In Israel I teach a class that is preparing for the Bagrut, the national matriculation examination. One requirement of the test is to pass an oral test in the English language. The topic of the conversation between student and examiner is a brief research paper that the student submits to the tester a week before the exam. To make the assignment simple, I gave the following topic to the class because it is easy to do and provides a fertile topic for discussion: “Influential Films of the 20th and 21st Centuries.” I suggested that one of my students choose Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
As a kid growing up, I was a fan of the Western movie. Typically, the good guys were better looking than the bad guys and they wore white hats rather than black ones. It was easy to identify who was on the side of right. My conventional approach to Western heroes, however, was turned upside down after viewing Butch Cassidy. For the first time, I was rooting for the outlaws. The two stars were popular movie stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and their relaxed and affable demeanor won me over.
The motive of the outlaws seems rational. They don’t want to hurt anybody. They just want to earn a decent living and Butch and Sundance feel unsuited for farming or ranching. When Butch hears how much money is being paid to capture or kill them, he wonders why E.H. Harriman, the owner of the robbed Union Pacific train, doesn’t just pay him not to rob the train. It would be more cost effective from his perspective.
Their life of crime continues until they are overtaken by a posse of lawmen led by Joe Lefors, who has a reputation for always capturing or killing his targets. Butch and Sundance elude him by traveling to Bolivia, a place where they feel immune from capture and a place rife with banks easy to rob. Their attempts to rob banks here, however, hit a snag since neither Butch nor Sundance knows Spanish. To remedy this, they spend hours learning the specialized vocabulary that is needed to rob a bank and soon achieve enough language proficiency to resume their nefarious ways. Regrettably, the law catches up with them even here.
For a short time, they try to “go straight,” and obtain work as payroll guards on a dangerous route often plagued by greedy bandits. When they are accosted by them, they kill the bandits. Realizing that they are unsuited for honest work, they return to their old ways. Eventually the Bolivian authorities catch up with them and Butch and Sundance die in a blaze of glory. It is a freeze frame shot that is iconic and memorable.
Jewish tradition in no way supports a criminal life style. Butch and Sundance, as ingratiating as they are, still are outlaws breaking the law and putting the lives of many in danger. It is noteworthy that one of the arch-villains of Jewish history is named Laban, which in Hebrew means white. Laban was the deceiver of the patriarch Jacob and caused him all kinds of grief. We even recall Laban’s name on the night of the Passover seder when we recount the idolatrous beginnings of the Jewish nation. One of the Biblical commentators suggests that his name is no accident. Rather, it deliberately calls attention to the fact that bad people often operate under a guise of legitimacy, of whiteness. Laban’s name, therefore, reminds us that we should not make judgments based on outward impressions, but rather on inner character and on a person’s performance of good deeds.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is iconic and influential in the sense that it paved the way for subsequent anti-heroes in movies, characters with whom we could identify but whose morals and motives were suspect. Indirectly, the film tells us that we have to be wary of role models whose actions do not mirror their likeable personas.