Wednesday, April 13, 2016

This Day in Western History (Outlaw Butch Cassidy Is Born)

Apr. 13, 1866— Robert Leroy Parker was born in Beaver, Utah, the oldest of 13 children in a family of Mormons. That name very likely means nothing to you. But if you’re fascinated by Wild West outlaws—and especially if you’re a film fan—you’ve almost certainly heard of the name he adopted as an adult: Butch Cassidy.

You’d never associate an emotion like guilt with the wry leader of desperadoes depicted in William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But that does indeed appear to have motivated Parker’s decision to use the name by which he has become a legend: He did not want his mother to be embarrassed by his enormous deviation from the norms of his religion.

The “Butch” part of the name derived from a brief job as a butcher; “Cassidy” came from a rancher he admired, Mike Cassidy. As for Butch’s partner, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, “The Sundance Kid” got his nom de crime from his stint in a Sundance, Wyo., jail for stealing a horse.

You might recall a line from the start of the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film: "Most of what follows is true." I suppose that claim is not as blatantly false as the one from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo that it is “based on a true story,” but you do have to be rather careful. This is Hollywood, after all, as well as a Western, where the truth is whatever sounds good in a story conference.

In no uncertain terms, the film portrays Butch as the brains of the outfit. (Butch, to Sundance: “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”) Butch and his partner did, in fact, plan their escapes carefully, minimizing the possibility that they might have to draw their guns and kill anyone. 

But one real-life incident makes me suspect that the movie pulled its punches about the true amount of Sundance’s gray matter. At one point while the pair were trying to make a new life for themselves in South America, Sundance got drunk and bragged to someone about his true identity and past exploits. It’s not terribly different from those stories you hear these days about crooks who stop to take selfies, then post them to Facebook.

Some other stuff that didn’t quite happen the way it’s depicted on the big screen:

*Our (anti)heroes are dogged through much of the film by a posse that includes a Native American tracker named Lord Baltimore. He didn’t, however, exist.

*That posse in North America is depicted as relentless. In real life, Butch and Sundance gave them the slip and managed to stay well ahead of their pursuers.

*The film identifies Butch’s underlings as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Actually, amazingly enough, the group was known as The Wild Bunch. But, with Sam Peckinpaugh’s western bloodfest with that title coming out the same year, 20th Century Fox didn’t want audiences confused, so the name was changed.

The film is far more interested in the present—and limited future—of Butch and Sundance, in a turn-of-the-century West where they are becoming anachronisms, than it is in their pasts. In actuality, Butch, for instance, appears to have gotten into his life of crime by rustling cattle near the ranch where he worked before graduating to robbing banks.

In one very large sense, however, the film was true to life. It ends in a freeze frame of Newman and Redford making a break for it against hopeless odds in Bolivia. Most historians do accept the Bolivian authorities’ contention that Butch and Sundance were, in fact, killed in 1908. But a small but persistent group believes that Butch somehow survived the shootout and made his way back to the Pacific Northwest, where he died three decades later. The movie's ending gives them the (admittedly very, very slim) chance that this did indeed occur, while sparing the rest of us the visual evidence of their demises.

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