areas not being as inky and dark as they could.
On the positive note, a side-by-side comparison with an earlier release
shows that this HD version has significantly better detail. The grooves
in Sundance's corduroy jacket in the beginning sepia-toned section stood
out better, and it's clear that the man who plants the dynamite to blow
up the Union Pacific train is wearing a pin-striped coat. The lines
are tighter and better defined than the SD counterpart.
Unfortunately the audio wasn't too impressive either. Fox includes the original mono soundtrack, which I'm glad they did, along with a new DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit). The DTS track didn't have the enveloping sound that I was hoping. There was a few times when the rears kicked in, when a train was going by for example, but overall this was a very front-heavy mix that wasn't nearly as impressive as was hoping. The bass track was fairly anemic too; the explosions where the train cars were blown up, for example, really lacked punch and failed to shake the windows like many impressive tracks do. Again, this isn't horrible, but it's not remarkable either.
Once again, a Blu-ray disc doesn't port over all of the extras from its SD counterpart. *sigh* What are you gonna do? Luckily, most of the best bonus material has been ported over. First off there's two commentary tracks, the first by Director George Roy Hill, Lyricist Hal David, Documentary Director Robert Crawford Jr. and Cinematographer Conrad Hall, the second by writer William Goldman. Both of these are pieced together affairs with lengthy gaps of silence, but they both had some interesting moments. I greatly preferred Goldman's track and though it is dry in parts and Goldman comes across as crotchety, he does have a lot of interesting things to say about Hollywood, film writing, and the process of getting a film on screen.
The first featurette (of two, both in HD) is All of What Follows is True: The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This 35 minute behind the scenes piece was made in 2005 and features the stars and crew of the film who discuss how the movie was made and its place in cinema history.
I was more interested in the second featurette, the 25-minute long The Wild Bunch: The Fact vs. Fiction of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In this show various historians and scholars discuss the real Butch and Sundance and compare their history to Hollywood's version.
The extras section is rounded out with a deleted scene with optional commentary by the director and some trailers.
With a tight and well written script, impeccable direction and wonderful performances by the leads, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a classic western and an enjoyable buddy flick. While this Blu-ray disc looks better than the early SD releases, the transfer doesn't hit a home run. Still worth watching and owning however, this disc gets a light recommendation.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.