I’ve puzzled about the bicycle sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ever since I first watched it. The bicycles seemed like an anomaly. Maybe it should have been more obvious to me. Anyway I stumbled across the film on television on a recent holiday weekend, which sent me back to the chapter that its screenwriter, William Goldman, wrote about the film in Adventures in the Screen Trade. Suddenly it became clearer.
Butch Cassidy is set in the last days of the Old West, a short period that lasted from the postbellum to the turn of the 19th century. As E.J. Hobsbawm reminds us, it wasn’t particularly violent, either. The film has some of the trappings of a Western, but it is a buddy movie about two men who find themselves out of time, because their skills as bank and train robbers are no longer useful. It is set right at the end of the period.
So Butch Cassidy and Sundance spend the film trying to escape towards the past, first literally, during the long sequence in the middle of the film as they are chased by the Superposse, sent by Pacific Railroad owner E.W.Harriman to track them down and kill them. The second time, metaphorically, as they head for a new life in Bolivia.
The bicycle was a huge American craze in the 1890s, and this is a captured in the film quite early on by a bicycle salesman.
SALESMAN: Soon the eye will see nothing but silk-ribboned bicycle paths stretching to infinity.
The bike becomes a motif of this new world they are running from, first innocently, then more ominously as they leave for Bolivia.
The moment is not the bicycle scene above, but the way in which the film prefigures its ending. The first time is when the two men are on the run from the Superposse and try to get Bledsoe, a magistrate they know, to enrol them in the army. He spells out the limited choices they face:
The second time is a few pages later, when Butch and Sundance decide to go to Bolivia. Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, agrees to go with them, but on one condition:
ETTA: I’ll go with you, and I won’t whine, and I’ll sew your socks and I’ll stitch you when you’re wounded, and anything you ask of me I’ll do, except for one thing; I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.
And as they leave the house for good, on the next page, Butch hurls the bicycle outside, shouting:
BUTCH: **The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycles.**
Script extracts courtesy of Dailyscript.com.