‘The American Experience’ looks at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

“The American Experience” turns attention to our favorite outlaws: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their Wild Bunch–the last of the outlaws of the Wild West. Writer and director John Maggio doesn’t waste time with speculation of what might have been and takes you from their families to their legendary run as folk heroes and outlaws to their final shootout. This episode of “The American Experience: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” premieres today, 11 February 2014, on PBS at 9/8 C. Check local listings.

Maggio has gathered a group of writers and historians, such as Ken Verdoia, Gerald Kolpan, Michael Rutter and Paul Hutton, who give us commentary between Michael Murphy’s narration. Maggio wisely avoids all comparison with the popular and award-winning 1969 movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. There are no clips from the movie and the re-enactments are all done without us being able to see faces or hear voices.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed to think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the beautiful faces of Newman and Redford. We get to see photos of the real men and their friends and families. Other archival material show us what the world was like for Butch and Sundance from when they began their lives in opposite ends of the United States until their voyage to Argentina.

Butch began life as the eldest son of a Mormon family as Robert Leroy Parker in Beaver, Utah. He was only thirteen when he met cattle rustler Mike Cassidy (John T. McClammy) who taught him how to ride, shoot a gun and cattle rustle. Harry Longbaugh came from a mill town in Pennsylvania who spent a full one dollar for a library card. Longbaugh came out west and worked as a cowboy until a natural disaster took all those jobs away. Without any work, Longbaugh soon turns to crime and becomes the Sundance Kid.

After a botched train robbery, Sundance joins up with Butch Cassidy and his loosely organized Wild Bunch as the most successful train robbers of their time. But the notoriety brings them to the attention of the Pinkertons who will remain on their trail and eventually lead to their deaths in Bolivia. The Pinkerton agency

How they get there differs from the movie and Maggio gives us a definitive ending scenario, less romantic than the movie.  You might want to argue with this ending and there seems to be a discrepancy on some things such as the Baxter’s Curve Train Robbery where the Tall Texan met his untimely death, but Maggio wants us to ride a certain path and gets us there with certainty, supported by historians and scholars.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a fascinating telling of the lives of my favorite Wild West outlaws, rich with archival material and historical detail and providing a solid context for the lives of Butch and Sundance and the death of the Wild West.

“The American Experience: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,”  premieres tonight, 11 February 2014, on PBS at 9/8 C. Check local listings.


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