The Art of Character Introduction in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
“Who are these guys?” – Butch Cassidy
When it comes to screenwriting, character introductions are incredibly important. Not only can these moments inspire specific audience reactions, but it can also offer a unique opportunity for insight into the film’s major themes. Occasionally, a character’s introduction can begin his transformation into an icon. Whether it be what they do, what they say, or how they react to others, a character’s introduction has many different facets. One of my favorite character introductions comes from George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch and Sundance’s introduction is one of the most complex and stylized character introductions that I have ever seen.
The opening credits are played along side a silent film that is being projected from a very primitive projector that was used during the late 1890s. We hear the sound of the projector rolling as the film shows men in western-style clothing robbing a train, giving us our first hint of what this movie is about. The film being projected has an aged sepia coloring that was common in that era of cinema.
This coloring is carried into the next scene taking the characters right out of the turn of that century. Just through the use of sound effects from the old projector and the sepia coloring of the film, we are locked into our characters setting.
The next scene opens with a reflection of a bank door in a window. As the camera zooms in closer, we see Butch Cassidy looking at the door from the other side of that window with a ponderous look on his face.
He then casually strolls over to the bank as it is just about to close. As he approaches, Butch notices bars on the windows, and walks into the bank to have a look around, seeing also an alarm system and a guard. As the bank begins to close, we’re shown close-up shots of safes being bolted, doors being locked, and window shutters closed. This series of close-ups imply a serious sense of security. In this moment, both Butch and the audience realize that this bank is much too fortified for a heist. We get the feeling that this is the end of an era of bank robbery. Just by the visuals, Butch is introduced to us as a man, most likely a thief, who is a thinker and a planner. We also catch a glimpse of his sense of humor as he heads for the exit, where he asks the guard:
Butch: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
Guard: People kept robbing it.
Butch: Small price to pay for beauty.
We then cut to a saloon. A mustached man, the Sundance Kid, plays blackjack with the saloon owner, Macon. Not aware of the identity of Sundance, Macon accuses him of cheating and puts his hand near his gun. He tells Sundance to leave the money and get out.
Butch then enters the saloon and, recognizing the tension in the room, does his best to lighten the mood. He tries to talk some sense into Sundance, and get him to forget the situation and leave, but Sundance won’t budge. Sundance explains to Butch that, “if [Macon] invites us to stay, then we’ll go.” Butch does his best to encourage Macon to do just that, but Macon won’t have it. Finally, Butch gives up saying, “I can’t help you, Sundance.”
At the mere mention of Sundance’s name, Macon’s mind changes almost immediately and we see that Sundance has a pretty serious reputation. Macon is terrified, yet scared to show it, and replies, “I didn’t know you were the Sundance Kid.” Eventually, with some encouragement from Butch, Macon gives in and asks them to, “stick around.” Butch jokes, “Thanks, but we gotta get going.” Sundance finishes his drink and heads for the door while Butch gathers the chips. Sundance is almost out the door when Macon asks curiously, “Hey, Kid. How good are you?” When Butch hears this, he jumps out of the way, and we see why the Sundance Kid is a man to be feared. Sundance, without hesitation, turns around and shoots the gun belt right off of Macon’s waist. As it falls, he proceeds to shoot his gun four times as it slides across the floor. With one swift move, Sundance’s superiority is solidified in the audience’s mind. This scene establishes Butch and Sundance’s relationship, and reveals to us the differences in their personalities. Butch, a man of words and reason, is contrasted against Sundance, a man of action and skill.
In these opening scenes, the cinematography, coloring, and acting all contribute to the introduction and development of these two characters. They’re set up as two of the most legendary outlaws in the final days of the “Wild West,” but even with their fearsome skills, they too are forced to adapt or die. It’s their dynamic introductions that make their journey throughout the movie all the more interesting and powerful. Without such a set up, the end of their story would be far less meaningful and the message far less significant. Whether you are aspiring to be a director, director of photography, actor, or you’re just someone who just enjoys movies, Butch and The Kid have plenty to offer you in the way of learning characterization.
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-Written by: Erich Kudlik, Class of August 2015