JN: Post Script
SO: Post Script Vol XXIII nr 2 (Winter-Spring 2004); p 33-47
TI: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Sundance Kid: generic dialogue in the western.
AT: Article; Bibliography; Illustrations
Although all film watchers agree that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can be defined within the construct of the Western film genre, scholars such as Michael Dunne argue that Butch Cassidy did more than adhere to the tropes of this genre but served to expand it as well. In his essay “Mikhail Bakhtin and the Sundance Kid: Generic Dialogue in the Western,” Dunne explores a theory known as “Dialogism” in which all films of a specific genre participate in a figurative and literal dialogue through which the definition of the genre is shaped and remolded. He focuses his article specifically around the way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was able to address the ideals of its contemporary audiences into an otherwise more traditional genre.
As Dunne points out, the extraordinary success of Butch Cassidy, during a time period in which the filming of Westerns was on the decline, is the greatest indicator that its filmmakers were able to accomplish something special with their film. Audiences welcomed director George Hills “contemporary variations” on the Western as it “increased the genre’s literacy” and made it more relevant to audiences of the 1960’s and today. Though certain genre conventions such as Sundance’s gun skills and the method of train robbery were conserved, the distinct actions and ideals of Hill’s protagonists are what initiated the changing dialogue between Paul Newman and Robert Redford and other heroes of the Western past. When compared to the honorable Western heroes played by actors like Roy Rogers, Butch and Sundance seem downright dishonest. Yet scenes such as Butch’s “knife fight” with Harvey Logan and Sundance’s apparent “rape” of Etta Place, only make the heroes appear more human allow contemporary audience to relate to them more easily.
Despite Hill’s ability to adapt the Western genre, however, the plot of his film is in many ways a reflection on where the genre itself is headed. Just as the modern world and changing times impinge on Butch and Sundance’s ability to live freely about the countryside, so too do modern times begin to clamp down on the Western genre in its classical sense. Sheriff Ray Bledsoe tells Butch and Sundance, “Your times is over, and you’re gonna die bloody. And all you can do is choose where.” Perhaps Hill felt the same way about films based around the Wild West. Yet instead of choosing “where” the Western film genre would die, Hill created a work that serves as a template for how to bridge the outdated Western genre into modern American cinema. Dunne believes that Hill was able to “transform the generic form…in relation to social change.” Thus, instead of marking the conclusion of the “dialogue” with the Western genre, Butch Cassidy was able to “interrogate it” while producing a relevant “aesthetic experiences” for audiences to come.