To lose screenwriter William Goldman on Friday was to lose an unimpeachable legend of the silver screen. Most famous for authoring screenplays such as All The Presidents’ Men, cult classic The Princess Bride and underrated war epic A Bridge Too Far, by all accounts Goldman was also a superlative novelist, sportswriter and interpreter of human life, in case the rest of his accomplishments weren’t enough.
But what pains me the most about his death is losing the man who brought us cinema’s greatest tale of male friendship, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which taught me so much about what is to be a brother and to be a friend.
Yes, it does seem instinctively weird to look at a story of two longtime outlaws fleeing the law to increasingly desperate lengths as your model for manhood, but Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid isn’t quite that type of Western. As a man who struggled to make male friends until adulthood, the bond Goldman crafted between the two anti-heroes has stuck with me through life.
If you aren’t familiar, the film follows the two legendary titular outlaws as their crimes eventually catch up to them and force them on the run from a specialist group of lawmen across the West and eventually down to South America where, after initially appearing safe, their luck finally runs out.
It’s an unbelievably tight film without so much as a wasted frame or line, thanks to Goldman’s perfect screenplay and two iconic turns from Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Far from being a testosterone-laced schlockathon of glamourised gunslinger violence, Butch and Sundance is almost entirely about relationships and how far we will go for for those we love.
The film centres on the friendship and dedication between the two - the moral code, unfaltering devotion and the sense of being ‘in it together’ they share. But at its core, the care and emotional availability Butch and Sundance afford each other in their escalatingly dire circumstances is a beacon of male friendship.
Whereas many Westerns feature ruthless strong-and-silent brutes, wise-cracking, sweet-talking trickster Butch and sensitive dead-eye marksman Sundance are two men confident in themselves and each other, accepting of each other’s weaknesses and steadfast in succeeding together, uncompetitively.
A shoutout too to how Goldman’s writes their relationship with Sundance’s partner Etta Place, who faithfully joins the duo on their jaunt to South America and teaches them the Spanish they need to rob Bolivian banks. Etta chooses to leave as the gang’s ultimate fate looms, refusing to watch them die, but neither man questions her or forces her to stay. Neither is threatened by Etta’s wit, intelligence and independence. She is her own woman, and that’s why they love her. The beautiful way Goldman handles the platonic friendship of Etta and Butch, whose shared sharpness probably makes them a better match than the more brutish Sundance, is another subtle piece of brilliance from Goldman in writing men capable of sensitivity.
To my mind there isn’t a purer expression of brotherhood in cinema. The love and devotion between the two pulls at you throughout the film, through their words and their actions but also in what isn’t said. Through each perilous trial and tribulation, there is no doubt Butch and Sundance will stick this out together. They are comrades-in-arms and they are brothers, who would die for each other, and indeed do. Even through their final stand they poke at each other while offering faith and support to the other. Though they both recognise they are facing their end, there’s an unspoken oath.
We live in a climate now where men are, rightly, encouraged to talk more about their insecurities and their struggles. But much before their time, Butch and Sundance’s brotherhood served as a reminder of the good that can come from supportive male friendships, from lifting each other up, and I’m forever grateful to Goldman for that.
May we all have by our sides friends who will rip the shit out of us one minute for not being able to swim, then follow us to Bolivia the next.