It’s perhaps surprising to think that in the same year marked by landmark events such as the lunar landing and Woodstock, that the most popular film was one of the most traditional and iconic genres of American cinema: the western.
In 1969 the biggest movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Earning US$100 million in the US alone, its takings more than doubled the two films that finished in second and third place (Midnight Cowboy and The Love Bug) combined.
If you consider that the astronauts who flew to the Moon were paid an annual salary of $17,000, you quickly realise the film’s ’69 tally must be worth many times this figure in today’s money.
With its charismatic stars in screen veteran Paul Newman and handsome newcomer Robert Redford, clever dialogue, beautiful vistas, and simple but propulsive plot, the film obviously struck a chord with mainstream audiences.
Though it might best be described as escapist, there is a bitter-sweet note as well, and a reminder of life’s impermanence. That’s evident in the film’s denouement, but also its very format. By 1969 the cowboy film and small-screen variant (Gunsmoke, Big Valley, Rawhide, F-Troop, Bonanza) had more or less had its heyday and moseyed off into the sunset.*
The plot is a fairly simple one: Butch leads the Hole in the Wall Gang, a nefarious outfit that, as the name implies, uses incendiary means to procure bank assets not their own.
What Butch lacks in firearms skills he more than compensates with guile, charm and pluck.
Sundance meanwhile is a crack shot whose legend precedes him; men shake in their boots when his very name is uttered.
After robbing a particular railroad one too many times, the gang earns the ire of its owner, who sets an all-star posse after them. A chase ensues.
I was surprised when I re-watched this film recently how many montage sequences there are – at least three, including a strange (for a western) interlude where Newman has fun riding around on a bicycle to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. Yet there is no rain to be seen.
Newman and Redford have undeniable on-screen chemistry, and exude effortless cool. Butch and Sundance is a bromance – Lethal Weapon with bank-robber cowboys, Ocean’s Eleven in the Ol’ West.
I first saw the film in the 1970s – about 1977, I think, when both the film and I were eight years old.
I can remember the thrill of seeing something I probably shouldn’t have, the Dillon family travelling from our summer holiday spot in Merimbula to the Pambula Drive-In for the occasion.
Located about seven hours from Melbourne on New South Wales’ south coast, Merimbula was – and is – a summer haven for thousands of Melburnians every year.
We stayed in cabins near Short Point Beach, and spent hours each day swimming, surf-matting and, well, playing.
Because there was no access to TV during our three-week hiatus, my brother, sister and I read books, tossed frisbees, played Totem Tennis and chasey, and contested epic sessions of cards, with Canasta the game of choice. We listened to the radio, collected shells, recovered from our sunburns, and played with friends we saw only at that time of year.
But I think at some point we craved access to pop culture – and if this jones was satisfied by a trip to a drive-in, even better.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was teamed with The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox that night in Pambula (the closest town to Merimbula). The latter film is about a sassy whore played by Goldie Hawn, who outsmarts and out-sasses a crafty old thief of thieves (George Segal). So like Butch and Sundance, totally inappropriate for an eight-year-old.
Films had longer lives in those days. We are talking about an era before video, before the internet, and obviously well before streaming services.
It could take many years before a popular, award-winning film reached TV, and often screenings of these classics were important television events.
I can recall movies such as The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, The Great Escape, and The Sound of Music – all made many years earlier – receiving heavily hyped TV screenings.
These were often introduced by avuncular enthusiastic experts such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins, who contextualised and rhapsodised.
These days, of course, a film is likely to be available for illegal download soon after hitting cinemas. A family would be unlikely to have the experience of seeing an older film together on the big screen – even one observed from behind a windscreen. And that is a pity.
Perhaps the last year of the 60s was ripe for escapist, traditional fare.
After all, the 12 months before, 1968, had been tumultuous indeed.
“It was a year of riots, burning cities, sickening assassinations, and universities forced to close their doors,” writes David Whitehouse in Apollo 11: The Inside Story.
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated in 1968.
In Vietnam, 15,000 US lives – and many more Vietnamese and some Australians – had been lost in a pointless war that had cost US$25 billion to that point.
Little wonder, then, that in 1969 a likeable western charmed audiences into cinemas.
*That said, some fine westerns were made in the 70s and beyond, including iconic fare such as Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Silverado, Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, and Butch and Sundance – The Early Years (OK, I’m kidding about that one – great it is not). Even in 1969 True Grit (the original version starring John Wayne) was released. The genre’s time, however, was definitely on the wane.