PBS is set to debut a new American Experience documentary film in its well-received Wild West series this coming February. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid will be the public broadcaster’s look into the history and legends associated with Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy), Harry Longabaugh (aka the Sundance Kid) and their Wild Bunch gang. Cassidy was the leader of that gang as it targeted Western banks and trains in the late 19th century. In 1901, with law enforcement and its growing technological reach closing in, Cassidy, Sundance, and Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, left the American West for South America.

Sundance Kid (l) / Butch Cassidy (r) – Image – Time.com

The current historical consensus is that Butch Cassidy (born 1866) and the Sundance Kid (born 1867) died in San Vicente, Bolivia, following a shoot-out with soldiers on November 7th, 1908. The popular Western film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, concludes on that idea. However, there have been arguments made that perhaps at least Cassidy was not one of the two men that died that day. Westernsreboot.com has profiled a recent book on the outlaws that takes a comprehensive look at their story – visit that article at this link: The Last Outlaws.

The resonance of the outlaw standing up to authority is one that continues into the 21st century. As with the mythical treatment of Jesse James, the idea of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has evolved into that of the common man who challenges the might of the corporation. In numerous literary and film treatments, corporate business interests align with supplicant politicians to seek the end of such men. Historically, this is actually true. In the case of Jesse James, then-Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden, with the tacit and monetary support of railroad express companies, effectively conspired to assassinate, thru the hand of gang member Robert Ford, Jesse James prior to any trial for his crimes. Similarly for Cassidy and Sundance, by the start of the 20th century the Union Pacific railroad was offering rewards for the outlaws dead or alive.

By the beginning of the 20th century, working people had come to realize that the monopolistic reach of railroads at that time and the accumulated capital of large banks had the power to oppress citizens be it in the form of exorbitant travel and freight rates or the forced eviction of people from their homes. Western outlaw heroes became an outlet for the feeling of powerlessness on the part of readers and viewers.

It is a good thing that we don’t have politicians today in North America who cater to large corporate interests at the expense of the working citizen, right?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will debut February 11th at 9pm (EST) on PBS. Further information about the broadcaster’s Wild West series can be found at this link: Wild West on PBS.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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