'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' is reality inflated to legend. In the hands of director George Roy Hill ('The Sting'), events become exploits. Exploits become Hollywood cinema. And Hollywood cinema becomes... reality.
The Wild West has churned out its fair share of oversized characters memorialized in film and folklore: Wyatt Earp (who survived well into the twentieth century) and Jesse James (who did not) are arguably the most enduring. But the genre has always told such stories primarily in standard, dramatic fashion (with the exception of 1959's 'Alias Jesse James,' in which insurance salesman Bob Hope is mistaken for James). The story of Butch and Sundance, two of the most famous outlaws who ever lived, was reimagined in a revisionist fashion, and it's all the better for it, since the lighthearted way in which its story was told made it one of the biggest hits of the 1960s, and it has since achieved the status of beloved classic.
There's no doubt that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really lived, but there's also no doubt that they didn't live quite the way they're portrayed in this 1969 Best Picture Oscar nominee. ("Not that it matters, but most of it is true!" read the tagline.) For starters, they didn't have William Goldman writing their dialogue, and although Goldman, in his indispensable Hollywood book "Adventures in the Screen Trade," famously criticizes his script by claiming, "The entire enterprise suffers from a case of the cutes," the fact is "the cutes" are what keep the film fresh and enjoyable thirty-five years after its release. Audiences didn't clamor for tickets to see Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a depressing, true-to-life tale of crime, punishment, and capture. They paid to see two larger-than-life stars saddle up, shoot guns, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset.
'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' is a seemingly contradictory pastiche, a sun-drenched, nostalgic biopic of notorious bandits who meet a violent end, a sort of sepia-toned 'Bonnie & Clyde.' It is about the end of an era -- a fictional one, maybe, but one no less important than the real thing. It is an idealized vision of what we imagined, in our shared cultural dreams, that the warm and cozy Old West should have been like. The film isn't funny, per se, or campy; it is merely larger than life. It is unabashed, unapologetic entertainment, the kind of Hollywood reality we love to believe.
The early buzz on this first-ever Blu-ray release of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' has been dreadful. Based on an overseas high-def release, word was to expect the worst -- a feeling not entirely confirmed but hardly refuted by this actual 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer. It's not the completely unmitigated disaster I anticipated, but I certainly can't give it high marks.
The problems are many. The source is poor. The inconsistent grain is not unexpected given the age of the material, but the print is often worn (with instances of dirt, dropouts, and even a few hairs on the film). Blacks are pretty atrocious, with obvious fading (especially on the bottom of the frame) and a washed-out, diffused look. To be fair, the film is flush with soft-focus filters, but compare this to a top-flight remaster of the same vintage such as, say, Universal's 'The Sting,' and the comparison is night and day. Colors are likewise on the faded side, with only a few midnight blues and some bright exteriors having any sparkle. Detail is generally middling, and depth is flat as a board. The MPEG-2 encode is also not a wise choice (even spread over a BD-50 dual-layer disc), with some noise and a few posterization artifacts noticeable. I did find 'Butch Cassidy' at least watchable, but that's faint praise indeed.
Fox offers a new DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) track, plus 1.0 Mono options (192kbps) in English, French and Spanish. I'll give points to the studio for offering a high-res upgrade, but listening to the results, quite frankly they needn't have bothered.
I never once felt I was listening to a surround mix. The rears are simply inactive for the vast majority of the runtime (save for a few echoes on bullets, etc.). Even the front soundstage doesn't offer much stereo separation, with much of it sounding like a mono mix. Dynamics aren't bad for a 1969 film, however, with clean sound and no discernible artifacts. Don't expect deep bass, however, or particularly punchy highs (which can be rather screechy at times). Dialogue is always discernible, so at least that's a plus. That's one of the few comments I can give to this unremarkable mix.
Originally released in a lavish, two-disc standard DVD edition back in 2000, 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' comes to Blu-ray with about half of those same extras intact. Despite the missing pieces (much of it fluff, to be honest), this is still a strong -- if complete -- package. The video has also been (surprisingly) bumped up to 1080i/MPEG-2, although there are no subtitle options that I could find on any of the supplementary material.
'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' is a nostalgic, comfortable Western, but it's also an undeniable a classic. It's merely revisionist comfort food, perhaps, but still delicious. This Blu-ray will certainly strike most as a disappointment -- the video suffers from neglect, the audio is unremarkable, and the lack of many supplements from the previous DVD should irk completists. I'm somewhat lenient given the age of the material, but this is a catalog title that is best left as a rental for all but diehard 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' fans.