Book Review: There’s another, “different” movie in “Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw”

There’s pretty good evidence that famous outlaw Butch Cassidy spent a little time on Brokeback Mountain. Contemporaries spoke of his sharing-the-blanket days on the trail, in prison and what-not.

And heaven knows he spent an inordinate amount of space in his letters that survive — talking up his whore-housing good times — “overcompensating,” one might say. This has been “out there” in outlaw lore for decades. So make what you will of Paul Newman’s casting in the iconic role in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Sundance and Butch did overdo the dynamite thing when they blew up safes on railcars, and yes, they ran into the same UP rail clerk, E.C. Woodcock, guarding the darned things on more than one robbery. Just as you see in the movie.

They didn’t head straight to “Bolivia” after their “last job” (one of many “one last score” robberies). No, they spent years ranching and failing at it in Argentina first.

The movie, like much of the “legend” around the duo? Let’s just say that the great “Nobody knows anything” screenwriter William Goldman wasn’t big on “research” and “historical accuracy.”

Actually, let’s let Charles Leerhsen say it, which he does in an amusingly flip and snarky new Butch bio out this year. A onetime Sports Illustrated and then People mag editor who wrote a pretty good book on Ty Cobb and books on the Indy 500 and famous horses and ghost-wrote one for a famous jackass (“Trump: Surviving at the Top”) turns his attention to reexamining the historic “Butch Cassidy” for his latest, “The True Story of an American Outlaw.”

Leehrsen paints vivid portraits of Butch, born Robert Leroy Parker, to a Mormon family in rural Utah, and New Yorker Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, who earned his “Sundance Kid” moniker in a one-horse town of that name that came along long before Robert Redford slapped that label on a film festival, a TV channel and the like.

Butch had a colorful career that included rustling and horse thievery, but was every bit the well-read “gentleman bandit” of lore and the George Roy Hill (script by Goldman) movie. His “Wild Bunch” or “Hole in the Wall Gang” didn’t kill victims (leaving witnesses), didn’t rob ordinary folk — just railroads, banks and once or twice, a general store.

Sundance was the “sullen” tougher one. Butch was “the charmer,” albeit one who kept the company of rougher types, bad influences who drew the law to him, all his relatively short life.

In the parlance of our times, not his, Butch wasn’t particularly “binary” in his sexuality. The whole “love triangle” with the mysterious Ethel or Etta “Place” has maybe a hint that Etta wasn’t who he wanted on his handlebars. Place is a Longabaugh forebear’s surname, because she married The Kid, by the way.

Leerhsen punctures a few of the storied names in the Outlaw Scholarship industry, visits a LOT of the places named in the newspaper accounts and later eyewitness histories (the reliable ones) and paints a richer portrait than the 1969 movie, which stands the test of time, despite inaccuracies and filmmaking blunders (see “Thomas, B.J.”).

“To feel just how soft and find the atmosphere is above your head, feel it with both hands at once” isn’t as pithy as “REACH for the SKY!” But apparently, our colorful caperers were given to waxing a tad poetic on the “stick’em up” basics.

Leerhsen paints a picture of a scene that seems worth a movie all on its own, an Outlaw Thanksgiving in which the duo served as waiters and cooks for a feast for their fellow highwaymen, surely a raucous affair if anybody’s account is to be believed.

It’s been over 50 years since the movie that defined them, and while nobody much makes Westerns these days and few would dare tackle remaking a classic, there’s plenty of stuff in this brief and breezy biography that suggests an altogether different spin on the story than the Newman/Redford one many of us know and love could be filmed.

Anybody option “Butch Cassidy” yet?

“Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw,” by Charles Leerhsen, Simon & Schuster, 253 pages. $7.99 and up (eBay, Amazon) hardcover

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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