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American Experience: Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

60 minutes, PBS, $24.99.

The latest entry in PBS’ long-running documentary series American Experience covers the real story of outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose cat-and-mouse chases with the ever-persistent Pinkerton National Detective Agency were portrayed by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively, in George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This fast-moving documentary, produced and directed by John Maggio (producer-director of American Experience: Billy the Kid), paints Butch, born Robert LeRoy Parker, as a calculated, cerebral outlaw whose robberies produced large paydays with small body counts. His elaborate, well-planned heists made him quite a celebrity, and many badmen sought to work with him. Among them was the Sundance Kid, born Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a more dangerous thug who apparently needed Butch’s brains to succeed—his first foray into train robbery yielded him an $8 cut.

Like the classic film, this program highlights the fact that, despite their many differences, the duo formed the closest of friendships. They chose under pressure to flee to New York City and, subsequently, South America, to escape encircling government agents, and their bond remained unbroken by the end of the Western frontier as they knew it. While other members of Butch’s Hole-in-the-Wall gang (also known as the Wild Bunch), like George “Flat-nose” Curry and Harvey Logan, went their separate ways, Butch and Sundance stuck together to the end. Unlike the popular film, however, the documentary does not smooth over the details of their deaths to preserve the legend in a sepia-toned freeze frame. Here it is told that, after being cornered and engaging in a gunfight in which they are severely wounded, Butch executed Sundance before taking his own life. Such is the gruesome end for many such violent criminals.

“We don’t want the outlaws to die,” reflects historian Paul Andrew Hutton, who was interviewed for the documentary, as were authors Thom Hatch, Anne Meadows and Daniel Buck, artist Thom Ross and others. “We certainly don’t want them to die the way Butch and Sundance died. As wild as they were and bad as they were, they still represented something that Americans embrace—that wild freedom. And when they’re gone, the Wild West is gone.” There is no speculation at the end of the documentary that the two outlaw buddies somehow survived and that one or both of them might have made it back to the States to live out their days. But that is not a bad thing.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.