There are three separate times during Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the beginning, the middle and the end) when a sepia filter is used instead of full color. I can vaguely recall being somewhat taken aback by the somber, archaic look of the opening scene the first time I saw it, having been led to believe that this was a fun movie. The function of the technique can only be grasped with a two-pronged sense of history: not only of the time in which the story is set, but the time in which the movie itself was made. The use of color, newsreels and photographs was all a playful attempt at bringing the audience back to the turn of the twentieth century, which by 1969 was a different world but still within living memory of quite a few people. For example, Lula Parker Betenson, the youngest sister of the real Butch Cassidy, visited the set of the film and then lived another eleven years.
The opening credits sequence is accompanied by a fake newsreel purporting to show the real “Hole in the Wall” gang executing a train robbery before a posse arrives to force Butch and Sundance into a chase. An old-timey projector whirs into action, the square image flashing onto the left half of the screen at an angle while the credits appear on the right side. The sincere invocation of silent cinema is a reminder that movies already existed when Butch and Sundance were active, and also a tribute to the granddaddy of all western films, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
After the credits comes probably my favorite historical disclaimer in any movie: “Most of what follows is true.” Butch (Paul Newman) is introduced looking through a window, with the sepia tone providing a gentle bridge to the “newsreel” footage. The mood that will be carried through the entire film is established here. This is to be self-conscious mythmaking, the boast of authenticity mixed in with a wry nudge to the audience, reminding us that some things may be fabricated, glossed over, painted with the romantic sheen of nostalgia. Butch stands in the middle of a bank that’s closing up for the day. The windows get shuttered, leaving him in deep shadow, his options constricted. This movie is upfront about the fact that its characters are entering their twilight years, declining in success, waiting for their luck to run out. All of this is suggested before the film even hits its stride.
Unlike its outlaw couple predecessor Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stays detached from its fatalism. It’s a buddy comedy, not a romance. Newman is joined by Robert Redford as Sundance, making one of the more harmonious on-screen pairings in history. (The stars and director George Roy Hill reunited for The Sting four years later.) The two actors appear together in almost every scene, and their collegial bickering is the dominant form of communication in the film. Newman and Redford are never anything but immensely likable in these roles, but Hill made a deliberate effort to put up a barrier between them and their adversaries, locking the audience into a particular viewpoint. Butch and Sundance correctly guess the names of two out of six men chasing them during the first half of the film, but the posse is always shown from a great distance. The two antiheroes are free to define the posse as a faceless, machine-like force. Later, in Bolivia, the barrier is naturally one of language. In both cases, the inadequacy of the two men in adapting to their challenges is played for endearing laughs.
The second sepia sequence is a photo-roman montage chronicling Butch and Sundance’s journey from North to South America, accompanied by Etta Place (Katharine Ross), a former spinster schoolteacher who likes both of them enough to throw her old life away. The still images of this sequence recall contemporary photographs — another bridge to the past. In one brief portion, showing the characters on a spinning ride, the editing becomes fast enough to create the illusion of motion, much like the zoetropes of the nineteenth century. Throughout this passage, the only sound comes from Burt Bacharach’s jaunty score, which suddenly turns wistful as the images depict a dance on the ocean liner. Sundance and Etta are in each other’s arms as Butch looks on from a nearby table. A photograph of Butch alone shows him looking downward, away from them. For a character who’s otherwise persistently good-natured, it’s a rare intimation of regret and loneliness. Despite the famous “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” scene, he knows that he missed his chance to marry Etta or anyone else.
The Bolivian half of the film is more complex structurally, proceeding in fits and starts though the overall narrative of decline is always evident. Butch and Sundance’s stumbling attempts to learn Spanish are nevertheless rewarded with early success. But then the lawman who led the original posse tracks them down, and they elect to hide in plain sight, getting real jobs. On payroll guard duty, they’re suddenly set upon by thieves whom they shoot dead. The film switches to brutal slow motion for the violent scene, highlighting the irony: it is only when they get on the right side of the law that the men are forced to kill. They immediately revert to their old ways, little suspecting that Bolivian law enforcement is about to catch up with them.
All of these ideas — the collision of myth and history, a genial aversion to violence, and the pleasure of companionship between the two leads — come together in the final freeze frame. It’s an unmistakable attempt to arrest the story just before its conclusion, to keep unpleasant things unseen. Butch and Sundance are frozen in heroic poses while the soundtrack plays the barrage of musket fire that kills them. These legendary figures are preserved in amber, almost literally, when the image bleeds back into that sepia tone. They’re adventurers, not killers, and the film leaves them at a moment of peak excitement, side-by-side as they should be. At the tail end of a violent decade, a time of immense cultural change, including the slow fade of the western genre itself, this final image was a kindly gesture. It acknowledged that the Old West was dead and gone, but that we could still remember it. In fact, we could even go so far as to feel good about it, against our better judgment.