Let’s be real: cowboys are perennial gay icons. In Western movies, the men are removed from the norms or rules of society, wear tight denim, and often seek solace or emotional connection from their buddies as opposed to their wives or girlfriends. It is not an enormous stretch, thus, to read more closely into the genre’s most iconic titles and find queer subtext from start to finish. In a surprising turn from us, this month’s chosen feature is very butch: we have decided to forgo the traditional glitz, glamour, and gay frivolity to induct 1969’s iconic gun-slingin’, horse-ridin’ buddy movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, into the (Not) Gay Movie Club.
Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford – hello, gorgeous!) are two Wyoming-based free-spirited leaders of a criminal gang, gallivanting at the turn of the 19th century. Butch is charismatic, wry, and bold: Sundance is laconic, brooding, and a deadly shot.
They are the quintessential double act, and when their plan of robbing a bank goes awry, they flee – Sundance’s girlfriend Etta in tow – to Bolivia to rob banks, make some money, and half-ass their way through some Spanish. With breathtaking visuals, slick action sequences full of tension, and a screenplay full of wit, the movie ticks more boxes than perhaps I was initially willing to concede to.
Full disclosure: I was not expecting to enjoy this film. I do not enjoy Westerns. The only cowboys I have appreciated are Calamity Jane and Toy Story’s Woody, and I find gruff boys with guns and deep, hyper-macho brooding an enormous turn-off. However, Butch Cassidy pleasantly surprised me. Sure, the jaw-dropping beauty of our two leads didn’t hurt, but I found myself engrossed in the dynamic between Butch and Sundance; the pair possess a compelling chemistry, evident as much when there is dead silence on the plain as when sparring. And, naturally, there is much to read within the film’s queer subtext, lifting this film way beyond a Channel 5 afternoon shoot-em-up.
The casting of Butch and Sundance is impeccable: our leads are handsome, charming, and I fully believe they could handle themselves in the grisly Wild West. But there is more at play than their pistol prowess: Paul Newman may have been married to iconic actress Joanne Woodward for 50 years, but he was allegedly queer behind the scenes, rumoured to have had affairs with the likes of James Dean. The mere hypothesis of this adds a delightful layer of subtext to the dynamic between Butch and Sundance. Redford seems particularly flirty, especially at the start of the film, and even refers to Butch as a ‘soft touch’. And upon my first viewing, I was fascinated by the dynamic between Butch, Sundance, and the latter’s girlfriend Etta. I had to pause to double-check who was whose partner, before gleefully accepting that, IMHO, everyone is into everyone. The trio flees to Bolivia and the lines of monogamy are arguably blurred: This rapport brings a surprising, progressive element to the film, and one could argue that the movie evokes more polyamory and bisexuality than homosexuality. In one scene, Butch is in the midst of a romantic dalliance, with Sundance in the room, eyes peering out the window for danger. Clearly, they are very, very good friends and nothing more. Nope. Definitely just buddies; nay, colleagues! Great co-workers and consummate professionals.
Of course, our queer reading does not end with the duo’s dynamic; there are many layers of Butch Cassidy that subvert the tough, brooding characteristics seen in the movies of Sergio Leone, with the emblematic Clint Eastwood. Take Sundance’s touching, stereotype-rejecting admission of weakness – that he cannot swim, moments before they plunge into a waterfall – or instances of high camp: the outrageously OTT action sequences, the moment Butch winks at a passing bull, the topless knife fight with their old gang member… For a Western cynic, these elements are what elevate the movie and definitely suggest there was more intention behind the lens than bank robberies and stunning vistas.
With its dynamic duo and its queer subtext, Butch Cassidy inevitably subverts the Western genre, challenging the audience to view masculinity through a different lens. Did Butch Cassidy walk so Brokeback Mountain or The Power of the Dog could run? Perhaps. But what I love about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is how light it feels; humorous, stunningly shot, and full of poignant, emotional moments between these two tough guys, the movie has exceeded my expectations. And to be honest, it probably did us some good to veer away from sequins-laden, high-camp divas or glamorous, ghoulish women of horror for an issue…