I watched Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid the other day on my iPad and on this occasion gave a little more thought to the endearing scene where Butch is giving Etta Place a ride on the bicycle – and then amusing her with some trick riding until a humourless longhorn bull breaks up the fun. All to the tune of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, an evocative piece of music for that particular scene which marks the turning point in their stories and lives. The scene of course ends with the trio abandoning the farmstead – and the bicycle – and heading down to South America.
It’s been put to me that the bicycle here is being used to represent the future – indeed Butch says, as he casts the no-longer-wanted bicycle into the mud puddle: The future’s all yours, you lousy old bicycle. And the future Butch is rejecting, symbolised by the bicycle, is a hemmed-in one that has no room for such free-spiritedness as theirs. Indeed, I suspect that might just have been what the director had in mind when he filmed the scene, but if so I reckon he was using the wrong bit of new-fangled fin-de-siecle technology to represent such a future.
At the turn of the 20th century (Butch and Sundance were supposedly killed in November 1908), the bicycle represented delicious new freedom and liberation – most particularly for the working classes and for women. Far from being further hemmed-in, for the first time in history ordinary folks had swift, affordable private means of transportation their beck and call; they could go where they pleased, whenever they pleased and for free. All sorts of doors were opening up everywhere thanks to the humble bicycle. In literature, art, fashion, politics, the bicycle became emblematic of escapism, breaking old conventions and exploring boundless possibilities – themes novelists such as HG Wells explored in The Wheels of Chance and Mr Polly.
Indeed in Australia – where, in the last scene of the movie, the fictional Butch and Sundance imagined themselves heading for next, if they survived the shootout with the Bolivian militia – bicycles were opening up the great Kalgoorlie goldfields; the bicycle was the primary vehicle used by the turn-of-the-century gold-rush prospectors to get out into that waterless plain and dig for riches – who could afford a horse? Horses need fodder, water, veterinary care, saddles and expertise; horses were expensive. With a bicycle a man – or woman – could cover a hundred miles a day, or more, and many did.
And although Butch and Sundance were and are popularly seen as ‘western’ figures – and indeed the movie is regarded as a ‘Western’ – the fact is Butch, Sundance and Etta were all of the Bicycle Generation. Butch was born in 1866, Harry Longabaugh (Sundance) was born in 1867, while Etta is believed to have been born sometime around 1878-80. The golden age of the gunfighter was pretty well over when they were still kids. Wild Bill Hickok was killed in 1876, Billy the Kid in 1881, Jesse James in 1882. The shootout at the OK Corral was in 1881.
Butch and Sundance’s robbery of the Union Pacific Overland Flyer, a major event in the movie, took place in June of 1899 – at a time when the bicycle craze was at its peak. The amiable duo might not have liked the look of a future that quite likely included death or imprisonment for, banishment at the very least, but I can’t see such opportunists as they were casting aside so lightly something as potentially useful in their work as the bicycle – a cheap, reliable, quiet, easy to repair form of personal transportation that was also the fastest thing on turn-of-the-century roads.