Hope is a hell of a hallucinogen. My brain, at least, allows me to think about a future amidst an array of outcomes, one after the other answering the question, “What if this goes right?” Hope allows for aspirations; it allows us to forge a path forward that isn’t totally entropic. Some of our friends and colleagues traffic in swimming upstream, brimming with positivity for a perfect future. We all know these people—and we’re disappointed by them. Too much hope is toxic. We need darkness to appreciate the light and we need to ween ourselves off expecting things to be one way when they’re the other way.
This is how watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feels, it’s a clever trick, and it’s certainly on purpose. Our experience as an audience feels totally orthogonal to the experiences of titular Butch and his partner, Sundance. Redford and Newman gallop together toward futility, dragging the audience along, tied by the ankle behind their (dead) horse. It’s a subtle asymmetry, because of the character/actors’ sparkling charisma. We almost believe that they’ll survive anything, no matter how wacky or odds-against. It’s what makes this movie magical and spiritually different from its natural successor, 1991’s Thelma and Louise, which sells its nihilism and feminism to great effect. That’s not this.
In both cases, the motif works because we’re programmed to seek thrill but not accept its consequence. It’s also why we watch narrative fiction, to escape from our defined reality into worlds where we believe the rules might be different or contradictory. The most ambitious movies and television seek to subvert this alternative programming, too. The Sopranos allows its audience into the mind of a vicious human with deep, unresolved emotional trauma. Which of these traits reflects our desire for fiction and/or truth? 1969’s winner, Midnight Cowboy, dumps its audience into a torrid New York—opening us up to a world we’ve maybe grazed but never dived into. Why do we want to watch people suffer and why do we reward it? It’s the other, scary side of hope: we hope others’ problems don’t befall us.
Butch Cassidy‘s airy adventure reflects its ambivalent tone. Its point of view is not carefree or careless. We’re genuinely meant to care what happens to our rapscallions, and we’re led to believe that they might live, starting anew in another country. But Butch Cassidy also makes sure to double down on its characterizations, because of course changing locations does not absolve these men of their behaviors, past, and future. Instead, it emboldens them. Past performance has shown them that hopping from place to place has always worked to blank their slates. But the past isn’t erased. We learn that it’s cached. It’s our actions and our behaviors taken together, over a lifetime, that gives us the ability to stake the beacon of hope we need to keep going. Sometimes the light just doesn’t turn on and sometimes it only flickers. But, boy, is the flicker worth it.
What a year, 1969. Midnight Cowboy would likely win Best Picture 9 times from 10, but there’s always the lingering Z and dark horses, Anne of A Thousand Days and Hello, Dolly!. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a wild card that would occasionally win in a different circumstance, like the boys themselves.