Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bikes in Cinema - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

"Meet the future."

With those words, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) takes Etta Place (Katharine Ross) for a ride on his new bicycle in one of the most memorable scenes from the classic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"Raindrops keep fallin' on my head. . ."
Made in 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bucks many of the typical conventions of Hollywood Westerns. For one thing, it is in many ways as much of a "Buddy Flick" as it is a Western. It's humorous without really being a comedy. And it features an anachronistic contemporary pop soundtrack -- most notably the Burt Bacharach song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" sung by B.J. Thomas, which plays through the whole bicycle sequence in the film.

Far from being just a trite musical break from the film's plot about two of history's most famous outlaws, however, the bicycle scene is actually a pretty fantastic visual metaphor about the old ways of the Wild West giving way to the modern age. In fact, three times in the film, the bicycle is referred to as "the future," and what a fitting symbol of the future it was!

To get some context, it can be helpful to know a bit about the real Butch and Sundance, and the time in which they lived.

Butch Cassidy was born Robert Leroy Parker in 1866 to a poor Mormon family in Utah. Possibly to avoid bringing shame to his family, he changed his name. He was called "Butch," likely because he spent some time working in a butcher's shop, and took "Cassidy" after an early acquaintance named Mike Cassidy, who had a reputation for stealing cattle. The Sundance Kid's real name was Harry Longabaugh. Born in 1867 in Pennsylvania, he got his nickname after he was arrested in his teens for stealing a horse in Sundance, Wyoming. As part of an outlaw band known as the Wild Bunch, they had a long-running crime spree of bank and train robberies in the 1880s and '90s.

Where the plot of the famous film begins, it is actually near the end of the Wild Bunch days, in the late 1890s, just on the cusp of the 20th century. At this point in the story, after years of successful robberies, and tremendous fame that came through countless newspaper reports and sensationalist pulp publications, more dogged law enforcement strategies were starting to close in on Butch, Sundance, and the Wild Bunch, forcing them to go separate ways.

In the true-life version of the events, the railroads for many years had little recourse to stopping train robberies, apart from loosely organized posses raised by local sheriffs after-the-fact to try to find the culprits who could easily disappear into the "Hole in the Wall" or somewhere else along the outlaw trail. But by the end of the 1890s, the railroad companies contracted with independent police and investigation companies - the most famous of which was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

The Pinkerton's outfitted special train cars with horses and highly-trained and dedicated agents, ready to be dispatched quickly in the event of a train robbery. Although the Pinkerton's aren't mentioned directly, a scene in the film portrays just such a train being dispatched after a robbery where the Wild Bunch blows a train car to splinters with dynamite. Agents in the film version then pursue Butch and Sundance relentlessly for several days and nights, with the outlaw pair continually looking over their shoulders asking, "Who ARE those guys?"

The technique that really helped lead to the end of the Wild Bunch, though, was the practice of recording and tracking the serial numbers on the stolen money. Tracking those serial numbers and following the money trail helped lead the Pinkertons to several members of the gang. In the real-life story, bills from the dynamited rail car (yes, that actually happened) led detectives to a couple members of the Wild Bunch. Some were killed. Others went to prison.

Another element of a more modern world that led to the gang's downfall was this famous photograph:

In Fort Worth, Texas, the Wild Bunch bought expensive new clothes in the latest Eastern fashion, then went to get a group photo taken. The photographer, so pleased with the picture, put it on display in his shop window to attract customers. Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of detectives, one of whom recognized some of the men in the photo. The picture was then reproduced and turned into numerous posters that were distributed all over the West. Sundance is the character on the far left of the picture, leaning forward slightly. Butch Cassidy is the one on the far right, looking cool and relaxed. The group split up soon afterwards.

In a lot of ways, it was clear that the Old West, or the Wild West, was disappearing - being displaced by a more "Mild" West, spanned by telegraph lines, and attracting "softer," more respectable people moving from the East. The Pinkerton's symbol was an unblinking eye, with the slogan "We Never Sleep." Under that watchful eye, the modern world with its new 20th century law enforcement techniques meant that the kind of crime spree that the real Butch and Sundance enjoyed for so long was quickly coming to an end. With members of their gang dead or captured, and the Old West they knew so well rapidly disappearing, Butch and Sundance left for South America, taking Sundance's girl Etta Place with them.

In the film, this is where the symbolism of the bicycle comes full circle. As the trio prepare to leave for good, Butch ditches the bicycle, saying "The future's all yours, you lousy bicycle." The bicycle -- symbol of the future and the new century -- is rejected as the outlaws head for a place that still resembles the Wild West of the past.

Is it necessary to give a Spoiler Alert warning when talking about a movie that's nearly 50 years old? If so, consider yourself warned.

Sundance and Etta Place, photographed in New York in 1901
where they stopped for a visit before boarding a steamship
bound for Argentina.
In the movie, Butch, Sundance, and Etta go to Bolivia where they enjoy a new crime spree, robbing banks and gaining notoriety as "Los Bandidos Yanquis." In reality, the trio first went to Argentina and apparently attempted to live a reputable life as cattle ranchers until the Pinkerton detectives tracked them down, prompting them to cross over to Bolivia and renew their bank robbing ways.

Somewhere between Argentina and Bolivia, Etta Place left the pair and disappeared forever. Nobody knows what happened to her, or even if that was her real name (it likely wasn't). There are a few theories or legends about her identity and eventual whereabouts - at least one of which has her returning to the U.S. and living well into the 1950s, but there's nothing provable and it's all just speculation.

Likewise, there are some questions about the last days of Butch and Sundance. The conventional story, which is played up in the movie, is that they were tracked down by Bolivian authorities in 1908, surrounded, and killed in a blaze of gunfire. The real-life story is not quite as Hollywood-glorious as the movie version. though. It's true that the real Butch and Sundance were involved in a deadly gunfight with Bolivian authorities, but they are believed by historians to have died by self-inflicted gunshot wounds when their desire for escape proved hopeless. Then again, the two Yanquis who were killed in Bolivia were never positively identified, and only assumed to be the famous American outlaws. That uncertainty, along with the nostalgia and Romanticism of the Wild West, led many to speculate that the American bank robbers killed in Bolivia were not actually Butch and Sundance - and that the famous duo returned to the U.S. and lived out their lives under new identities.

A bit of trivia about the film:

The Wild Bunch in the movie is called the "Hole in the Wall" gang. The reason the group's name was changed was that another Western film was in production at about the same time as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That film was Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. So the name of Butch and Sundance's gang was changed to avoid confusion. "Hole in the Wall" was the name of one of their favorite hideouts.

The role of the Sundance Kid was originally meant to go to Steve McQueen, but disagreements about who would get top billing led to McQueen passing on it. Robert Redford was nowhere near as famous, having mainly been a T.V. actor (he once appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone). Redford had no problem taking second billing to Newman - but the film would launch him overnight to Newman's superstar status.

Robert Redford opted to do some of his own stunts in the film, including a famous one where he runs along the top of the cars of a moving train, jumping across the gap from one car to the next. Paul Newman was angry at him for doing it because he didn't want to lose his co-star.

Paul Newman also did some stunts for the film. The trick riding in the famous bike scene was supposed to be done by a stunt-double, but Newman turned out to be a better bike rider.


  1. That was great. I enjoyed remembering that movie. Thanks.

  2. Fun fact: today (18 August)is Robert Redford's birthday.

  3. BCSD was indeed a great movie. How could anybody not love it?

    I think your analysis of the role the bicycle plays in the movie is spot-on. It's interesting to think that the bicycle came along late in the Industrial Revolution and more or less coincided with the birth of photography and other technological developments. The bicycle had its heyday in the 1890's, the time when film ("moving pictures") was born.

    Although it doesn't have any bicycle scenes in it, a related movie (to me, anyway) is "The Grey Fox". It came out in 1981, if I recall correctly, and thus can be called one of the last westerns. Like BCSD, it's really a movie about how the "Old West" was changing, and what "the future" could mean. It's also one of the most beautifully photographed films I've seen.

  4. I thought maybe you'd go further, based on the title, but no matter.

    This came immediately to mind. TV not cinema, but an early example of what happens when you give actors and producers enough money and time to do stuff really well.

    Deadwood is a fantastic, if decidedly R rated show, assuming you like the old west.

    Strong language warning, but the character you meet first, on the deck above, is Al Swearingen, and likely one of the finest examples of a leading man you love to hate, and hate to love, in modern TV.

  5. You might be interested in the first season of "The Knick", which features a Rambler bicycle in numerous episodes...


  6. The scene of Butch and Sundance jumping from the cliff into the water (The Kid's admission that he can't swim met with Butch's pointed rejoinder that the fall will probably kill him) was filmed just north of where I live in Durango, CO, at Baker Bridge and into the Animas River. Though the stunt was filmed there the next scene was stage on a Hollywood lot, a long leap indeed.

  7. I rode that black bike with chrome handlebars for a few seconds in 1971. I worked the big 20th Century Fox liquidation auction by Sotheby Park Benet in Los Angeles. I took the auctioned items from the stage to the holding area awaiting the winning bidders. I rode it the short distance much to the dismay of the winning bidder actor Michael pollack who came over to see it.

  8. That's such a great movie. I should watch it again.