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Thursday, May 23, 2024

May 23, 2024: Criminal Duos: Butch & Sundance

[100 years ago this week, the criminal duo who came to be known as Leopold & Loeb set their murderous plan in motion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy L&L and four other criminal duos, leading up to a repeat Guest Post on the genre of true crime!]

On beautifying ugly men and deeds, and why we shouldn’t.

In George Roy Hill’s film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), birthday boy Butch (the nickname of Robert Leroy Parker, one of the late 19th century’s most infamous bank and train robbers) was famously played by Paul Newman; Robert Redford played his partner, Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longabaugh. Newman and Redford were, while unquestionably talented and interesting actors, also two of their respective generations’ most attractive stars, charismatic heartthrobs with marquee movie-star good looks. The same could be said for many of the young men featured in the Young Guns films, of course, from the first film’s Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, and Lou Diamond Phillips to the second film’s additions such as Christian Slater and Balthazar Getty. And in recent years the trend continued with the casting of matinee idol Brad Pitt as Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Such casting choices can no doubt be explained in part by the simple realities that movie stars tend to be good looking, that some of the most famous are also some of the best looking, and that the most famous are often good box-office draws. But if we consider the example of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid specifically, it’s worth noting that it’s not only the titular characters’ physical appearances that have been beautified. The film’s entire tone is light and comic, mostly in the vein of a buddy comedy with (in the famous, ground-breaking musical interlude in particular) the occasional interruption of a romantic comedy as well. There are of course moments of violence and darker turns, but even in the darkest of them—such as (SPOILER alert) the two men’s gun-blazing demise that concludes the film—Hill takes a more upbeat and cheery tone than we might expect. That lightness becomes even more striking when we compare Butch to a film released in the same year and featuring many of the same characters and events: Sam Peckinpah’s dark, hyper-violent The Wild Bunch (1969).

The stylization of violence in Peckinpah’s film isn’t necessarily realistic, and certainly could be seen as exploitative (in a similar critique to that which has been leveled at a filmmaker who learned a lot from Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino). But at the same time, it’s difficult to watch The Wild Bunch and not remember that Butch, Sundance, and their outlaw peers were by and large hardened criminals for whom violence and the threat of it were principal tools and daily realities; a lesson that it’s far easier to forget when we’re watching Newman and Redford smile their movie-star smiles. Similarly, while the casting of Pitt as Jesse James allows the film to make some interesting points about the aging outlaw as a celebrity, it also depicts a man who has survived decades of violent crime and still looks like, well, Brad Pitt. If we’re going to keep telling the stories of American outlaws in our popular culture—and it seems likely that we will—it would help to find ways to include in our portrayals the darkness and ugliness that were central parts of those stories.

Last duo tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other duos you’d highlight?

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