Wednesday, February 12, 2014

American Experience: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Ark Media, John Maggio Productions, PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a PBS-TV program on the American Experience series on the legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What was most fascinating about this show was that judging from the information presented here a quite good movie could have been made about them that would have been considerably darker and more serious than the one we got in 1969 — which was a great film but obviously modeled their story on the success of Bonnie and Clyde two years earlier, particularly in its rapid-fire alternation between comedy and drama, and also the glamorization of the outlaws by having them played by full-on movie sex gods. Am I really going to surprise anyone by saying the real Butch and Sundance, judging from the still photos reproduced here, didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford? It’s also ironic that some of the locations in which the real Butch and Sundance story took place, including Telluride and Sundance (the Kid, whose real name was Harry Longabaugh, took the name “Sundance” from the town where his first robbery took place), themselves are now the sites of iconic film festivals. Writer-producer-director John Maggio focused his take on the Butch-and-Sundance story around the fact that they were basically the last of the Wild West’s great outlaws; that unlike most of their predecessors, Butch and Sundance meticulously planned their crimes — Butch was determined never to face a murder rap — and Butch, whose real name was Robert Parker (he took his name from Mike Cassidy, the crook he met early on who essentially took him as an apprentice in the outlaw business), was the child of Mormon settlers in Utah until he met Mike Cassidy and realized how much more lucrative crime could be than the honest but tough work as a farmer and cowboy that had worn out his father and driven him to an early grave. The show noted that the real name of Butch’s and Sundance’s gang was the Wild Bunch — the 1969 film changed it to the “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” (after one of their nature-made hideouts in the Rocky Mountains), obviously because the name “Wild Bunch” had already been taken by Sam Peckinpah’s film for Warner Bros. the year before — and that contrary to the movie, in which Butch, Sundance and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place flee the U.S. and head straight to Bolivia, they first went to Argentina and actually established a law-abiding life for themselves as ranchers until their nemeses, the Pinkertons, caught up with them in Argentina, drove them out of the country and forced them to flee to Bolivia — where they started committing crimes again. But without the infrastructure they’d had to support them in the U.S. — particularly the support of local farmers, who helped Butch and Sundance because their targets, banks and trains, were parts of giant corporations that were screwing the farmers over — they found that they were all too easily caught by the Bolivian police and ambushed. Interestingly, Maggio depicts the deaths of Butch and Sundance as a mutual suicide — Butch first shot Sundance and then himself so they would neither be arrested nor killed by Bolivian lawmen — a different and far more tragic ending to their story than the one in the movie!

What’s most fascinating about the American Experience treatment of the Butch and Sundance story is the role of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in going after them; the agency had been founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, who was hired by President Lincoln to coordinate spy operations during the Civil War (the show includes a photo of Allan Pinkerton with Lincoln on one of the Civil War battlefields). By the end of the 19th century the Pinkerton agency was run by Allan’s son William, who decided the key to keeping it in business and growing it was to hire his forces out to the railroads, bankers and mining companies who were being targeted by the last remaining Western outlaws — and, as anyone who’s familiar with the history of the American labor movement from a Leftist perspective will know, the Pinkertons also hired themselves and their operatives out as strikebreakers and used the same tactics they’d used against the outlaws, including maintaining extensive dossiers on any potential enemies of their corporate customers, against union organizers and radical working-class activists. What made the Pinkertons ideal from the corporate perspective was that, being private and not subject to the limits on ordinary police officers — particularly jurisdictional issues and Constitutional rights — they could do literally anything they wanted, safe in the knowledge that the judicial system (like most of the government in the 1880’s and 1890’s — plus ça change, plus ça meme chose) was in the corporate pocket and therefore the Pinkertons could themselves break the law with impunity and never have to worry about being held to account for anything they did, at times literally including murder. (The great detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett had been a Pinkerton operative, and later when he’d written his major books and was sliding down his 27-year alcohol-fueled path towards oblivion, he liked to tell his Leftist friends that at one point he’d been offered a $50,000 bonus for killing a particular labor leader — and inevitably one member of his audience would ask him just what he had done for the Pinkertons that had led his bosses to think he might have accepted the offer.) Butch and Sundance could probably have lived to a ripe old law-abiding age in Argentina had it not been for the Pinkertons, who chased them down there and harassed them until they had to flee the country and return to a life of crime. As I noted above, the Butch-and-Sundance story could have made a great and considerably darker (but probably not as popular) movie as the one that did get filmed, and Maggio made the point that the spectacular train robberies Butch and Sundance (the real ones) committed were becoming the stuff of myth even while they were still alive: the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show featured a live dramatization of a train robbery with a life-sized replica train, and the movie that got the reputation of being the first film that actually told a story was William K. Dickson’s 1903 production for Thomas Edison … The Great Train Robbery.