Feb 11, 201401:15 PMThe Telegraph

The Premier Blog of the West

TV Preview: 'Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid'

Feb 11, 2014 - 01:15 PM
TV Preview: 'Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid'

PBS

They were born as Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh – but they became legends as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Filmmaker John Maggio illuminates the facts behind those legends – and demonstrates how, sometimes, truth really is more amazing than fiction – in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, an hour-long documentary premiering at 9 pm ET Tuesday on PBS.

Maggio says he’s been intrigued by the iconic outlaws ever since he saw the Oscar-winning movie about their exploits – yes, the one starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford – when he was ten years old. And after earning acclaim for his 2011 documentary Billy the Kid, he was hankering to  examine the underpinning of other Wild West myths.

In Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Maggio charts the careers of the notoriuous outlaws who found fame and fortune while robbing banks and trains throughout the West in the 1890s. But he also tells us much about who these men were before they turned bad. And he follows them to the point of no return as they flee the relentless Pinkertons and seek to reinvent themselves in South America.

Maggio spoke with us a few days ago to speak about his film – which will be released on DVD Wednesday, the day after its PBS premiere – and the enduring appeal of his subjects.

Cowboys & Indians: What surprised you the most while you were doing research on your subjects for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid?

John Maggio: Well, the fact that Butch was raised as a Mormon – that was amazing to me. That, and the fact that Sundance grew up outside Philadelphia, which I love. I mean, you just feel like he was hewn from the dust of Texas or someplace like that. But no, he was from Philly.

C&I: What aspects of their lives do you wish you could have covered in more detail?

John: I wish I could have done more about their time in New York – when they were there with Etta Place before they departed to South America -- but there really isn’t that much information about it. I really love the image of these dusty, bedraggled cowboys coming off the range and ending up in New York City. What did they get themselves into? We know they purchased something at Tiffany’s. We have the photo of Etta and Sundance. But what else did they do? I would really love to know what their itinerary was for the two weeks they were there in New York, and how wild the city must have seemed to them. I mean, they’d come in from the Rocky Mountains and the canyons in the open range, to see the Brooklyn Bridge and overhead trains. It’s such an amazing time of transition.

C&I: Butch Cassidy comes across in your account as someone who might have prospered in business – as a leader of men – if he hadn’t gone into outlawry.

John: The funny thing is, in between those jobs that they were doing as outlaws, Butch would buy some land, buy up some cattle, and try to look legitimate. But by all accounts, all of his operations were profitable. It’s just that he would eventually get flushed out, and go on the move, and rob another bank. He was an incredibly clever human being. And like we say in the film, a lot of the guys surrounding him – including Sundance, in many ways – were henchmen. They didn’t really have the smarts. They were guys for whom the cowboying business had sort of dried up. But Butch was a real mastermind, a real planner.

C&I: At the end of your film, you’re left with the impression that the deaths of Butch and Sundance marked the end of an era. Historian Paul Hutton says: “As wild as they were, and as bad as they were, they still represented something that Americans embrace, that wild freedom. And when they’re gone, the Wild West is gone.”

John: It really does feel like the last gasp of the Wild West, doesn’t it? But even as early as the 1890s, while Butch and Sundance were still active, you had the Johnson County War going on while they were still out there and robbing banks and doing stuff. And that combination of modernity, industry and capitalism coming into the West, cordoning off the land and taking land from small ranchers – there’s really a hotbed of activity there. This whole wave of modernity comes crashing down on the West – and Butch and Sundance sort of get washed out of the way. They get flushed out. They symbolize that change. And I think that’s what gives the film a lot more meaning.

C&I: For some viewers, it may be a bit jarring – and, yes, disappointing – to discover that Butch and Sundance didn’t go out in a blaze of glory. And that one of the famed outlaws shot his wounded friend, then turned his gun on himself.

John: I don’t know if that’s a new discovery or what, but every one of the historians we talked to said that’s what happened. There was an inquest, I believe, shortly after they were found in that building by the Bolivian authorities. And the authorities described what they saw. And according to the wounds, they established that it had to be a murder-suicide. Obviously, the wonderful ending of the Hollywood film leaves it up in the air. But until someone opens up the case again, this is the official verdict. Of course, we’ll never know for certain until we find the bodies. And we don’t have the bodies. Which is why everybody prefers to imagine them still riding through the mountains of Bolivia.  

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