Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) – A Review
Ten years after Paul Newman and Robert Redford teamed to make the classic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a prequel to their legendary tale is released.
Tom Berenger and William Katt step into the youthful boots of Butch and Sundance. Years before they meet their demise in Bolivia, their early background is chronicled. We learn how this famous pair first met, see their first adventures together, watch their friendship build, watch them learn to become an unconquerable team robbing together and witness the beginning of the road that will lead them to becoming the legendary outlaw duo everyone knows and loves.
It was a very tall order to attempt any kind of follow up to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. The huge impression left by Newman and Redford was a height that was not going to be topped. Even attempting to recast the pair of actors seemed blasphemous and setting up for failure.
Two of the most famous and beloved actors of their time, teaming together for an exciting, funny, whimsical western – how could anyone possibly think recasting a new set of actors in a followup would come close to matching the dynamics of Paul and Rob.
So, it’s inevitable that comparisons were going to be made to Newman and Redford. Berenger and Katt had a pretty unenviable task trying to match up to them Supposedly a young Harrison Ford took a pass on playing the young Butch for the simple reason of not wanting to invite the comparisons to Newman.
So they are not Newman and Redford. But if you can accept that Butch and Sundance: The Early Days won’t be as entertaining as the original, don’t expect the pair of actors to have that special bright spark between each other and it’s not going to be a classic film you’ll want to rewatch again and again you’ll find Butch and Sundance: The Early Days is more entertaining than you might expect.
We meet Cassidy (Berenger) who gets released from prison and of course he has no plans of going straight. Soon he happens by a stranger attempting to rob a casino. While the resulting holdup turns screwy, it’s clear this stranger is an expert with a gun. Cassidy always the thinker, realizes they could make a good team. With his brains and Katt’s quick shooting they could pull off robberies no problem. After a bit of resistance Katt finally agrees and away they go.
There are some bumps in the road of course. Fellow outlaw Brian Dennehy believes Butch ratted him out to the law and is now looking to unload his six-shooter into him. Butch and Sundance venture into the snowy mountains completely unprepared for the conditions they must face. Who would’ve imagined the pair would have to learn how to ski?!?!
Katt needs time to recover from a gunshot wound and they hold up at Cassidy’s home, where we discover Butch actually has a wife and two sons stashed away. After successfully pulling off some bank jobs they decide to go for a big payday by robbing a train and end up breaking Cassidy’s golden rule of needing at least four men to do it.
Supposedly director Richard Lester had never seen the original film when he signed up to direct The Early Days. Despite his not being familiar with it, he captures a similar tone, balancing the action and humor quite well. Original Butch screenwriter William Goldman lent a hand apparently writing some scenes for the film of things he had wanted to include in the original.
There is some fun stuff in the movie. There’s some nice locations, some funny moments sprinkled in between some well staged western action and showdowns. The final train robbery is enjoyable as the plans go out the window and it unfolds in an improvised way. And Berenger and Katt do work well together. They’re both likable and they start to work well together. Maybe they’re not one of the great cinematic pairings, but I felt something did click between them.
There’s really no silly blatant callbacks to the original. Typically that’s the easiest and laziest way to attempt to get some good will from audiences. Simply keep reminding folks of the previous, popular entry in the series (that’s usually better) and try to coast on that nostalgic goodwill.
It’s like how in those Star Wars sequels every single thing from the original film has to be referenced and explained. Those are the little needle drops and callbacks audiences that have gotten so overdone in sequels and prequels nowadays. The Early Days doesn’t really go for those cheap trick and tries to stand on its own best it can.
Jeff Corey as the beleaguered Sheriff Ray Bledsoe is the only original cast member who returns. We learn how ‘Sundance’ got his name and grew his mustache. But there’s no major wink wink groaning gags mentioning going to Bolivia, Sundance not being able to swim or hear ‘Raindrops Keeps Falling On My Head’ playing in a saloon.
I was somewhat disappointed that Peter Weller as Joe LeFors didn’t appear more. He’s introduced near the start and is determined to catch Butch. Weller appears to be quite a formidable adversary for our heroes and I was hoping he would be a presence throughout, but he disappears until the end of the film. I guess that’s a confrontation that had to be held off for years down the road when Newman and Redford would step in.
By the way, Christopher Lloyd shows up in a small role as an outlaw.
The shadows of Newman and Redford do hang over the film at the start, everyone had to expect that to happen. But rather quickly Berenger and Katt (who I could see some slight resemblances between their predecessors, or at least see why the two were cast as the younger counterparts) gradually come out on their own, start to blaze their own trail and I realized I had forgotten all about Newman and Redford and was enjoying this younger Butch and Sundance.
There’s some nice locations, some funny moments sprinkled in through the well staged western action and showdowns. The final train robbery is fun and Berenger and Katt do work well together. Them bickering, riding together, becoming best buds and robbing together doesn’t feel as forced as I suspected it would. Maybe they’re not one of the great cinematic pairings, but I felt something did click between them.
Before watching Butch and Sundance: The Early Days I had it pegged as a low-grade prequel that wouldn’t be worth watching. Finally after stumbling onto it and deciding to take a chance, I was pleasantly surprised by it. It might not be classic that will be held up alongside the original and I don’t think you have to rush to see if you never have. Heck, it took me forty years to finally see it.
But leaving the inevitable comparisons to the original aside, Butch and Sundance The Early Days ends up enjoyable enough on its own. I had apprehension about what to expect from the film. I suppose that was the major hurdle this prequel faced from the very start, but once I got over that it started to win me over. It ended up being more entertaining than I thought it would be.