Reel Rumbles #33: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” vs. “The Sting”

Travis McClain

Bats: R, Throws: R. How Acquired: Traded for a player to be named later. I hold a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Louisville, earned in history. I have lived with Crohn's disease since 2005, and chronic depression since my youth. I bring into each film that I view a world view shaped by those and other parts of my background. I try to be mindful of the socio-political themes and implications of movies, intended or otherwise, and that surely shows in my blog pieces. I also love doughnuts.

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16 Responses

  1. Travis Easton says:

    Of course I disagree, but you knew that already. :-P

    Great writeup though.

  2. Travis McClain says:

    Knowing you disagree and still have something nice to say about my argument is quite the compliment, really. I admire and enjoy both films tremendously; I could probably tweak a few sentences in this to favor The Sting without a shred of hypocrisy.

  3. Nigel Druitt says:

    Travis: I just finally got to Butch & Sundance this weekend; it’s the oldest movie I’ve seen in quite a long time that I have legitimately enjoyed. It cracked my Top 250 on Flickchart, and now I want to see The Sting. (Thought you’d like to know.) ;)

  4. Travis McClain says:

    I’ve found that it’s one of those rare movies that actually seems to be better with each viewing. Knowing that you enjoyed Inception, I think you’ll dig The Sting, too. If you don’t mind my asking, where exactly did it enter your Flickchart, and what movie did it best for that position?

  5. Nigel Druitt says:

    I’m all for movies getting better with repeat viewings. The two most prominent examples in my Top 20 are The Prestige and Children of Men, neither of which would have been Top 20-worthy the first time I saw it…

    Hm. Let’s see.

    You know what? I was on the wrong account when I claimed it cracked my Top 250. That’s in my second account, the one that I’m still adding films to. It is in my Top 300, but I have to say, I think my chart’s a wee bit of a mess.

    After another quick re-rank, it’s at #294, right behind Little Miss Sunshine, and just ahead of First Knight, a movie that I know is not great, but I have an irrational attachment to.

  6. Travis McClain says:

    No need to qualify any of your rankings (“irrational attachment”); I don’t believe any of us need to defend our taste or rankings. I was simply curious, hoping to get a further glimpse into your taste.

    Anyway, I would suggest treating Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid like a glass of wine. You’ve taken an initial sip. Now, let the taste linger for a bit while you aerate your glass. Come back to it later, and see what the oxygen does for the taste. (I would caution you to hold the handle and not the bowl, but I have no idea what the analog of that would be!)

  7. Nigel Druitt says:

    That’s okay; I’ve never had a sip of wine in my life! :D

    And part of the “irrational attachment” comes from the fact that First Knight is one of those movies I watched quite a few times as a teen, but haven’t seen in at least 10 years…so who knows? Maybe I remember it as better than it is!

  8. Travis McClain says:

    Wine is among the things I really miss that I had to give up on account of having Crohn’s. I tried for a while, but it just wasn’t worth the misery. I was never a connoisseur who knew which vintages were from good years, but I had enough of a palette to tell the basics of a given flavor, whether it had “legs” and, most importantly, what I liked. As it turned out, what I liked most was a dry red. Once I developed a taste for the dry stuff, I couldn’t go back to the sweeter wines.

    On a side note, earlier tonight Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid dethroned Lawrence of Arabia as my #1. I still believe that Lawrence is the greatest film ever made, but I try to rank based on which I enjoy more, and the truth is that as much as I love watching Lawrence, I’m more likely to re-watch Butch so I figured that had to count for something. (Of course, when the inevitable Lawrence Blu-ray comes out in time for its 50th anniversary next year, I’ll likely change my mind again!)

  9. indy42 says:

    I think omitting direction was a bit of a mistake, considering both films have very different styles, though both directed by George Roy Hill. Hill’s direction was much more consistent in The Sting, whereas in Butch Cassidy it felt… all over the place. The action in the film wasn’t directed very well at all, especially the Peckinpaw-lite shootout with the bandits.

    Overall, I would have given the edge to The Sting, because of the direction, writing, and acting (yes, writing – I know BC has better dialogue but the Sting has a better story and is much better plotted).

    Good writeup, though. A little unfair giving the musical edge to The Sting. That should have been a The Sting shoo-in. ;)

  10. Indy4242 says:

    I meant it was unfair making it a draw. Lol.

  11. Travis McClain says:

    Not sure what you mean by the directing of Butch Cassidy was “all over the place.” The point of the story isn’t action; it’s largely about how these two guys became infamous largely running away from violence. The shootout with the Mexican bandits is meant to show us Butch Cassidy’s perspective; he’s never shot anyone before, remember? That moment isn’t glorified. Their shouts are prominent in his mind, their falling seems to take forever. We’re meant to share his repulsion at the moment, rather than enjoy watching it.

    Regarding the music, what really surprises me with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is how little music there really is in the film. It’s used very sparingly, and in very specific sequences. I don’t think many people are even conscious of how little music there really is. If I were to rank the actual soundtrack albums, sure, The Sting gets the nod hands down. Within the context of the films, though, I still think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid makes better use of music.

    If anything, I suppose it was the writing where I should have called a draw. I did concede that The Sting has the stronger plot, as you say. It’s more intricate and full of nuances. Some of its dialog is even on par with Butch Cassidy‘s, like Lonnegan asking his minions, “What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?!” Ultimately, though, I feel that it’s the dialog–and sometimes the absence of dialog–that makes Butch and Sundance come alive and feel like fully developed characters. At no point in the numerous times I’ve seen the film have I felt like anyone says anything for the express purpose of advancing the plot.

    The closest the movie gets to this is when the pair return to Etta’s home and she fills them in on the identity of the super posse. It’s exposition meant for our benefit, but even there it feels natural that they’d want to know who was after them, and Goldman gives Butch that great line:

    “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbin’ him, I’d stop robbin’ him!”

  12. indy42 says:

    My point with the action is an example of the direction being inconsistent. Hill himself admitted to the bandit shootout being a very compromised scene – it was very derivative of the Westerns of the time and while the point was maybe to make it less “glorified”, the whole rest of the movie was glorified.

    If you make music a draw because while The Sting has better music, but Butch Cassidy uses it better, Cinematography should also have rightfully been a tie. While Butch Cassidy should win it at first glance, BC had the whole western genre to work with – the genre that created widescreen. The Sting is grittier, given its depression setting, and that gives the movie a good flavor. While the beauty of the shots in The Sting aren’t maybe as noticeable as they are Butch Cassidy, they don’t distract from the story. It has many fewer aged, choppy shots (such as when Butch dives out of the way of Sundance’s shots in the opening scene, or the scene directly following the bandit shootout with the awkward rack-focus).

    Musically, too, BC may use music well, but The Sting is really on a different level. It practically single-handedley repopularized an entire genre of music.

    The writing is very different, but ultimately it comes down to taste: The Sting is a very plot driven movie, while Butch Cassidy is very character driven. The Sting sacrifices some character development for the plot, while Butch Cassidy sacrifices a strong plot for interesting characters. Butch Cassidy as a result may be better scene-to-scene: it has better dialogue (slightly), while The Sting is a sharper, tighter script as a whole. So it depends.

    Just my two cents. I love both movies, but The Sting just comes out as a stronger film.

  13. Travis McClain says:

    The shots that stand out to me in The Sting are the rooftop chase in the stockyard and the carousel. With Butch Cassidy, I think of the zooming in on the trio in the tree warding off their Bolivian pursuers, the zooming out to reveal the scale of the cliff on which Butch and Sundance find themselves, the riding out of sepia and into color against that gorgeous landscape…Maybe Conrad Hall’s cinematography was more gimmick-driven, but I think it served the story well and is a more active element. I can appreciate how others might favor the more subtle approach of Roger Surtees.

    Looking back, I really should have had a round dedicated to production design and/or costume design. I really can’t say offhand which I favor but both are outstanding and really created the environments of their respective films. I’ll say this: Redford never looked better than he did, wearing that red suit in The Sting.

  14. indy42 says:

    Well yeah again, with cinematography, it comes down to taste. The Sting makes you feel like you’re really there on the streets of Chicago in the depression. Butch Cassidy feels like a film. It’s a western, and uses all the usual cliches: Long sweeping shots of landscapes and mountains, lots of color, etc. The opening scene is really great – especially the opening shot. But the movie drastically switches from that kind of style very quickly.

    I’m not sure what would win for production design, but The Sting does have more of it. Although, Butch Cassidy does have better special effects (that exploding train? Awesome.)

  15. Nigel Druitt says:

    Skipping that whole last conversation… :)

    Travis, I don’t know how to rank by other than what I enjoy more. There is no distinction between “favorite” and “best” in my mind. My favorite movie is the best, period, regardless of whether another film may be more technically “accomplished”.

    The Godfather is supposedly one of the “best” films of all time. It didn’t strike a chord with me, so it sits in the middle of my Flickchart. It’s that simple.

    Now, if a particular matchup is close, then yes, choosing one aspect in one of the two films that is “better” can help, but most of the time, it just comes down to what I like. Re-watchability is huge with me.

  16. Travis McClain says:

    Nigel, the difference between what one enjoys and what is “good” is a complex issue that has been debated and articulated by far greater minds than mine. I’m of the mind that the more a viewer understands the craft of film-making, the better qualified one is to critique it. That’s a different perspective than merely liking or disliking a film.

    It helps to start by asking what you like and dislike about each movie you see. Don’t let yourself only answer one question; it’s entirely too easy to turn a blind eye to the deficiencies of the movies we like, and even easier to overlook the good in a movie that we didn’t enjoy. It’s a useful approach to apply to more than just movies, too, I’ve found.