On February 11th, PBS debuted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (2014), an American Experience documentary film and the newest installment in its Wild West series. The 1-hour film was directed by John Maggio and produced by Maggio and Josh Gleason. The following is a “snapshot review” of the documentary.

Image – PBS.org
THE BIG IDEAS – Two major ideas were put forward in the documentary. First, Butch Cassidy (real name Robert Leroy Parker) was one of, if not the, smartest outlaw(s) of the Wild West era. Cassidy’s ability to strategize and plan not only a train or bank robbery, but also the escape, put him above any petty criminal inspired by alcohol in the moment. Attendant to his logistical approach, and perhaps a result of his Mormon upbringing, was Cassidy’s aversion to violence. The gang Cassidy led in the late 19th and early 20th century, a group known as The Wild Bunch, were directed by him not to needlessly take life, even if it left witnesses.

The second major idea was that Cassidy and Sundance (real name Harry Longabaugh) were effectively outlaws running out of time and space in the American West. The growing technological and methodical reach of law enforcement was being put to use by the very targets of Cassidy – the banks, railway and express companies, and corporate ranchers. Cassidy was hurting a corporate bottom line and that capitalist group used their resources to hire the well-developed Pinkerton Detective Agency and to fund “super posses” that would immediately hunt The Wild Bunch after a robbery. It was this encroachment that would force Cassidy, Sundance, and Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, to seek refuge in South America.

SUPPORTING CAST – The documentary drew upon a strong group of Cassidy & Sundance experts to share their views on the outlaws. That group included Thom Hatch, recent author of The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (2013), Paul Hutton, an esteemed Western historian who teaches at the University of New Mexico, and Anne Meadows and Daniel Buck, authors of Digging Up Butch and Sundance (2003 – Revised). Buck offered a great line (and delivery) when discussing the systematic approach being used against Cassidy and Sundance following the Wilcox, Wyoming, train robbery of 1899. Being tracked by the very dollars taken, Buck states, “You know, they’re up against serial numbers, no contest.”

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

LET’S GET TECHNICAL – The documentary opened strongly with a moody re-enactment of the early morning Wilcox robbery of June 2, 1899. The music, composed by Gary Lionelli, provided a haunting accent to the shots of the unaware train with the use of staccato piano notes. Narration of the film was provided by Michael Murray, who also narrated the PBS Wild West documentary Jesse James (2006), thus creating some continuity for fans of the series.

One very effective use of graphic was the almost-3D “relief map” that detailed “The Outlaw Trail”, a 1500 mile-long series of hide-outs and trails from New Mexico to Montana that the outlaws used to evade law enforcement.

Image – PBS.org

MINOR MISFIRES – To this viewer, the lack of any facial close-ups of the actors playing Butch and Sundance was a missed opportunity to create a further connection to their story. Whether the result of directorial choice or the lack of suitable performers, strong actors could have added a personal quality to the history, beyond the photographs of Cassidy and Sundance shown. In the PBS documentary Jesse James, the actors playing Jesse and his brother Frank were used to strong effect in a number of key events; the Gallatin, Missouri, bank robbery of 1869 being one example.

Finally, some small amount of time could have been given to the alternate theories about Cassidy’s fate – the anecdotal stories from friends and family that claimed he did not die in a 1908 shoot-out with Bolivian soliders and returned to the US in the 1920s. Given that the documentary had as one of its major arguments that Cassidy was the smartest of the Wild West outlaws with a Mormon conscience that never left him, it was odd (to this viewer) to see his and Sundance’s fate, to the exclusion of any other explanation, so neatly wrapped up by carelessness and a murder-suicide in Bolivia. Anything is possible with human behavior, but the overall framing of Cassidy by the film made his last actions seem quite uncharacteristic as presented.

All in all, any minor critiques of the documentary could be resolved with simply more time (a longer film). This was a very good effort to present the story of two Western outlaws that continue to have cultural resonance today. 

Further information about the PBS film Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (2014) can be found at this official link: Butch & Sundance.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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