B.G. Hilton – Writer

In Search Of… S02E21 Butch Cassidy

We open – to my surprise – on a few seconds of footage from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Wouldn’t have thought this series had the budget. Leonard Nimoy says that according to the movie, Cassidy died in South America. (Cut to an old-timey car on a desert highway.) But if so, who was the ‘mysterious stranger’ who turned up in in Wyoming fifteen years later?

Huh? Who? Who was it? Don’t know, do you? Huh?

Cue sound of gunshot. Population number drops to 143.

So anyway, there’s the thesis of the show. Did Butch Cassidy die when history supposes him to have died, or did he live on like Anastasia, Dillinger, Earhart, Hitler, Morrison, Elvis and Tupac? Is anyone, in fact, dead? Is ‘death’ just a long con perpetrated by Big Coffin? Maybe the people who ‘die’ really just go off to live on a big farm upstate with a nice family and lots of room to run around?

Anyway, we’re looking at cool rock formations in the American South West. Music is harmonica and maraca based. Okay, if you’re into that. Bringing his a-game, Nimoy is talking about legends of the West. Well, listing legends of the West, anyway. This is pretty awesome, this scenery and – oh! Reenactment time! The Wild Bunch riding away after robbing a bank. For once, the actors in this show probably aren’t cursing themselves for going to drama school instead of taking accounting.

Closeup on photo of Cassidy. Huh. He doesn’t look much like Paul Newman. He has the beefy head and piggy eyes appropriate to a heterosexual man named ‘Butch’. Harmonicas play–or are they electronic instruments impersonating harmonicas? Don’t know enough about late 1970s synthesisers to guess. Nimoy talks about Cassidy’s progression from cattle wrangler to rustler to thief.

Now some really mismatched imagery. Nimoy talks about Cassidy’s regret at his life of crime and the effect it had on those he loved. Meanwhile the visuals show the Wild Bunch riding triumphantly through the desert as the music swells. Anyway, we are told of the gang’s success due to their carefully planned gettaways. They reenactors ride up a ridge to the legendary hideout Hole-In-The-Wall.

Narration over desert images, about the closing of the range and rustling as a way for small farmers to avenge the perceived encroachments of the big ranchers. Nimoy addresses the camera. Is he wearing jeans, a denim jacket and a neckerchief? Pardner, you better believe he is! He talks up the supposed ‘Robin Hood’ nature of Cassidy. And now we’re watching some modern cowboys roping cattle. And then silhouetted guys sitting around a fire, while an old timer talks about seeing Butch Cassidy after his supposed death.

Heading now to the town of Baggs, Wyoming. This was a place where the Wild Bunch would hide out after a robbery, then party down – Wild West Style. An interview with the current Sheriff of Baggs, who says that Cassidy was popular and well liked locally, and never hurt anyone in the town. A genuine old west sterotype with a huge grey beard and a silly hat says much the same. A cowboy in saloon, a cowboy on a horse, and the sheriff again all testify that Cassidy wouldn’t hurt you – just take your money.

Back to the re-enactors, while Nimoy talks about the gang’s downfall. The Pinkerton’s Agency was on their trail. Under pressure, Cassidy and gang turned to train robbery. The railway people also set their goons on the Wild Bunch. Nimoy, now standing in front of a contemporary ranch building for some reason, explains that this is when the Sundance Kid joined the gang.

As a joke, the gang posed for a group photo. Long close-up on the photo, as Nimoy explains that the photographer put the photo in his window, where it was spotted by a detective. The gang and Sundance’s girlfriend fled to footage of a steam-train, and thence to an early motion picture of New York, twinkly piano music playing all the while. From there, they took a steamer to South America.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Nimoy tells of how Butch and Sundance led a life of crime in South America, before the story came out that they were killed in a gunfight in Bolivia in 1909. The Pinkertons closed the file.

Ten minutes into the episode, and with an emphatic ‘but’, Nimoy switches tracks from factual reportage to strange tales. Will this derail the episode? And if it does get derailed, will someone rob it? Let’s find out.

Anyway, Nimoy says that In Search Of… researchers have found info casting doubt on the official story. He wonders aloud if the deaths in Bolivia were a hoax. Cut to a jalopy in a desert. We’re told that a familiar figure drove into town – was it…  Butch Cassidy? ‘Many believe’ that it was.

But unlike a lot of this show’s invocations of ‘many people’, we actually talk to some of those ‘many people’. The Sheriff of the town of Baggs says his grandfather spoke to Cassidy in 1924, saying that the outlaw returned to town for a couple of days. The cowboy in the saloon says that Cassidy visited some of his old hangouts before leaving again. Slow camera shot through an abandoned house. Sad honky-tonk music plays as Nimoy goes through the list of dead Cassidy associates.

More shots of abandoned buildings. Wait, this one’s not abandoned, it’s the home of that old west stereotype. Nimoy says that the old guy has the dates wrong, but he has all the other details right. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

The old guy says emphatically that Cassidy was there in 1916 and had a bunch of horses with him, not the car that the show has been insisting on so far. His long, rambling story is a glorious triumph in the domain of long, rambling stories.

Writer John Rolf Burroughs who wrote a book on the Wild Bunch (and also rocks a bolo tie) tells a story about talking to an old timer who says that he met Cassidy in the early 1920s. He adds that he spoke to another guy who saw Cassidy in a Model-T Ford in the early 20s. Lots of harmonicas, and that poor re-enactor driving an un-airconditioned jalopy around Wyoming. Oh and then Burroughs tells that he spoke to an old girlfriend of Cassidy who says that she spoke to him. And there’s a re-enactment of Cassidy knocking on her door.

Horsemen in the desert, and now we’re back at Cassidy’s family home and we’re listening to Cassidy’s 93 year old sister! Holy crap! She says Cassidy and his brother spoke to Cassidy’s dad and sister. She clearly has all of her marbles and when she says that she saw her brother it’s the most convincing account. It’s a touching story – she says that Butch’s conversation kept coming back to his mother, and how he’d shamed her through his life of crime. She says that her brother died in 1937.

Sad harmonica over silhouetted horsemen. Back to Nimoy. He suggests a Washington man who may have been an elderly Cassidy, suggesting a strong similarity. As usual, when In Search Of… suggests a similarity between two pictures, I can’t see it. Nimoy says we have no idea of what happened to Sundance and his girlfriend. Summing up, end.

After an entertaining start, the back half of the episode is basically the least interesting sighting episode yet. Just account after account that could be summed up as ‘I or someone else saw Butch Cassidy after his alleged death.’ Worse, most of the witnesses are laconic Western types, and their stories tend to run only two or three sentences. It’s seriously uninteresting.

So did Cassidy die or return? I’m going to be perfectly honest, and admit that I just don’t care. Look, legendary Western outlaws are fun and all, but it’s hard to argue that they were genuinely significant historical figures. If Cassidy did live after his supposed ‘death’, then that fact will mean the rewriting of no history books, the reevaluation of no great issues. If he lived, all I can say is ‘good for him’ and if he died, well ‘too bad.’


Nothing particularly memorable this week.

Summing up

Interesting first half: 7/10, Interesting second half: 5/10, Generic Western music: 4/10. Nice Scenery: 8/10. Nimoyness: 8/10. Overall: 32/50. Pass.

Drink it in, everyone. Just drink it in.

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