Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was an unexpected hit, a film about a duo of western outlaws who ran their mouths more than they pulled their triggers. When it opened 50 years ago in a time of turmoil, the movie seemed to be just the magical, side show elixir Americans hankered for. Audiences ignored naysaying critics, massed in lines, grabbed some popcorn and soda pop, and enjoyed two hours of sweet escapism. The movie earned what the equivalent of $700 million adjusted for inflation and won four Academy Awards. The inside story of that movie—including rare behind-the-scenes photos of Paul Newman and Robert Redford on set—is explored in LIFE’s new special edition celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary and available here.
The move follows the strange-but-true tale of Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, sons of devout and impoverished families who in the long tradition of American pioneers set out in search of a different life. But instead of homesteading a spread of land, they reinvented themselves as Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid. They rode the range, and they robbed banks, trains and mines with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. And when marshals, troops and rangers hunted jailed and killed their mates, Butch and Sundance, along with Sundance’s lady friend, Etta Place, seemed to disappear. They went to Argentina and Bolivia and tried their hand at ranching—until they robbed again, and then the law cornered them in the sleepy town of San Vincente, Bolivia.
More than 100 years after the Bolivian gunfight in which Butch and Sundance died (or maybe they escaped?), we beckon these outlaws to return to America and continue to inhabit our fantasies about a place we call the Wild West. —adapted from an essay by Daniel S. Levy
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was based on the story of real-life outlaws. Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longabaugh (seated left) and Robert LeRoy “Butch Cassidy” Parker (seated, right) had this portrait taken in a photo studio in Fort Worth, Tex., around 1885. Pinkerton agents used copies of this portrait during their manhunt. Photo by John Swartz/American Stock/Getty
In this scene in which Butch and Sundance (who has admitted he can’t swim) jump into the river below, Redford and Newman actually land on a scaffold build just below the ledge. Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
It’s hard to look at this image of Newman and Katharine Ross on a bicycle without thinking of the music that accompanies it: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Photograph © Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images
This Western wasn’t all wild. Butch & Sundance escape a posse, head o New York with Etta, and then travel by luxury to South America. Photograph © Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images
The filming of the scene in the lake in New York City’s Central Park actually took place on a soundstage. Photograph © Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images
Plywood was used to create the look of the Human Roulette Wheel at Steeplechase Park’s Pavilion of Fun. Photograph © Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images
Director George Roy Hill explained to Redford and Newman the look he was going for in the movie’s climactic scene. Photograph © Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images
Butch and Sundance, tracked down in Bolivia and wildly unnumbered, come out guns blazing in the movie’s final scene. Credit: Photograph © Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images
Robert Redford met Butch Cassidy’s sister, Lula Parker Betenson during the filming of the movie and visited their childhood home near Circleville, Utah.
Credit: Jonathan S. Blair/National Geographic/Getty
Cover photograph by Lawrence Schiller, All Rights Reserved/Getty Images