Title: Popular art
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00098923/00001
 Material Information
Title: Popular art the films of George Roy Hill
Physical Description: vii, 130 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Shores, Edward Francis, 1947-
Publication Date: 1977
Copyright Date: 1977
Subject: English thesis Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Thesis: Thesis--University of Florida.
Bibliography: Bibliography: leaves 127-129.
Statement of Responsibility: by Edward Francis Shores.
General Note: Typescript.
General Note: Vita.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00098923
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: alephbibnum - 000063608
oclc - 04214137
notis - AAG8807


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for Shirley, with love


No undertaking of this size is an individual effort,

and many people have helped me in the completion of this

task. Some, though, deserve special acknowledgment.

My parents and family were always supportive, and

their love and generosity is a most treasured gift.

My friends, James Goldsmith, Stephen Snyder, Allison

Graham, and Barbara Bixby, lent their time, support, and

encouragement, making a sometimes burdensome task easier

and lighter. I hope I can give as much assistance to them

in their future endeavors.

The members of my committee, Dr. Ellen S. Haring of

the Philosophy Department, Dr. Ward Hellstrom, and Dr. Motley

Deakin gave valuable time and assistance.

Dr. William C. Childers, whose comprehensive knowledge

of the cinema proved an invaluable resource, deserves spe-

cial mention.

Special thanks go to my director,- Dr. John B. Pickard,

who encouraged the study, and whose criticisms and sugges-

tions helped shape it.

And of course my wife, Shirley, whose love made it




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . ... . . . iii

ABSTRACT. . . . . . . . . .. . V


NOTES . . . . . . .. . . . . 28


NOTES . . . . . . ... . . . 54


NOTES . . . . . . . . ... . 80

CHAPTER IV: THE STING. . . . ... .. . .82

NOTES . . . . . . . . . . 100


NOTES . . . . . . . . . . 118

CHAPTER VI: CONCLUSION . . . . . . 121

BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . 127

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . .... ... . . . 130

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the
Graduate Council of the University of Florida
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Edward Francis Shores

August 1977

Chairman: Dr. John B. Pickard
Major Department: English

This study attempts to revise the prevailing critical

opinion of George Roy Hill by showing that his control of

form and content and his use of the medium rank with those

of almost any American director. Instead of imitating past

conventions, as he is often accused of doing, Hill mani-

pulates them to create his own unique form, a controlled

ironic fable that dissects the very conventions it supposedly

endorses. Instead of rehashing accepted wisdom or the im-

poverished dicta of an earlier era, Hill offers his own

understanding: He attempts to create the world anew to make

it more comprehensible for the viewer. His work evidences

the critical intelligence, the craftsmanship, and the intui-

tive understanding that mark the efforts of any conscious


Hill's films can be seen as a continuing critique of

the ideas which have shaped and still support the American

culture, questioning such traditional concepts as the

nobility of individual heroism, the role and nature of the

family, and the American obsession with success. His films

tell us that these trusted ideas are antiquated; the simple

truths they espouse are inconsistent with the more complex

modern world. Identification with and acceptance of the

concepts does not bring happiness, for an orderly and com-

prehensible world does not exist; instead, they become

lenses that distort perception and lead the individual into

limiting, enervating, and occasionally self-destructive ac-

tions. In contrast, Hill presents a world where ambiguity,

not clarity, is quintessential, and where happiness is not

inevitable. He urges a disavowal or dispassionate examina-

tion of the cultural conventions, asking that we understand

them, and, if necessary, reject them.

Irony is Hill's principle mode of discourse. He weaves

variations on his stereotypical characters and plots to

create an ambiguity that prevents the easy identification

common to most genre films, emotionally distancing the audi-

ence from the characters, and making possible a critical

evaluation of them and their actions. Each Hill film is

both a genre story and an exploration of the genre story,

its characters, plot, and metaphysics. The first stands as

a frame of reference which allows us to evaluate the variable

second, and a perception of their relationship yields an

understanding greater than that yielded by either of the


The study examines in detail Hill's last four major

films, up to but not including Slapshot, demonstrating how

Hill controls the cinematic elements to develop both strands

of his ironic narrative and moves the viewer toward a greater

understanding of the often tacitly accepted culture.



George Roy Hill has never been accorded the status

given to such older American directors as John Ford, Josef

von Sternberg, or Howard Hawks, nor is he ranked with such

current luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, or

Arthur Penn. Such a judgment, however, is neither final

nor accurate. As this study will attempt to show, Hill de-

serves consideration as an American film artist, for his work

is a careful meditation on the American culture, an intelli-

gent, continuing exploration of it that ranks with the best

contemporary work. The overtly commercial surface of his

work masks, but does not obliterate, the intelligence of

his films, and his commercial success is a mark of his skill,

not his mediocrity. He controls the elements of film to

create works that are simultaneously entertaining and seri-

ous, and this study will explore the way in which Hill works

and the central thematic concerns of his films.

An overview of Hill's career would seem to support the

prevailing critical judgment. Hill began with two play

adaptations, Period of Adjustment and Toys in the Attic,

which, though fairly well received, were not indicative of

great cinematic virtuosity. Period of Adjustment is

essentially a filmed play. The camera is almost always at

middle distance, providing a frame like the proscenium arch.

The actors move about the frame the way theywould a stage,

establishing character and ideas through position and dia-

logue. There is little camera movement, few close-ups, and

only functional lighting. Toys in the Attic is a step for-

ward cinematically, for the camera begins to move, the close-

up is discovered, and the lighting helps convey ideas and

character. Hill uses the camera to tell the story instead

of relying on the conventions of the stage. But in two of

his next three films, Hawaii and Thoroughly Modern Millie,

there is little evidence of further growth; the camera is

only a functional, recording device. Hawaii is a picture

postcard film, with the action framed and presented in the

traditional Hollywood cinematic grammar; Thoroughly Modern

Millie is similar in its traditionality, with well lit sets,

unimaginative use of decor, and straightforward camera use.

Unfortunately, The World of Henry Orient, Hill's best early

film, was unavailable for screening, and thus it is difficult

to make a thorough review of his style. However, on the

basis of what is available, it seems safe to say that Hill

was not one of the great stylistic innovators.

Thematically, his work also seems conventional. The

themes of the plays and Hawaii were set by the original

sources, and Hill, while perhaps altering them slightly for

public consumption, did not change them in any significant

fashion. The World of Henry Orient concerns a young girl's

growth to maturity, and Thoroughly Modern Millie is solely

an entertainment. Hill's work with the thematic concerns

of others was competent, a translation to the screen, not a

new creation that incorporated the essence of the old. In

his original works, only The World of Henry Orient has pre-

tensions to something other than entertainment, and that,

although well done, was not seen as the sign of a new, dis-

tinctive talent. However, there are two thematic concerns

in the early films which are later refined and developed in

the later, and thus deserve note. In Henry Orient, Hill

deals, in the Peter Sellers character, with posturing and the

manipulation of surfaces, a central concern of The Sting and

Waldo Pepper. In Thoroughly Modern Millie he plays with the

genre conventions of the musical. The manipulation of con-

vention is overt here, done for comic effect, but later it

will become a more subtle and integral part of Hill's work.

After these first five films, Hill remained virtually

unknown. In the increasingly film conscious world of the

sixties, Hill's efforts seemed part of an outdated commercial

tradition. He went to successes from the stage or novel,

or tried-and-true genre formulas, to guarantee himself an

audience, and appeared to lack an intrinsic interest in film

as an aesthetic phenomenon. New directors, on the other hand,

were becoming more conscious of the film tradition, and us-

ing and commenting on it in their works. They were concerned

with style, experiential reality, studies of the human spirit,

or creating their own unique world.1 Critical acclaim went

to the imaginative explorations of Antonioni, Fellini, Berg-

man, and the New Wave of French directors; American direc-

tors like Siegel and Bogdanovitch were touted, early direc-

tors rediscovered, critical theory was pushed in new direc-

tions, and politics was made a criteria of film excellence.

Commercial films like Hill's seemed to belong to an appreci-

ated, but no longer relevant past.

In 1969, Hill released Butch Cassidy and the Sundance

Kid, an enormously popular and successful Western that seemed

proof of Hill's commercial craftsmanship and conventionality.

His subsequent efforts, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sting, The

Great Waldo Pepper, and Slapshot all received similar criti-

cal treatment: A perfunctory acknowledgment of the crafts-

manship and a sign that such efforts were being put into

commercial exploitation. Hill's position as a talented,

"studio" type director seems fixed, and he is currently re-

legated to the status of Sidney Lumet, Arthur Hiller, or

older studio reliables like Mervyn LeRoy or Michael Curtiz.

There seemed little to praise in his works, for they

were traditional in their scope and even crassly commercial

in their aims. The subjects and treatments were familiar

and lacked the sense of innovation or self-conscious use of

the medium that characterized the best new work. The more

serious of the American popular reviewers--Pauline Kael,

John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris--praised overt

attempts to use the medium to aesthetic ends. Robert Alt-

man's experiments with genre and the element of narrative

and sound, Arthur Penn's thematic concerns, Martin Scorsese's

ventures into the underside of America or into Hollywood

genres, Francis Ford Coppola's unique vision--these received

critical approbation.

The European critics apparently found Hill equally un-

inspiring. To critics and filmmakers concerned with the

past and film form, such as Godard and Truffaut, Hill's works

must have seemed unimaginative exercises in commercialism.

Nor did his works have the strong stamp of an auteur who

rose above the restrictions of the commercial film system.

To those critics increasingly concerned with politics--the

Screen magazine coterie in England, the Cahiers du Cinema

group in France--Hill's work must seem anathema. His films

focus exclusively on individuals, not on the masses, and

tend to depict the crowd as the lowest, most vulgar element

of the human species. There is absolutely no concern for

political issues, or the place of cinema in the class

struggle for revolutionary liberation.2 In fact, Hill's

films possess none of the great virtues of all revolution-

ary films--narrative intransitivity, estrangement, fore-

grounding, multiple digesis, aperture, unpleasure, and
reality--enumerated by Peter Wollen. His films are straight-

forward, entertaining, and comprehensible examples of the

"reactionary bourgeois capitalist cinema."

This study attempts to revise the prevailing critical

opinion of Hill by showing that his control of form and con-

tent and his use of the medium rank him with almost any

American director. Instead of imitating past conventions,

as he is often accused of doing, Hill manipulates them to

create his own unique form, a controlled ironic fable that

dissects the very conventions it supposedly endorses. In-

stead of rehashing accepted wisdom or the impoverished dicta

of an earlier era, Hill offers his own understanding: He

attempts to create the world anew, as every artist must, to

make it comprehensible for the viewer. His work evidences

the critical intelligence, the craftsmanship, and the intui-

tive understanding that mark the efforts of any conscious

artist. Whether or not Hill's judgments and understanding

will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but his best

work is an intelligent cinematic exploration of the Ameri-

can experience.

This study will focus on his last four major films--

Butch Cassidy, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sting, and Waldo

Pepper--,for they are free of non-cinematic influences and

representative of Hill's best work. The five early films

are not included, not only because they lack the maturity

of the later, but because inclusion would only extend, not

alter, the basic points of this study. Slapshot, Hill's

tenth film, was not included because there was not enough

time after its release to give it a detailed treatment.

Some observations on it, however, are included in the "Con-


Hill's films can be seen as a continuing critique of

the ideas which have shaped and still support the American

culture. He questions such traditional concepts as the

nobility of individual heroism, the role and nature of the

family, and the American obsession with success. These con-

cepts are a small part of a core of ideas that can be termed

"conventional morality," wisdom that, whatever its origins,

comes to be accepted as given by the members of a culture.

The configuration of this morality is ambiguous, but a sug-

gestive and subjective outline can be drawn. The conventional

wisdom with which Hill's films deal holds that the forces of

good invariably triumph over the forces of evil; that right-

eousness is rewarded while wrongdoing is punished; that the

universe is providentially and benevolently ruled; that the

family is a strong force for good; that violence, if chan-

neled in socially approved directions, is acceptable; that

union with society is a person's most important goal; that

the development of the individual spirit is a person's most

important goal; that acts of heroism are meaningful and add

to a person's stature; that marriage is the ideal relation-

ship between two people; that success marks an individual;

and that material success is secondary to emotional happi-

ness. The list could be extended, but this at least sug-

gests what is meant by conventional morality.

Of course, these ideas have been attacked by film-

makers from the 1930's on. More recently, Arthur Penn's

Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch both

exploded traditional concepts of violence by revealing the

gore which previous Hollywood films had glossed over. Films

about failures, such as Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, or

unconventional heroes, such as William Friedkin's The French

Connection reaped financial success, and films that concen-

trated on the seamier side of life were no longer taboo.

Midnight Cowboy dealt with a derelict and a male prostitute;

Klute had a female prostitute as a heroine; and Easy Rider

focused on two drug dealers. Directors began to play with

conventions, using them to other ends than those for which

they were originally intended. Roman Polanski's Chinatown

both parallels and departs from the conventions of the detec-

tive thriller, and suggests a decidedly different understand-

ing of evil than that found in most private eye films.

Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Arthur Penn's

The Missouri Breaks both show an underside of the American

experience that was never captured in the traditional Western

films which theirs imitiate.

Despite the proliferation of such efforts and a general

shift in attitude away from the optimism of the thirties,

the postwar hope of the forties, and the television world

of the fifties, the traditional film and the conventional

morality remain firmly entrenched. The cultural unity that

permitted the development of the Hollywood entertainments

may no longer exist, but the conventional narratives and

morality still exert a great attraction for the majority

of Americans. Walt Disney's efforts still meet with

considerable success, and "traditional" stories, if done

well, can expect to reap a profit. The Sound of Music,

Mary Poppins, A Star is Born (1977), Jaws, The Other Side

of the Mountain, and Rocky have all done well with the

public despite their lack of innovation or great artistry.

The industry's most recent success, Star Wars, seems a hit

precisely because it captures the optimism, enthusiasm, and

simplicity of an earlier era.

Hill, like Altman, Penn, and Polanski, challenges

these still prevailing concepts of conventional morality.

His films tell us that these trusted ideas are antiquated;

the simple truths they espouse are inconsistent with the

more complex modern world. Identification with and ac-

ceptance of the concepts does not bring happiness, for an

orderly and comprehensible world does not exist. For Hill,

these concepts are lenses that distort perception and lead

the individual into limiting, enervating, and occasionally

self-destructive actions. In contrast, Hill presents a

world where ambiguity, not clarity, is quintessential and

where happiness is not inevitable. He disavows or dis-

passionately examines the cultural conventions, asking that

we understand as well as accept them, and, if necessary, re-

ject them. He calls, in essence, for a new independence,

a personal determination of one's attitudes, aims, and

understanding. His films, like those of most critically

acclaimed new directors, stand as a challenge to the old

ways of seeing and defining self.

Hill's films contravert conventional thought through

irony. He weaves variations on the stereotypical characters

and plots in with the conventional action to give his stories

more substance and depth. The contrast between the familiar

genre story and the variations creates an ambiguity that

prevents the easy identification common to most genre films.

The ambiguity emotionally distances the audience from the

characters, and makes possible a critical evaluation of them

and their actions.

Each Hill film has two stories: (1) a genre story,

and (2) an exploration of the genre story, its characters,

plot, and metaphysics, much as Godard's Breathless is, in

James Monaco's words, "at one and the same time a Gangster
story and an essay about Gangster films." The first stands

as a frame of reference which allows us to evaluate and

understand the variable second, and a perception of their

relationship yields an understanding greater than that

yielded by either of the parts. As Leo Braudy says, "genre

in films can be the equivalent of conscious reference to

tradition in the other arts."7 The use and variation of

conventions is one way the artist can get at the metaphysics

of a traditional form. Braudy writes that "the possibility

exists in all art that convention and comment coexist, that

overlapping and even contradictory assumptions and conven-

tions may be brought into play to test their power and make

the audience reflect on why they were assumed."8

The process is instantaneous, hardly as prolonged as

the description, as a few examples will show. In Mel Brooks'

Blazing Saddles the cowboys solemnly gather around the

campfire to eat beans, a scene immediately reminiscent of

many in earlier Western films. When the cowboys suffer from

gas, the audience laughs, not only because the bathroom humor

appeals to many, but also because the second scene is a

witty variation of the genre scene. The two are essentially

juxtaposed for us, and the continguity yields an additional

humor. We realize that the early Hollywood scene was un-

realistic in its glossing over of natural body functions,

and we laugh because the exaggerated variation ridicules

the unwarranted modesty. In Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, the

hospital scenes are much more realistic than those found in

most Hollywood war films. The conventional, antiseptic pain

of the earlier films serves as a point of reference, and

the contrast between the two reveals the essential falsity

of the Hollywood treatment of war. The characters function

in the same way. Hawkeye and Trapper John, despite their

self-interest and lack of overt courage, seem much more

realistic and human than, say, the John Wayne character in

Back to Bataan.

In addition, films are occasionally less obvious in

their manipulation of genre conventions. Leo Braudy notes


The genre film lures its audience into a seemingly
familiar world, filled with reassuring stereotypes
of character, action, and plot. But the world
may actually not be so lulling, and, in some
cases, acquiesence in convention will turn out
to be bad judgment or even a moral flaw--the
basic theme of such Hitchcock films as Blackmail
(1929), Rear Window (1954), and Psycho. . .
The very relaxing of the critical intelligence of the

audience, the relief that we need not make de-
cisions--aesthetic, moral, metaphysical--about
the film, allows the genre film to use our ex-
pectations against themselves, and, in the pro-
cess, reveal to us expectations and assumptions
that we may never have thought we had.9

Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Hal Ashby's Shampoo, and

John Schlesinger's Darling all work in this manner. I would

contend that Hill's films work the same way: Perception of

the alternate story comes only through careful attention to

detail, and understanding only when we see the complex re-

lationship between original and variation. In order to show

how Hill's films work, I shall first sketch in the variations

of the standard story that prevent complete identification

with the characters, then broadly outline the elements of

Hill's alternate story, and finally draw some conclusions

from an examination of the two.

All Hill's works belong to the category of commercial

movies, films which, despite their variety, have remarkably

similar characters, structures, and morality. In these

films, representative characters resolve problems or achieve

happiness by voluntarily accepting and practicing the tenets

of conventional morality. The characters may begin outside

society, such as Harry Morgan in Hawks' To Have and Have

Not, the iconoclastic Fred Astaire figure in the musical

comedies, or the classic Western hero, such as Tom Donaphon

in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and then move to a re-

conciliation with society, or remain outside society but

essentially endorse its values. Or the character may begin

as a member of society and then reaffirm its power by using

its values and resources to defeat an enemy. Whatever the

case, the characters usually move through a series of trials,

eventually finding happiness through acceptance of conven-

tional morality. The films thus become implicit or explicit

advocates of the American culture; entertainments, but none-

theless assertions of the fundamental validity of certain


Although Hill's films seem produced from this mold,

they are more accurately variations of it. Ideally, and

this is true in such recent commercial ventures as Rocky,

Jaws, and The Exorcist, the central characters, no matter

what their limitations, ultimately embody a number of virtues

with which the audience can identify and toward which it

can feel sympathetic. Loyalty, courage, integrity, friend-

ship, moral character are emphasized or, more often, emerge

as the character undergoes a series of trials: town drunks

reform, failures succeed, refugees from love become romantic,

uncommitted figures turn patriotic, cowards gain courage,

and sinners repent. The protagonists draw us into the world

of the film and allow us to experience vicariously the emo-

tions around which the film is structured; we intuitively

learn through them the lessons of the film. Hill's charac-

ters, like all genre figures, have attractive qualities

which draw us to them, and their problems--conflict with an

increasingly bureaucratic or technological world, or a

dispirited or materialistic one--engage our sympathy. But

complicating the familiar frame are flaws that prevent total

identification. Eventually the protagonists demonstrate

some weakness, insensitivity, or failing that negates their

hold on our feelings, drawing instead our wonder or disappro-

bation. We begin to question the characters, and in that

questioning move away from the unthinking stock response.

In addition, these flaws, unlike those of traditional charac-

ters, are never truly overcome; they stay with the charac-

ters throughout and, by virtue of their presence, contribute

to our sense of ambiguity. The weaknesses are sometimes

well-hidden, as in The Sting, or obvious, as in Waldo Pepper,

but are always an integral part of the film.

The outlaw heroes of Butch Cassidy are loveable, charm-

ing, attractive figures whose stereotypical strengths are

counterpointed by their seemingly limitless capacity for

bad judgment. As the film progresses, their inability to

see the hopelessness of their situation becomes a mark of

their limitation, not their charm. Any sympathetic judg-

ment is qualified by recognition that their independence is

as much stumbled into as chosen; they do not understand

the consequences of their actions. They contrast dramati-

cally to the characters in The Wild Bunch, who decide to

adhere to their old values rather than submit to the new

technological world. Before the climactic shootout, Pike

and Dutch exchange glances, indicating that they know the

probable outcome of returning for Angel, but accept those

consequences of their actions.

Billy Pilgrim is an engaging, but impotent naif who

accepts prisons, such as life in Ilium, with a perseverance

that borders on masochism. He lacks the ability or initia-

tive to solve his problems, and accordingly his "triumph"

on Tralfamadore is more accidental and fantastic than earned.

Despite our sympathy for him, he never becomes competent or

strong enough to draw our identification. Hooker and Gon-

dorff are roguishly charming con men, but no charm can hide

the fact that the sting is performed as much for self-grati-

fication as for revenge. At the end of the film, they deny

that justice, the motive that has sanctioned their actions

and made them more sympathetic than Lonnegan, is attainable

or even worthwhile. This last minute reversal mutes some

of our strong feelings for them and negates an unthinking

emotional response to them.

While Waldo Pepper emerges victorious over Kessler,

his road to that victory seems accidental, not earned. In

addition, his lie about the fight with Kessler, his in-

ability to learn from the experiences of his friends, and

his failure in the attempted rescue of Mary Beth are quali-

ties inconsistent with those usually associated with heroes.

Once again the complete identification customary in com-

mercial film is lacking. Reggie Dunlop, of Slapshot, de-

monstrates few of the virtues we expect to find in a con-

ventional protagonist. There is no sensitivity or under-

standing hidden beneath his rough exterior; the crudity is

the man. The championship cannot disguise the fact that

Dunlop has manipulated the emotions of his players, ruined

his own marriage, and almost destroyed the neurotic Lily


The variations in character, which suggest an addi-

tional dimension to the films, are adumbrated and buttressed

by the variations in structure. In conventional films, the

character moves from a state of tension or estrangement to

one of harmony and order through acquiesence to the conven-

tional morality. Whatever problems the characters encounter

are eventually resolved by an appeal to the precepts of

traditional wisdom. They (and we) learn the "proper" way

to act and think, and the world becomes clearer and less

threatening. In John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,

for example, Ransom Stoddard, and the civilization which he

both endorses and represents, is threatened by the anarchic

violence of Liberty Valence. Stoddard refuses to use force,

attempting instead to break Valence's hold through the law,

education, and the press. When that fails, he eventually

learns that socially approved violence must establish

civilization. Though violence is dishonorable and may

be a part of civilization, it is occasionally necessary to

defend society. Those who practice violence are honored,

but by their very nature excluded from society. Other

Western films, like George Stevens' Shane, preach the same

concepts, as did almost all Hollywood war films. Gangster

films almost always begin with the criminals in the ascen-

dency, move through periods of greater criminal success,

and usually end with the criminal a victim of his own ar-

rogance or other failings, and the law victorious because

of its superior intelligence or moral strength. Evil, it

seems, contributes to its own destruction, while the law is

by its nature triumphant. Whether or not crime is actually

that simple is beside the point; the movies usually portrayed

it in that manner. Romantic films usually involved some

separation of the lovers, or some basic misunderstanding,

as in Top Hat,that had to be overcome before the happy con-

clusion of marriage. Films like Mildred Pierce, Imitation

of Life, and Young Man with a Horn depicted people attempting

to achieve success. Those characters usually reached their

goal, but lost the much more valuable spiritual wealth of

family and friends that has almost always been endorsed in

popular culture. At the end, they usually recognized this

commonplace of conventional wisdom and learned a bitter

lesson, or else were reprieved and given another chance.

The variations of the commercial story are endless, but the

basic structure remains the same: Those who accept conven-

tional morality gain happiness.

In Hill's films, this basic structure is reversed.

The characters have problems because they accept the dictates

of conventional wisdom, not because they have cut themselves

off from it. They begin as firm adherents to some quintes-

sentially American belief and untypically move to a state

of estrangement or tension because of their adherence to

that belief. Such a basic reversal of structure alters the

thematic thrust of Hill's films. Conventional morality hin-

ders, not aids the comprehension of the world, and conse-

quently its validity is undercut.

In Butch Cassidy, for example, the outlaws are prime

examples of American individuality. They reject the closed

technological society and insist on their right to lead

their own lives. Ordinarily such an attitude would be sup-

ported or shown as a source of strength, but Hill shows

their blind adherence as a weakness leading to death. Their

inability to see that the concept of unfettered individualism

is no longer valid destroys them. Waldo Pepper and Reggie

Dunlop are typically American in their pursuit of excel-

lence and success. Identification with them is easy because

their desire has been bred into most Americans through schools

and social institutions. But, unlike the traditional heroes,

their desire for success leads to troublesome dilemmas, and

their "triumphs" are of such an ambiguous nature that we

question, rather than applaud, their achievements. Billy

Pilgrim starts with an unshakable belief in the sanctity

of the American family, an institution long dear to social

and religious leaders. But Billy finds only unhappiness

with his families; the strength that shouldtheoretically

support him is inadequate or nonexistent. Even his rescue

by Tralfamadore, because fantastic, underscores his failures

with his earth families. The characters in The Sting begin

with the traditional belief that there should be equal

justice for all, even those who are seemingly beyond the law.

But that attitude causes serious problems, and the two con

men end up rejecting the validity of the traditional notion

to assert that self-gratification is equally important.

Once we recognize that Hill's films are not crass imi-

tations of traditional works, we can perceive the outline of

the world present in his films. In his universe the indi-

vidual has become burdened with cultural misconceptions.

The culture has shaped his attitudes in such a way that the

individual can conceive of discovering meaning and attaining

happiness only through the attainment of certain preordained

goals. For him, prescribed rituals, such as the performance

of a heroic action, lead to the prescribed results of

respect and reward. The cultural concepts are so dominating

that the individual cannot conceive of alternatives, and

thus the concepts occasionally become more valuable than

life itself. Worse, Hill argues, the concepts are anti-

quated, describing fixed relationships that no longer apply

to a fluid, changingworld, and, at their worst, absorbing

the individual.

A review of the conflict in each film shows that it

is the individual's belief in a concept that is the source

of trouble. Butch and Sundance are trapped by their belief

in the nobility of heroic individualism. The nineteenth

century gentleman's code, as interpreted through American

eyes, envisioned men whose moral probity was unquestioned,

whose courage unchallenged, whose stoicism, endurance, and

strength understood. Generous, heroic, the individual

proved his right to adulation by his extraordinary feats,

his capacity to perform beyond the abilities of ordinary

men. He stood distinct from society and yet was an important

element of it, and his success was his guarantee of personal

bliss. Perhaps, as Mark Twain suggested, this concept came

from the fevered writings of Sir Walter Scott, perhaps out

of the manners and morals of the Victorian era, but, what-

ever its origins, the idea's influence cannot be doubted.

The hero of innumerable Hollywood genre films embodied the

same romantic characteristics, and society, through its

emphasis on success, has always condoned and encouraged such

qualities. Gifted achievers in sports, politics, and busi-

ness were lauded as long as they maintained the external

facade of a chivalrous gentleman.

Butch and Sundance, no matter how far they have drifted

from the original model, still believe in and are motivated

by the doctrine of individualism. They become criminals

because it gives them the freedom to be distinct indivi-

duals and the opportunity to gain material wealth. The

money allows them to play at and indulge in the role of the

gentleman, and they find a camaraderie and a celebrated

status that the more conventional figures, such as the mar-

shall, do not. Not only do they enact the role of the in-

dividual hero, but they think perpetually in terms of it.

Butch talks of joining up and fighting in the Spanish-

American war. "We could be heroes," he says, envisioning

in Boy Scout fashion a career where courage and gallantry

would result in homage and reward. Such actions and remarks,

while typically romantic, reveal an overwhelming naivete,

a misunderstanding of society in general and the war in

particular. Dominated by their all-consuming belief in

the doctrine of individuality, the outlaws can conceive of

no other course of action than their present one; they per-

sist in the same routines even as the world collapses around

them. They fail to see that the concept of individuality

is a myth. Society may encourage personal endeavor, but it

suppresses any unfettered individuality. The outlaws' re-

liance on crime to fulfill the myth is evidence that society

provides no opportunities for the romantic spirits it fosters.

Nor can they see that the structured technological society

has resources beyond their strengths. Their fate is obvi-

ous, but they, unable to conceive of any alternatives to

their lives, maintain the old ceremonies until the end.

Reggie Dunlop and Waldo Pepper are also enthralled

by the idea of success. They believe, and their appeal as

characters suggests that the audience believes, that suc-

cess brings concomitant material and spiritual happiness.

The homage enjoyed by the successful beckons them, and each

in his own way wishes to attain some goal that will seemingly

relieve his feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction. Such

a desire seems second nature in a culture which almost in-

discriminately lauds those who have achieved. Stories of

spartan denial and dedication are part of the American

mythology, and social institutions--religious, civic,and

educational--constantly urge such striving for perfection.

Both men are believers in the doctrine. For Waldo, happi-

ness can only come when he can claim the title of "the best

pilot in the world." For Reggie Dunlop, success means the

championship and some apochryphally beautiful existence

with a loving wife and adoring fans. This dream world,

similar to the one fantasized by the moronic sportswriter

and the broadcaster, captures Reggie, despite all his in-

telligence. For both men, the goal is worth any sacrifice.

Waldo gives up a relationship with Maudie and any real

social contact with people to pursue this elusive dream.

Reggie gives up his wife, abuses the emotions of his players,

and insensitively uses Lily Braden for his own ends--all for

an unrealizable success. The two are so obsessed that they

cannot see the emptiness of their own lives and the pain

that they cause others.

Billy Pilgrim is the most typically American of Hill's

heroes, for he ardently believes in the supremacy of the

family, the fundamentally strong and beautiful unit whose

enshrinement in the innumerable films reflects the cultural

belief in its importance. The films of John Ford, for ex-

ample, always posit the family as the locus of moral force

and cultural strength. Billy accepts this belief, and

Slaughterhouse-Five details his search for a family, first

with Edgar Derby, then with Val, and finally with Montana.

But the film also shows that the "families" are models of

impotency (with Derby) and spiritual bankruptcy. Billy's

willingness to disregard evidence to that effect is a mea-

sure of his blind devotion to the ideal, and an explanation

of his persistent unhappiness. Since he cannot conceive of

any alternative to the family, he suffers painfully with

Val, Barbara, and Robert. Billy cannot escape his pain,

and the triumph on Tralfamadore shows not so much the tradi-

tional strength of the family, but rather that the perfect

family exists only in a fantasy, unattainable in our modern


At first glance, the con men heroes of The Sting seem

atypical, but nonetheless their situation is generally

analogous to that of other Hill protagonists. The differ-

ence is that only one character, Johnny Hooker, has anything

approaching a conventional belief. The younger man believes

in equal justice for all. Success, such as his and Luther's,

should be a proof of one's skill, intelligence, and manipu-

lative ability; a mark of distinction in a particular trade.

It should not be reached, as it is by Lonnegan, through

cheating and murder. In order to revenge Luther, and, in

effect, assert that all are subject to the same laws and

rules, Hooker sets out to humiliate Lonnegan. He becomes

an avenging angel, a guarantor of the equality and justice

we all hold dear, who defeats the forces of Lonnegan and

Lt. Snyder. But curiously his success is not brought about

by a reliance on traditional beliefs and emotions; rather

it comes through the manipulative skill and miraculous fore-

sight of Gondorff, who is indifferent to revenge and justice.

Characters so dominated by a concept lose their indi-

viduality; they play the role society expects and repress

natural feelings in order to maintain a particular image.

The outlaws become courteous, chivalrous, and gallant

despite the incongruity of their profession with such vir-

tues, and maintain this facade even in times of danger.

When they retrieve the money from the Bolivian bandits,

they do so because the gentlemanly code demands that they

honor their commitment to Percy Gariss, not because they

enjoy shooting people or are after the money. Common sense

would dictate that they avoid such danger, but they act as

they feel they should act, not as the situation would seem

to demand. Waldo Pepper is also more posture than person.

His fabricated Kessler story is repeated not out of vanity,

but out of Waldo's desperate need to fulfill the outward

requirements of the individual hero role. He needs proof

of his greatness, and manufactures it when circumstances

deny him the opportunity to demonstrate his qualifications.

The final battle is a costumed sequence, and this fact

only underscores the point that Waldo plays a role that

he finds satisfying. Reggie Dunlop also plays various roles

for different people, manipulating them for his own ends.

When he drops these assumed masks, he reveals another, more

consistent persona. He plays the confident hero for his

wife, projecting dreams of imminent success that contrast

with the depressing bleakness of his situation. He plays

a macho jock for Lily Braden, apparently because he thinks

it appropriate for a sports hero, and consequently he never

moves past crudities with her. She exists only as a con-

quest, not as a person. Billy Pilgrim so desperately be-

lieves in the efficacy of the American family that he goes

through the motions of the traditional father role even

though his family is a hopeless shambles. Taking a cue from

Edgar Derby, Billy, as a good father, eternally praises and

supports all that goes on in his family. For example, he

tells his Green Beret son that he is proud of him, even

though Robert's metamorphosis causes Billy much more pain

than pleasure. He defines himself through the father role

and exists as a complex of predetermined responses, not as

a person. The characters in The Sting adopt an endless

series of personas to achieve their con of Lonnegan. They

seldom drop the mask, not even for each other, for they

have consciously realized what the other Hill characters

intuitively know: that it is necessary to meet external re-

quirements in order to meet goals. But the result is still

the same: the personality becomes submerged beneath the


Once the difference in character and motivation are

seen, the dynamics of Hill's counter story become clearer.

As noted earlier, the characters begin as adherents of con-

ventional American beliefs and move, because of their

fidelity to those beliefs, to ambiguous resolutions of

their problems. Such a filmic structure suggests the in-

adequacy of conventional views, for they cannot account for

the changed, occasionally insensitive, sometimes threaten-

ing world the characters encounter. The conventional

morality, accepted so unthinkingly, is shown to be spiri-

tually bankrupt; the roles it prescribes for individuals

are now irrelevant, and it has no reserve resources to sus-

tain its adherents.

Hill's films, then, juxtapose two understandings of

the world. On the one hand there are the familiar genre

narratives with their conventional metaphysics. The extra-

ordinary success of his films indicates that the genre con-

ventions have maintained their potency. The audience still

finds American vitality, ingenuity, and skill attractive,

and sees the qualities as tools that enable one to deal with

the world. The characters seem familiar heroes, models whom

we can safely emulate. But the films also show a world

where conventional morality is false and inaccurate, hinder-

ing rather than helping the individual deal with the world.

Characters who accept the fraudulent conventions dissipate

their strengths in pursuit of illusory goals. Integrity,

loyalty, skill, and courage are wasted in service to outworn

ideals, and the individual, trapped by a system of unrealis-

tic beliefs, is doomed to slow disintegration.

The two narratives, seen together, yield more than

the naive optimism of the genre story or the cynicism of the

genre variations. The second narrative reveals an ugly side

of the first, forcing us to question conventional assumptions

often taken for granted. We are asked to see that the frame

of reference, the genre conventions, is no longer valid,

and that a more complex understanding of the world must be

arrived at.

Thus the films usually end on a negative note, showing

the disparity between the ideal (conventional assumptions)

and the depressing reality in which individualism is impos-

sible and characters are doomed by antiquated cultural be-

liefs. The films can be seen solely as a negative criticism

of the culture for they do not suggest an alternative to

the traditional understanding of the world. Not one Hill

character comes to terms with his problems or discovers any

potential solutions. But it is also possible to see the

films as implicitly asserting the need for a new independence.

The shock of recognition, the realization that Hill's cri-

ticisms are correct, may motivate some viewers to action.

Instead of blindly accepting the dictates of others, the

individual, in order to avoid the fate of Hill's characters,

must learn to see with his own eyes, rely on his own judg-

ments, and to be willing to change. The films describe a

problem to induce a response, but do not present any solu-


The study that follows examines in detail Hill's last

four major films, up to but not including Slapshot, in an

attempt to substantiate the general contentions put forth

here. Each analysis tries to show how these ideas are

developed in the individual films and to describe the vari-

ous forms taken by this continuing exploration of the Ameri-

can culture.


See Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies, 2nd
edition (Indianapolis, 1976), pp. 388, 401-02.

Also, James Monaco, How to Read a Film (New York,
1977), pp. 261-63.
See James Roy MacBean, Film and Revolution (Blooming-
ton, Ind., 1975), pp. 99-103, 312-26.

3 As quoted by Robin Wood, "Realism and Revolution,"
Film Comment, May-June 1977, pp. 17-23.

Mast, pp. 264-65, outlines the conventional morality
that ruled Hollywood for thirty years. "In 1934, Joseph
Breen went to work for the Motion Picture Producers and
Distributors of America; Breen's special responsibility for
the Hays Office was to serve as official arbiter of movie
morality. Breen, a Catholic layman, was pushed into the
office by the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency, which
advised the faithful to avoid those films that wereobjec-
tionable either as a whole or in part. Breen published and
enforced a formal moral code to keep the films from being
objectionable. Movies were to avoid brutality (by gangsters
and especially the police), they were to avoid depicting any
kind of sexual promiscuity unweddedd, extramarital, or per-
verted), and they were to avoid making any illegal or im-
moral life seem either possible or pleasant. . The
Breen code made marriage more a sacred institution than a
sexual one; the bedroom (with obligatory twin beds) became
more ornate and holy than a cathedral." (Italics added.)

Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (New York, 1975),
points out that "not only did the movies amuse and entertain
the nation through its most severe economic and social dis-
order, holding it together by their capacity to create uni-
fying myths and dreams, but movie culture in the 1930's
became a dominant culture for many Americans, providing
new values and social ideals to replace shattered old tradi-
tions" (p. 161). Sklar claims that the Production Code
of 1930, written by two Catholics, Martin I. Quigley and
Daniel A. Lord, operated in the following manner. "The

code at least faced up to a fact which previous moral regu-
lators had cloaked in ambiguity: without sex and crime
pictures, there wouldn't be enough patrons to sustain a
movie business. Granting this, Quigley and Father Lord
sought to devise a formula that would keep sex and crime
pictures within moral bounds. Their solution allowed for
a fairly wide leeway in depicting behavior considered im-
moral by traditional standards--adultery or murder, for
example--so long as some element of 'good' in the story
balanced what the code defined as evil. This was the
formula of 'compensating moral value': if 'bad' acts are
committed, they must be counteracted by punishment and re-
tribution, or reform and regeneration, of the sinful one.
'Evil and good are never to be confused throughout the
presentation,' the code said. The guilty must be punished;
the audience must not be allowed to sympathize with crime
or sin.

"The code went on to prohibit a vast range of human
expression and experience--homosexuality, which it described
as a 'sex perversion,' interracial sex, abortion, incest,
drugs, most forms of profanity . and scores of words
defined as vulgar" (p. 174).

Monaco, p. 262.

6Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame (Garden City, N.Y.,
1976), p. 112.
Braudy, p. 108.
Braudy, p. 110.

9Brauy, p. 110.
Braudy, p. 110.



Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is Hill's

first cinematic triumph, for it demonstrates that he can in-

telligently explore and treat themes visually. The film

takes a stock situation of the Western genre, the conflict

between individuals and an advancing society, and by giving

it a new shape fashions a comment on American society. The

outlaws' story is as much the failure of romantic individual-

ism as it is the triumph of technological society, for the

outlaws' unwavering belief in the supremacy of the individual

unwittingly brings them to their end. Instead of the tradi-

tional genre view that the individual is the dynamic force

that prepares the road for and fosters the growth of society,

only to be rejected because his individuality does not fit

within the restrictions of civilization, Butch Cassidy shows

that individuality has become a limiting, enervating cul-

tural concept that ultimately absorbs rather than liberates

the self. The outlaw heroes, we discover, are impotent to

change. The mythic West is real to them, and they cling to

their romantic, myopic view despite all contrary evidence.

They continually act out the role of the heroic individual

in order to resolve the increasingly complex problems of

technological society rather than alter old ideas or test

new ones. The conception has become perception; the need to

be unrestricted, larger-than-life heroes dominates their

minds, and all actions are interpreted according to this

concept of self. Trapped by the roles, the outlaws become

static and, in a world where flux is the norm, die. In

Hill's Western, individualism is not so much out of place

as it is outmoded.

Most critics would deny the film this depth. Re-

viewers found it "an enervated and sophisticated business

venture," and claimed that "Hill and Goldman knew exactly

what they were doing--making a very slick movie." Espe-

cially criticized was the alleged lack of moral and artistic

clarity. The reviewer from Time found it a mishmash of

farce and tragedy, while Stanley Kauffmann and Pauline Kael
suggested there was no hint of artistic focus. Some

claimed that the film was empty because we could not sympa-

thize with the hollow, criminal characters. Kael found

schoolteachers like Etta Place, who did honest work, more

attractive than the outlaws, while Henry Hart claimed there

was a "lot of anti-establishmentarian glamorizing of

criminals," and "that beneath the kidding is the ideology,

and some of the propaganda of today's nihilists." Other

reviewers criticized it on the ground that it had no feel-

ing, no maturity, and no originality.5 Those who did like

it found it clever enough, and amusing, but not substantial.

Hollis Alpert is typical with his comment that "George Roy

Hill, following the plain lead of William Goldman's fine

screenplay, is all fun and games."6 No one thought the film

a serious work.

All these criticisms seem to make one basic error;

they judge the film by some fixed, external standard, not by

the standards and boundaries the film creates for itself.

Consider the claim that the film is suspect because it lacks

a moral center and that, as Hart suggests, conscientious

characters like Woodcock are more attractive than the amoral

heroes.7 This might be true in some external system, but it

is certainly not true within the movie. Woodcock, we are

made to see, fanatically and foolishly clings to his duties

because he covets his job, not because of any abstract

values. His tenacity evidences his shallowness, and he de-

serves to be laughed at. Pauline Kael argues that school-

teachers like Etta were more essential to the settling of

the West, and are therefore more attractive than the out-

laws and flaw the picture. Perhaps schoolteachers were im-

portant to the settling of the West, but the film is not

about the advance of civilization. When Etta goes with the

outlaws, she goes because they offer a vitality that the

town cannot. "All the excitement I've ever known is right

here with me," she says at the moment of choice. Etta's

perhaps foolish choice is for an unordered world rather

than the strait jacket of town life.

The most important rebuttal to the claim of immorality,

however, is the outlaws' morality. Like Western heroes

before them, they have a recognizable, attractive code of

values. There is a concept of honor (Sundance's willing-

ness to fight for his honor in the opening scenes) and re-

sponsibility (their actions with Percy Gariss). They ac-

cord respect to others who can survive in their world, and

ask only the same respect in return. And their reprehen-

sible larceny appears attractive only if we ignore its de-

bilitating nature. It would be more productive to focus on

the subject that seems to attract both the audience and the

director: the tension between the individuals and society.

The outlaws' story offered Hill the opportunity to explore

this perennially intriguing subject, and criticism should

focus on his handling of that, not the details. Butch

Cassidy is no more about bankrobbing than Bonnie and Clyde.

Most viewers enjoyed the film, unaffected by the cri-

tics' concerns, for it is a well-done, entertaining genre

story. The outlaws and the posse are representative of two

ways of life. The outlaws are clearly the traditional

heroic individuals, persons who have declared their separate-

ness from the sometimes entangling and leveling restrictions

of society. The posse, physically and symbolically, is the

force of the new, impersonal technological society. The

physical struggle between the two groups becomes a metaphor

for the struggle between two ways of life. The posse's

triumph signals the beginning of a new, less attractive

world, a celebration of order at the expense of individuality;

the film becomes an elegy to a way of life that has passed.

The genre story is clearly discernible, for Hill high-

lights the characters' representational status and the dif-

ferences between the two groups. Butch and Sundance are

presented as larger-than-life heroes, the incarnation of

the West and its values. They exist throughout the film

as almost legendary characters. The title sequence tells

us that "they once ruled the West"; E. H. Harriman, the

railroad magnate hires a special posse to hunt them down

as the last visible threat to the expanding society; the

old sheriff identifies them as the last remnants of a dying

race; Sundance's skill with a gun has earned him a larger-

than-life identity; and the continual use of close-ups

emphasizes their stature in relation to the other, almost

anonymous characters in the film. Hill endows these charac-

ters with qualities that typify the old West. The outlaws

survive and triumph through the use of individual skills.

They are forthright, honorable, and courageous, loyally

supporting and refusing to take advantage of each other.

And, though never explicitly stated, these concepts form a

code of values by which they live.

Arrayed against them are the men of the posse, the

equally archetypal representatives of the new, impersonal

society. Anonymous, mercenary, never clearly seen, attri-

buted nearly superhuman powers by the other characters, they
are clearly symbolic of the new order. The leaders of

this world, like the unseen E. H. Harriman, and the source

of their power, the indistinct crowd in the town, are equally

faceless and impersonal. The new citizens, like Woodcock,

the payroll guard, live and fight for position in an organi-

zation rather than for themselves, and, as the failure of

the marshall indicates, are indifferent to words like

courage, honor, and responsibility.

Most viewers understandably sympathize with the out-

laws, for they embody the qualities we desire and admire.

We follow them, and suffer with them, and can find their

death sad because we see in their refusal to yield to the

new order a gallant, though futile gesture. Butch Cassidy

(like The Wild Bunch and The Shootist) celebrates an ele-

mental vitality that has been lost in the transition to

technological society.

But in addition, Hill frustrates our stock expecta-

tions, creating an ambiguity that prevents identification

and encourages a distanced, critical perspective on the out-

laws and their actions. Once we move past the stock re-

sponses, we see that the story is ironic: The film, in ex-

posing the weaknesses of the genre and its metaphysics,

moves us from sympathy with the outlaws to a less emotional

understanding of their failure. This is not to say the

film parodies the genre, only that it examines it more

carefully than is customary. It shows the limitations of

unchallenged cultural conventions and implicitly urges a

new independence: freedom from the chains of ideas, whether

they be as restrictive as those of the advancing technologi-

cal society, or as lulling, but ultimately false, as those

of an older world.

The ironic perspective results from Hill's disruption

of our stock responses, and this occurs from the beginning.

The title sequence, a throwaway in many commercial films,

here establishes the ambiguity prevalent in the outlaws'

world, and forces us to think before committing our sympa-

thies. Purportedly an old newsreel of the Cassidy gang in

action, the sequence shows the outlaws robbing a train and

then being foiled by a posse. It not only presages the chase

sequence in the center of the film, but is also a cinematic

allusion to Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, the

prototypical Western film. The situation is the same in

the newsreel and in Porter's film, and even some of the

shots are similar (the passengers are lined up and robbed in

each; a passenger is shot in the Porter film, a guard in the

newsreel) in camera placement and composition. However, in

the Porter film and the genre that springs from it, people

act out of understandable motives; moral values are clear,

and rewards and punishments distributed according to that

fixed value system. Thus, we know the gang in The Great

Train Robbery deserves punishment because they have, by shoot-

ing an unarmed passenger, proven their cowardice and immoral-

ity. We cheer when they have been captured or killed and

the world set right again. In Hill's sequence, the out-

laws appear to be bandit heroes. They shoot the guard only

because he tried to obtain unfair advantage, another cow-

ardly action that violates the standard moral code. The

audience prepares to respond to them until they are cast as

villains by the appearance of the posse, who break up the

robbery. But the resolution is ambiguous. The posse fails

to capture the outlaws; the outlaws fail to complete the

robbery; and we are left with an inconclusive puzzle that

refuses to be solved by any standard emotional response.

The title sequence is a tonal rubric of the film. The am-

biguities produced by the variations in genre format serve

as the first indication that we are not in cinematically

familiar territory.

The opening scenes of the film proper grow out of the

title sequence in that they continue to develop the sense

of ambiguity found there. These sepia-toned scenes appear

to be common commercial fare, introducing us to heroes who

are likeable and extraordinarily skilled. Yet, if we look

carefully, we find that Hill has controlled the cinematic

elements to suffuse the scenes with a non-standard sensibil-

ity. In the first shot, the camera follows Butch as he cases

a bank and then jokes about the bank's formidable security;

the joke works (for most viewers) and the humor that is

Butch's hallmark is established. However, the visual ele-

ments undercut the ease and humor of the scene. The film

opens with a rack through focus from a window to a shot of

Butch behind a barred window. The association with jail

is unavoidable, even though Butch overturns it by stepping

out into the street a moment later. Inside the bank, the

prison association continues. As Butch stands in the center

of the bank, glancing at the various security paraphernalia,

Hill cuts from the bolts, doors, and windows, slamming and

shutting, to Butch's face, which is gradually becoming

darker. The montage effect suggests Butch as the one being

enclosed and imprisoned. The sense of foreboding is broken

by Butch's joke, but the visual content of the scene remains

negative; it creates an ambiguous tension, parallel to that

of the title sequence, that retards the affective impulse

usually accompanying such scenes.

We are then introduced to the Sundance Kid, a more

recognizable Western hero. In the duel of nerves with the

card dealer, Sundance demonstrates the self-assurance and

extraordinary skill expected, winning an immediate and

favorable audience response. The visual and dramatic con-

tent, however, conveys additional information that alters

our understanding of the traditional scene. The juncture

between this and the opening scene is the first hint that

there is another dimension. As the guard closes the door

on Butch, the camera rests on the black door just long enough

for us to hear the latch closing. There is then a direct

cut to Sundance's face, a shift that joins the connotations

of the first scene to the second. Further, if we note the

composition, we find a visual comment oh the nature of the

outlaws' world. Sundance is framed by the shoulders of the

card players, thus rendering him explicit and them anonymous.

We see the dealer's face only for a moment, when he learns

of Sundance's identity. Such composition suggests something

of the anonymous nature of the outlaws' opponents, and in a

small way prepares the groundwork for the posse. Finally,

we have Butch's facetious comment that Sundance may be "over

the hill." The line becomes funny in light of Sundance's

performance, but it also introduces the idea of being over-

taken, of failing to survive, that is central to the film.

The first two scenes, then, do more than'introduce

our heroes. First, the base of one of the film's main themes,

the passing of an era, is set in the bank and in Butch's

comment. Second, since they are shot in a sepia tone, the

scenes induce a nostalgic sense of identification with the

past; however, there is a concomitant, though less distinct

suggestion that the men and the qualities they represent are

extinct. Third, the contrast between the visual element

and the dramatic element creates an ambiguity that prevents

total identification with the heroes. And fourth, the limita-

tions of the outlaws are outlined for us. As the movie pro-

gresses, we discover that the outlaws never go beyond the

qualities demonstrated here. They always resolve problems

by wit or by skill with a gun; for them, it is an individual

encounter in an arena, and they never seem able to grasp

larger concepts or issues. The opening shots fully develop


The movie now shifts to color, but it still develops,

by a process of accretion, the ideas suggested in the sepia

scenes. We are shown something attractive or humorous, that

draws our sympathies for the outlaws, but which also contains

shadings that suggest potential dangers or the limitations

of the characters. The commercial entertainment takes on an

added substance that transforms the stereotypes into charac-

ters and the stock plot into a vehicle for exploring ideas.

Consider, for example, the sequence which follows them back

to their camp. The shots show the magnificent countryside,

the harsh, yet promising landscape that is part of the

American myth of the West. The dialogue affirms that the

struggle is between these two classic Western heroes and the

changing society, and it reveals the affable humanity of the

characters. The talk of Bolivia demonstrates that the out-

laws are searching for another place to live, thus making

their move there plausible later, and shows that they have

some understanding of their situation.

But on another level the dialogue shows that the out-

laws' understanding of their situation is superficial and

incomplete, and also that this lack is as important as the

confrontation with society. Butch simplistically equates

Bolivia with the California of 1849, and this equation indi-

cates that, for Butch, an El Dorado always exists, a dream-

land where he can enjoy his present lifestyle. The prob-

lem for him is not one of accepting the changes encountered;

it is one of finding another pastoral locale in which he

can avoid the problems of change. Butch and Sundance fear

change because they cannot comprehend the consequences of it,

and remain adamant in their refusal to change. Their present

existence seems benevolently ordered for their own greatest

good. Their paradise provides everything, and they have

ample opportunity to demonstrate their rugged individuality.

Simply by taking from others they satisfy their need for plea-

sure, money, status, and self-sufficiency. And, incredibly,

such an effort has been blessed by the peculiar circumstances

of the time; their ability to survive and prosper on the

frontier has made them heroes. No wonder the past holds such

attraction for them.

They seem determined to exist there, as their dialogue

indicates. When Sundance laughs at the outlandishness of

Bolivia, Butch deprecatingly pokes fun at himself. "Boy,"

he says, "I've got vision; the rest of the world's got bi-
focals." This ironic comment was meant to show Butch's

understanding, but there is another edge to it as well.

Butch may josh about his ideas, but when it comes to the

acid test he embraces them: He goes to Bolivia and chases

his dream. He may sense that his understanding is incom-

plete, may joke about it, but he will not make an effort to

correct it. The attractions of the past exert too great a

hold on him. Sundance's laugh and dismissal of the remark

with a shrug indicates a similar weakness on his part. He

acts only when physically threatened; otherwise he is con-

tent to let events, thoughts, and insights pass him by.

Unless confronted with something concrete, Sundance, pure

response, cannot deal with the world around him. He is

limited by his perception of what is important (his honor

and his survival), content to let others lead him, and

unwilling to question himself or his world.

The exchange introduces a new dimension to their strug-

gle, for we see that the outlaws are ill-equipped to deal

with the advancing society. Their childishly naive under-

standing of the world is so superficial as to be unacceptable;

it seems founded on some vague conceptions of an Edenic past.

In traditional films, as Michael Wood points out, there is

never any question of the value of individuality, only its

place in relation to society.11 Here, the individuality

associated with the outlaws is problematical; it seems in-

capable of dealing with the world, and we are forced to

question its potency and value. Central to this questioning

is the problem of vision, to use the language of Butch's

metaphor. We realize that their survival depends on the

clarity with which they see, and, if this scene is an in-

dication, their perspicuity is sadly lacking. As the film

progresses, we find them continually limited by their in-

ability to see beyond the outlines of a romantic myth, and

the question of their perceptual acuity becomes as much a

part of the film as does the elegy to their lost way of life.

The scenes with Harvey and the first train robbery

well illustrate the importance of perception. Most viewers

see them as entertaining incidents, laughing as Butch out-

wits Harvey and Woodcock, and strengthening its identifica-

tion with the bandits. But the scenes also reveal the in-

creasing pressure on the outlaws' world: internally, from

the members of the gang, and externally, from the new organi-

zation man. Woodcock delays the robbery for only a few

seconds, but his motive, love of place in an organization,

is a veiled warning to the outlaws. And, of course, the

scenes show the outlaws are unable to comprehend the danger

to their idyllic world.

This inability is evidenced in the scene with Harvey,

in which Butch defeats the clod with some fast talk and a

kick to the groin. It is generally humorous, but one shot

suggests another response. Hill disturbs our perception

of the scene, disrupting our stock response, by having a

"screen" of dust flow between the characters and the camera;

he asks, in effect, that we exert ourselves in order to see

the scene. We are given a medium close-up of Butch's face

as he spins a line about needing to spend more time in town.

As he speaks, a cloud of dust passes in front of him, obscur-

ing Harvey from him and him from us--a visual metaphor for

Butch's clouded vision. He cannot see that Harvey represents

something beyond mere physical danger, nor that circumstances

are forcing him to spend more time in town. To him it is only

a challenge, another opportunity to prove his individual

ability to survive. He cannot or will not see events as any-

thing other than a continuing chapter in an endless fairy


The scene with Woodcock serves as a similar reminder.

Woodcock's inept bungling induces laughter as the genre hero

encounters the buffoon. But once we reflect on the scene,

the stock response again proves inadequate. Woodcook fore-

shadows something dangerous. His willingness to die for an

organization is representative of the lack of individuality

and the desire for anonymity that will doom the outlaws.

Butch, with his comment that "all that matters is that we

come out ahead," reduces the situation to an I-win-you-lose

formula; he deals with the present, and cannot move beyond

the immediate. To most in the audience he remains attrac-

tive, but as he stands in the swirling smoke (perhaps acci-

dental, but perhaps seized upon by Hill for use as a meta-

phor), he remains undeniably limited.

The town sequence that follows emphasizes the same

point. On the one hand the scene is funny, with the cuts

between the fatuous marshall and the relaxing outlaws; on

the other hand it indicates the serious dangers that must

be faced and the outlaws' non-comprehension of them. The

subtle shift in attitude indicated by the marshall's failure

is frightening. He cannot raise a posse with appeals to duty,

individual responsibility, or self-respect because the people

in the town find these ideas meaningless. The apathetic

crowd is representative of the new sheep, people who retreat

into anonymity and the safety of the group. They have re-

linquished their individuality for the guarantee of safety,

and contrast sharply with the outlaws, who are still willing

to fight for their honor. The threat such an attitude re-

presents, the massed power of such blank mindless force,

though minimized by laughter, should not be ignored.

The second threat is the bicycle salesman, with his

machine "that won't do much--only change the course of your

lives." Butch indulges childishly in the novelty of the

bike and does not see that the new technology is altering

the West. The third element is less obvious. The dialogue

between the two men reveals a naivete, an unthinking belief

in nineteenth century romanticism, that will always have

difficulty dealing with the world. Butch suggests joining

up and fighting in the Spanish-American war; "We could be

heroes," he says. The comment evidences such a simplistic

picture of war and the world that even Sundance reacts;

he burst the bubble by saying Butch is too old. Butch is

angered, so Sundance backs off and restores peace. Butch

cannot accept criticism because it implies error and is an

implicit challenge to the perfection of his daydream world.

Sundance cannot be bothered with anything other than his

immediate situation; he seems to hope indifference will dis-

sipate his problems. Their tolerance for each other keeps

the relationship smooth, but it should not prevent us from

seeing the extent of their limitations.

Next comes the bike riding scene, carefree and joyous,

with its bright colors, soft focus photography, and lyric

music. Yet even in the midst of it, detail indicates that

the outlaws will not be able to maintain this bliss. As

Butch and Etta roll under the trees, Etta picks off an

apple, takes a bite, and hands it to Butch. Associations

with the Garden of Eden and a fall from paradise come to

mind, particularly when we consider that the happiness

stressed through color, music, and photography is taking

place aboard a bike, the symbol of a new era. The means

of destruction has already entered the paradise. In addi-

tion, another "screen," this time of blossoms, obtrudes and

slightly obscures our vision during the last exchange of

dialogue. The "screen" suggests again that the action needs

more than a superficial glance to be understood. Butch tells

Etta that a shortage of money necessitates another robbery,

a problem Etta suggests is caused by Butch's foolish, spend-

thrift ways. He shrugs in agreement and moves on through

the blossoms, ever unwilling to consider the implications.

He cannot "see" the problem because his internal perception

is as blurred as the physical.

At this point, the film has developed the outlaws'

character, both strengths and weaknesses, and outlined the

nature of the forces arranged against them. The film has

demonstrated their admirable qualities, inducing almost total

identification with them, and thus allowing us to share in

their happiness and gaiety. Also, we align ourselves with

them in the seemingly clear-cut struggle against the en-

croaching society. Yet the attractiveness and simplicity

covers a more complex situation. The movie dissociates

us from the outlaws by constantly reminding us that there

is something intrinsically awry with their way of living.

The outlaws' continuing inability to comprehend the world

around them interferes with our simple emotional response.

In addition, not only has each scene contributed to our

awareness of their limitations, but the sequence of situations,

the narrative structure, suggests that their world is slowly

disintegrating. They move from less to more threatening

situations, a structural progression that parallels and

underscores the gradual erosion of their world. By the

time of the bicycle sequence, there is a tension that must

be resolved, and it is apparently done in the chase sequence.

That reaffirms the outlaws' humanity, and gives an old an-

swer to the problem of encroaching society: flight to less

developed lands. The trip to New York City and the Bolivian

robbery sequence seem the realization of that traditional

possibility. But, as always, Hill undercuts their triumph,

showing instead that they are only proceeding in the same

self-destructive direction. The shootout with the army in

Bolivia is simply a substitute for the shootout with the

posse, a moment they have been able to delay, not escape.

Their struggle at first calls forth the audience's

sympathy. As the posse becomes more resolute, the outlaws

become more human and accessible, suffering reversals, and

becoming tired, dirty, and drawn. Their extraordinary skills

fail them, and they escape only by virtue of chance, a quality

that heroes rise above. In contrast to their humanity stands

the abstract nature of the posse; it seems pure presence,

the antithetical force that opposes all outlaws. We first

see the engine of their train, shot in low or odd angles to

emphasize its size and power, and presented in a montage of

parts to point out its impersonality. The posse disgorged

from the train takes on these same qualities. Their skill

and power are evidenced through the quick killing of the two

outlaws, and their impersonality through the series of ex-

treme long shots. The camera draws farther and farther

away until they become a series of lights, a cloud of dust

on the horizon. In some sequences there is only a shot of

the landscape, recently traversed by the outlaws, and a sound,

something like distant thunder, which suggests the presence

of the pursuing force. The outlaws' questions--"Who are those

guys?" "Don't they ever quit?" "Why don't they do something

different?"--only emphasize the metaphoric nature of the

posse. It has become the physical incarnation of the tech-

nological society, the threat of death.

But the chase sequence also reveals the fundamental

limitations of the characters. The sequence begins with a

comic set piece, the second encounter with Woodcock, that

subtly points out the growing danger and the outlaws' ob-

liviousness to it. There is laughable confusion in the ex-

plosion and the chase for money, but in the more formidable

safe lies another threatening technological development.

The ubiquitous dust cloud is again present as the outlaws

remain insensitive to the veiled threat of the safe. After

the chase gets underway, the insensitivity seems to increase

rather than decrease. This is perhaps clearest in the scene

with the old sheriff. They offer to trade their banditry

for army commissions, an idea so absurd the sheriff scoffs.

"Your times is dead," he tells them. "All you can do is

choose where you're going to die." The outlaws, true to


form, refuse to accept the increasingly obvious judgment,

and sheepishly depart. But we cannot ignore the accuracy

of that insight, for the action in the rest of the sequence

confirms the sheriff's assertion. Butch tries trick after

trick, with equal ineffectiveness, but still refuses to be-

lieve that his skills will not somehow save him. He cannot

grasp the totality of his situation because his mind has re-

jected the possibility of failure or surrender. In his life

and his romantic conceptions, success always follows a great

individual effort, and so he retains a blind faith in the

certainty of his own triumph. To him the posse is only a

more difficult test than his encounters with Harvey and Wood-

cock. They ultimately escape, but only through a despera-

tion leap that delays, but does not eliminate, a confronta-

tion with the new force. However, they see the escape as

some natural extension of their luck. Rather than change,

they decide to go to Bolivia. For them, it is still a prob-

lem of locale, not one of vision or conception of the world.

Etta knows this is self-deception, but our heroes push

blindly backward in spite of her.

The second half of the film parallels the first. The

outlaws draw our sympathies, but also reveal the same weak-

nesses that repelled us earlier. We see that they are

doomed, and remain victims of their romantic mythology.

There are two long entertaining visual sequences that capti-

vate the audience and simultaneously reveal that the weak-

nesses have not been shed in the transition from America to


In the city sequence we follow the outlaws from the

slowly turning bike wheel, the symbol of the new era, which

Butch has rejected, to New York, the center of the new world.

The trio is immensely attractive as they toy with turn of

the century New York, indulging themselves in its amusements,

posturing and posing--children on a holiday. Their attrac-

tiveness arises from the fact that they view the 1890's as

a fantasy world to be enjoyed, not something to be taken

seriously. And the technique of the sequence underscores

this fact. The stills, the montage, the lively music, the

locations--amusement galleries and public parks--, and the

sepia tone all seem to flow together to create a sense of

spontaneity and fun that is part of the outlaws' character.

But even so, that should not prevent us from seeing that they

are incapable of dealing with New York except as a dream

world. They cannot survive here, and must move backwards,

as the right to left motion of the train indicates, to the

pastoral locale of Bolivia.13

The bank robbery sequence in Bolivia is another superb

example of Hill's ability to combine concrete narrative de-

tail and abstract thematic statement into entertaining fare.

We follow the outlaws as they progress from bumbling ama-

teurs and regain their status as first-class robbers. In

a few minutes of film time, they gain the same notoriety

and success that were the subject of the first half of the

film. Other shots, though, remind us that the outlaws,

despite all their success, are still on the same treadmill.

In one robbery sequence the camera focuses not on their

cleverness, but on a bound bankguard, and follows his gaze

as he looks from the outlaws to a poster for "Bandidos Yan-

quis." Their pastoral locale becomes another arena for a

confrontation between the outlaws and the forces of the

society. Once again they have inadvertently created a po-

tentially destructive situation. Another shot shows the

outlaws escaping from the soldiers with a variation of the

"Sweetface" ruse, the same trick that failed them in their

chase with the posse. They have not moved forward; simply

fallen back into their old patterns, complete with the same

tired ruses that will ultimately fail again. When the se-

quence finishes, the intimation is confirmed. Etta and the

outlaws are forced from a luxury dinner by the sighting of

a white skimmer, a trademark of the man who led the posse.

This is a final revelation of their doom. The audience knows

that it is implausible, but the outlaws, haunted by a self-

projected fear, are trapped into the same old response of

flight. We realize now that they are endlessly fated to play

out the same scenario, always the victims of their own pro-


They decide to go straight, but their romantic concep-

tions make it a futile gesture. They still must fulfill

the requirements of the code, only they discover it now to

be an empty and unsatisfying experience. Instead of meta-

morphosis, they cloak the old self with a new costume, that

of payroll guards for Percy Gariss. When he gets shot, they

are put in the novel position of avenging a crime, for they

feel they must honor their commitment to him. This leads

them to a shootout with the bandits in which Butch reaches

perhaps the nadir of his career when for the first time he

is forced to shoot another man. The slow motion filming

emphasizes the violence, reflecting Butch's horror at the

killings. The finality of his descent is then underscored

as a cloud of dust moves in front of his face and a sound,

like distant thunder, is faintly heard. Butch still cannot

see the significance of his experiences; he remains haunted

by the posse, his avenues of escape slowly disappearing.

Etta's departure soon after fulfills her prophecy that she

would not watch them die.

The process of disintegration is quickly concluded.

We see the outlaws reduced to jungle work, bickering with

each other, and eating cheap meals in dirty towns. They have

reached the end of their journey, and the shootout is a

logical conclusion to the film. In that final battle, we

see the essential paradox of their lives. Their strengths

and attractive qualities, derived from the code of the hero,

prevent them from clearly seeing their situation or doing

anything about their occasionally gleaned insights. Even

though they are doomed, they play the role, gallantly ful-

filling the gentleman's code by maintaining a brave and in-

different facade in the midst of danger. They talk again,

in the same half-mock, half-serious tone with which they

talked of Bolivia, of new adventures. But the code, which

has no applicability except perhaps in moments of danger,

prevents them from ever going beyond that half-mocking tone.

They go to their deaths, misinterpreting their immediate

situation and oblivious to the larger context of their lives.

The film ends as an indictment of the American concepts

of heroism and individuality. The disappearance of the in-

dividual, the film suggests, was caused as much by the na-

ture of the idea as by the advancing society. The American

West, so often associated with individualism, serves as the

focal point of this study. Hill introduces figures who seem

archetypal incarnations of the Western hero: courageous,

gallant, talented, affable, and free from restraint, creators

and masters of their own world. But he also shows the flaw

in this ideal. In achieving their individuality, the charac-

ters have sacrificed the ability to respond and grow with

the changing situations. The image has trapped the man.

They feel they must play a hero's role and perform in cer-

tain ways, or else lose their feeling of worth. Even though

the role no longer accords with reality, they cling to it,

for they can conceive of no alternatives. In accepting the

anachronistic concept of individuality, Butch and Sundance

have cut themselves off from the flow of life. Their in-

ability to comprehend anything except in terms of this in-

dividual mystique makes them easy victims of technological


The perceptive viewer can see that American individual-

ism, in addition to its immense attractiveness, has an

inherent weakness, a preoccupation with the concerns of role

that prevents growth. Somehow, the film suggests, we must

enlarge our field of vision so that that pursuit of dreams

does not become a selfish, self-limiting, self-defeating


Butch Cassidy is Hill's first film to go beyond genre

limitations, using the familiar material as part of a new

creation, an incisive examination of the culture's funda-

mental assumptions. It marks a new stage of growth and

maturity in Hill's career, commercially and artistically,

one that continues in his next film, Slaughterhouse-Five.


Pauline Kael, "The Bottom of the Pit," New Yorker,
45, 27 September 1969, p. 128.
Vincent Canby, rev. of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid, The New York Times, 25 September 1969, p. 54, col. 1.

3 See "Double Vision," Time, 94, 26 September 1969,
p. 94. Also Kael, p. 128, tells us that Hill "doesn't
really seem to have the style for anything, yet there is a
basic decency and intelligence in his work." She also sug-
gests, p. 127, that the film is "a glorified vacuum."
Stanley Kauffmann, "On Film," New Republic, 161, 26 October
1969, p. 32, tells us that the film is "unfocused and un-
realized." Roland Gelatt, "The Old Refrain," Saturday Review,
20 September 1969, p. 30, suggests that the film, with its
modernisms, is uneven and unsuccessful.

Kael, p. 128. Also, Henry Hart, rev. of Butch Cas-
sidy and the Sundance Kid, Films in Review, 20, No. 8, p. 510.
Kael, pp. 128-29, says that "after watching a put-on
rape and Conrad Hall's 'Elvira Madigan' lyric interlude .
I began to long for something simple and halfway felt. If
you can't manage genuine sophistication, you may be better
off simple." Kauffmann, p. 32, says that "Hill's direction,

like the writing, is imitative of everything that's 'in.'"
Canby, p. 54, claims that the outlaws' "decline and fall
was the sort of alternately absurd and dreamy saga that
might have been fantasized by Truffaut's Jules and Jim and
Catherine--before they grew up." John Simon, Movies into
Film (New York, 1971), pp. 177-78, finds the film filled
with a "plethora of supposedly stylish devices," imitative
of Bonnie and Clyde, and an attempt to be "very attentive
to period flavor, and wildly 'now.'" He claims that "Hill's
direction, like Goldman's scenario and Hall's cinematography,
is too adorably and calculatedly puckish, as if the film
had been made by a bunch of corrupt koalas."

6Hollis Alpert, "Variations on a Western Theme,"
Saturday Review, 27 September 1969, p. 39.

7Hart, p. 510.

Kael, p. 128.

9The posse consists of hired guns instead of the tradi-
tional group of aroused citizens.

10 All quotes are from the films; any italics have been
Michael Wood, America in the Movies (New York, 1975),
pp. 24-51.
In the documentary film, The Making of Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid, Hill remarks that he experimented with
foilage masks to screen the actors' faces. The experiment
was rejected because it was too awkward, but the remark shows
that Hill's use of a screen would not be accidental.

13 The outlaws' inability to cope with the new world
is also illustrated by Sundance's remark that he is from
New Jersey. He left the East because he could not find a
compatible life there.



Billy Pilgrim, the American Dreamer in Hill's Slaughter-

house-Five (1972), searches for the security and happiness

that participation in the dream supposedly provides. He

fails to find it, however, in a world that contains the

horror of Dresden and the stultifying vapidness of Ilium, and

instead retreats to the paradise of Tralfamadore. Life there

is eminently satisfying to him, for it seems at last an af-

firmation of the American Dream. On Tralfamadore, respect,

kindness, courtesy, and love help relieve suffering and

create the spiritual happiness that serves as an alternative

to the shallow, materialistic world of Ilium.

Slaughterhouse-Five, then, seems another statement of

conventional wisdom in its insistence that a return to

spiritual values brings happiness. The film follows Billy

Pilgrim, the archetypal American, born on the Fourth of

July, as he attempts to bring his search for happiness to a

successful end. It follows him as he accepts the ideals

of Edgar Derby, the incarnation of small town American good-

ness, and then discovers the inadequacy of Derby's idealism

in a harsh, modern world. The film follows Billy as he

converts to the ideals of the American material dream, the


equation of material success with happiness. But, as the

film humorously and satirically points out, that life is a

false and shallow existence, hardly worth the having. It

follows him as he finally escapes to Tralfamadore, where

the timeless spiritual values of family and basic decency

serve as a base upon which to build happiness.

So constructed, the film seems a satire of modern

American life and an affirmation of traditional American

values. It rips apart one American dream, that of material

success, and asserts the supremacy of another, the ascendancy

of basic spiritual and family values. Most of the critics

who liked the film agreed that this affirmation of tradi-

tional values was one of the film's enjoyable attributes.1

But the film is more properly a savage attack on the spiri-

tual poverty of the American culture. While presenting

what seems a familiar story, Hill adds and alters elements

to jolt the viewer from a comfortable, conventional percep-

tion of the story and character. Hill creates a discrepancy

between what we see and what we expected to see, encouraging

the perceptive viewer to probe the American myth of success.

In so doing, we discover that Billy Pilgrim is trans-

formed from the stereotype of a bumbling, good-natured,

common man into a complex character troubled by his painful

memories of the war. His war experiences--his confrontation

with suffering, his recognition (through the death of Derby)

of his own mortality, and the responsibility that he, as

an American, must somehow share for the senseless slaughter

of the war--have become obdurate problems which resist his

efforts at resolution. Uncharacteristically, the American

culture which he so unwaveringly embraces fails to help

him; its values provide no satisfactory solution, and Billy

turns instead to a world of fantasy. Hill shows Billy as a

dreamer whose longings for security and happiness, seemingly

unattainable in Dresden or Ilium, drive him to create Tral-

famadore, a world of the mind to which he can retreat. His

need to resort to fantasy become a measure of his and the

culture's limitations, and the configuration of the fantasy

(Tralfamadore is basically America) suggests something of

the culture's destitution. The values of family and virtue

are not so much affirmed as attacked, forcing us tore-examine

those tenets which seem central to the American ethic.

Initially, Hill establishes Billy Pilgrim as a sympa-

thetic and readily identifiable American character: the

naif. Billy is the classic rube who makes good, attaining

a success others thought beyond him or willfully tried to

deny him.2 He has many limitations, a condition with which

we can all identify, but none that interferes with his at-

tainment of happiness. His career becomes a proof that the

common man, despite the lack of extraordinary intelligence,

physical prowess, or heroic character can eventually triumph.

The film develops Billy's character in traditional

style, and the story rarely departs from his experiences.

We begin witnessing events from his perspective, the camera

inside the house, following the screeching daughter. The

composition and staging always focus on Billy; we follow

him when he leaves a group and focus on him within a group.

Several scenes converge upon or expand from Billy, the

camera moving in to or out from him for a close-up, suggest-

ing that he is the center of the filmic universe. For ex-

ample, Hill cuts from the collapsed Billy in the British

p.o.w. barracks to the sleeping Billy on the lawn in Ilium,

or from Billy on Tralfamadore whispering to Montana to Billy

in the foxhole whispering similar words.

But this central position alone does not warrant our

sympathy; Billy earns that because of his character. In

his relationship with Montana, for example, Billy is strong,

courteous, and gentlemanly. In his indifference to tangible

wealth, he seems a spiritual pilgrim, someone searching for

permanent values to oppose to the temporary material values

of Ilium. His patience with and consideration for Val and

Robert, his good nature, and his child-like innocence all

reinforce his saintliness.

Comparison with other characters heightens these quali-

ties. Lazzaro is a vicious, cowardly psychopath whose in-

humanity stands in marked contrast to Billy's endless gentle-

ness. The arrogance and posturing of Lazzaro, such as the

nonsense about the Detroit Tigers, are constantly undercut

by Billy's naivete. And Lazzaro's lack of honor, evidenced

in the scene with Campbell, also helps push our sympathy

toward Billy. Lazzaro, although a caricature, highlights

Billy's character. The Pilgrim family provides another

counterpart. Val is an exaggeration of the bourgeois house-

wife obsessed with status climbing and the outward trappings

of success. Her constant squealing over Cadillacs and dia-

monds and her sexless attire increase our sympathies for

Billy, while the puritanical self-righteousness of Val and

Barbara and Robert's truculency make Billy seem intelligent,

moderate, and human.

Finally, Billy draws our sympathy because he suffers

unfairly at the hands of an incomprehensible fate. He

seems unjustly put upon by his war experiences and, to a

lesser extent, his family. Though the horror of the fire-

bombing of Dresden can only be minimally suggested on camera,

we sense that its effect was devastating. The grotesquerie

of mere survival, of the search for and the burning of

bodies, and the senseless death of Derby all contribute to

a nightmare that haunts Billy after the war's close. Billy

also suffers in Ilium, although on a more limited scale.

He is surrounded by people who have no conception of what

he has endured. His mother and Mr. Rosewater talk of Dresden

in an insincere garden-party tone; the doctor who administers

the shock treatments talks as if giving a lecture: "Billy

was in Dresden during the war . and it's only natural

to assume it's had some effect on him." At home, life is

equally painful. In the wedding night sequence, Val crawls

all over the inert Billy, smothering him with kisses, cooing

the romantic and moral conventions of the forties. "I'm

so glad we waited . you've had experiences in the war,

but I understand ." For her, married life is a succes-

sion of salads and shortcakes; the children something to

show off to her girlfriends; the gifts of diamonds and cars,

and Billy's success, so many badges of status; and Billy

some kind of addendum that fills out a perfect life. She

is incapable of seeing that Billy is unhappy in his own

home, a stranger whose only friend is his dog; she cheer-

fully converts his painful wartime experiences into conver-

sation topics, insensitively driving Billy away.

If Billy's character is recongizable and sympathetic,

his actions are also familiar. Billy is a searcher (as the

name Pilgrim implies) for those spiritual values which will

make life worthwhile and happiness possible. At first he

seeks to integrate himself into society; later, he seeks

to integrate his war experiences into his civilian life, to

free himself from the memories of suffering and death.

Others in the war are not so troubled. Lazzaro and Weary

are certain of who they are ("We're Americans," Weary con-

fidently explains); the British major in the p.o.w. camp

has his litany of bowel evacuation and teeth brushing to

sustain himself; and Campbell is spurred by his hatred of

communism, his conviction that the world would be right

should be eliminate Russians and Jews. But Billy is dif-

ferent. He has experienced firsthand and cannot forget the

brutality of the senseless human suffering at Dresden. He

can never escape the consciousness that meaningless pain

was inflicted on human beings by other human beings. In

this way, he is analogous to his hospital companion, Rumford.

When Rumford is confronted with a living reminder of the

human pain and suffering at Dresden, he cannot rationalize

it and lapses into shallow, bombastic political crudities.

Billy, who continually confronts the spectre of suffering

in his own memories, cannot afford the luxury of mere speech-

making. He must find another means of understanding his ex-

periences. He makes two wrongheaded lurches toward this

goal before he eventually sets himself in the right direc-

tion. The audience suffers with Billy as he first follows

the Boy Scout idealism of Edgar Derby and then the material-

ism of middle America, and then identifies with Billy when

he embraces Tralfamadore.

Billy's search is established at the beginning of the

film. The long shots of him stumbling through the snow

stress his isolation and emphasize his insignificance. He

seems lost in the infinite white expanse. His experiences

in the foxhole reveal that his isolation and dislocation

are spiritual as well as physical. Billy does not fit in

with the cartoon strip world of Lazzaro, which is filled

with forties' war movie cliches such as baseball players,

dogtags, love of guns, and fanatical courage. Equally ob-

vious is Billy's sense of the difference. "You guys go on

without me," he constantly tells them, apparently used to

the chasm between himself and his fellow soldiers. The

difference is further manifested in Billy's malleability.

People continually single him out, sensing that he has not

yet solidified his character, and is therefore manipulable.

Lazzaro feeds on Billy's weakness, knowing that he at least

will be intimidated by his vicious rhetoric. The German

soldiers single Billy out for the woman's coat, and the

German photographer finds Billy the perfect conquered Ameri-

can. The British p.o.w. senses that Billy needs special

knowledge to understand his role in the war and spares no

effort to enlighten him. The whores in the window spot

Billy's naivete, and the children of Dresden find him a kind

of magical creature for their games. And Wild Bob, who can

get no one else to listen to him, manages to transform

Billy into the best shot in the legendary 451st. For his

part, Billy happily complies with the impositions, smiling

sheepishly whenever he pleases anyone, regardless of uni-

form or intentions. He has no identity, and consequently

revels in whatever role is offered him, doing almost any-

thing for a little acceptance. As his attire, the woman's

coat and the silver boots, indicates, not even the armies

of Germany and America can mold him; as his actions indi-

cate, this special status would gladly be traded for admis-

sion into society.

Billy's search for acceptance, though, is not hap-

hazard. As the scenes with Derby demonstrate, he has a de-

finite goal in mind. For Billy, happiness seems to consist

of the mythical small town values that Derby symbolizes.

Derby, the honest, decent, hardworking, upstanding, pro-

ductive member of the community, is fiercely patriotic,

devoted to his family, and an exemplar of sexual restraint

and fidelity. He sincerely believes and acts on the values

and ideals upon which America was founded. For example,

he constantly points out the German violations of the

Geneva convention, confident that they only need a friendly

reminder to correct them; and he endlessly supports anything

American. When Lazzaro gets out of line, Derby tells him

that "we Americans have got to stick together." When Billy

reveals his disappointment in his henpecked father, Derby

tells him to "never sell him short."

Billy obviously idolizes the man and his ideals. The

time with Derby is the only part of Billy's life in which he

demonstrates any enthusiasm, for in Derby he has found a

father to guide him. Derby (whom Lazzaro calls "Pop") leads

Billy's thoughts and actions, by example--during the elec-

tion of the p.o.w. leader--or by rhetoric--as in the confron-

tation with Campbell. He also protects Billy from the maraud-

ing Lazzaro. There is a spiritual bond established in the

scenes between the two men. Billy calls Derby the "greatest

father in the world" because of the open affection Derby

displays for his son. When Billy explains he became an

optometrist to help others, Derby applauds the sentiment:

"That's self-determination and free enterprise backing it-

self up all the way! That's why we're here in Europe fight-

ing Hitler!" When Derby is elected to lead the p.o.w.'s,

Billy is his only supporter. The cross cuts between Derby's

election and Billy's election to the Lions Club, as well as

the similarity of their speeches, emphasize the relationship

between the two men.

And so Billy joins Derby in a celebration of the Ameri-

can virtues. But, the film suggests,such confidence has

been misplaced. It is not that the old virtues are wrong,

only wrongheaded; they no longer apply in the harsh, modern

world. Their time was in the distant mythical America of

small towns and enlightened leaders. This inadequacy is

emphasized in the film by Derby's actions. For all his

virtues, Derby is a curiously impotent father figure, inef-

fective in his ministrations to his children, and one who

ultimately dies a victim of his own romantic conceptions.

Nobody really listens to him, not Lazzaro, not the German

commandant, nor the young German guard. Guided by archaic

romantic ideals, Derby cannot fathom the nature of the

American character. He cannot see, for example, that the

savage energy of Lazzaro is just as much a part of America

as the familial paradise from which he springs. Hill's

camera, though, makes the point for the audience. In the

election scene, Derby and Billy are foreground, Lazzaro in

the rear, the composition of the shot reminding us that there

is another dimension to be considered. In the letter scene,

in which Derby talks of his love for his son, Lazzaro again

lurks in the background, a silent counterpoint to the ideal-

ism of Derby and Billy. In addition to misjudging the

Germans and Americans, Derby seems incapable of understand-

ing the seriousness of his position. In one scene, for

example, he and the other prisoners parade down a Dresden

street; he and Billy talk, failing to see a corpse hanging

in the background. The savagery of war is not visible to

them, although the audience perceives it. Derby is forever

distracted by the beauty of things, flowers and pieces of

Dresden china. Though rare and admirable, this aesthetic

sensibility leads to his senseless death.

Billy's simplistic idealism is shattered with Derby's

death, and he is forced to seek some new vision, some new

way of understanding the world. At first, as the shock

treatment scenes make clear, he has difficulty in coping

with his painful memories. But stability comes when he

marries Val and lives as the archetypal middle-American

burgher. Through the creation of a family unit and finan-

cial success he apparently hopes to overcome his sense of

displacement and uneasiness. Yet his attempt fails. Billy

is uncomfortable in Ilium, where his family is a travesty

of the "nice" life recounted by Derby. Where Derby and his

wife apparently loved and supported each other, Billy and

his wife obviously do not. Where Derby and his son earned

each other's respect, Billy and his son seem at odds.

Robert is a vandal, an antisocial embarrassment, instead

of a source of happiness. His metamorphosis into Green

Beret and modern Howard Campbell, complete with "fag uni-

form" and anti-communist rhetoric, only exposes the magni-

tude of Billy's familial failure. His son falls by the

wayside, betraying Billy like Val and Barbara. Uncomfortable

in the father role, Billy compensates by the overwork that

leads to his phenomenal material success and by a gift-

giving habit that only highlights the emptiness of his re-

lationships. His plane crash ends this particular segment

of his life, revealing to him that transitory material things

cannot provide the happiness he seeks. Val's death and

Robert's transformation tear away the remaining illusions

that Billy has foolishly entertained.

At this low point, Billy is suddenly whisked to Tral-

famadore and given an opportunity to create the mythic Ameri-

can world that guaranteed happiness. He wins Montana, and

with her begins the family unit he unsuccessfully searched

for on Earth. He and she share a love and a joy in their

child that Billy never had with Val. As a bonus, Billy is

also removed from the sufferings on Earth. Ilium and Dresden

are just stations on a time-tripping journey, unpleasant

moments that will ultimately be by-passed. The audience,

which usually identifies with Billy, applauds his escape

to the dome and Montana. Life on Tralfamadore seems an af-

firmation of the traditional American belief that those of

good heart will eventually reap spiritual and emotional


But, as I also suggested earlier, this interpretation

fails to account for the variations in the traditional genre

story. Hill directs the broadly sketched characters and

familiar plot in such a way that we must question the simple

view. Billy is transformed from naif to a spiritually

enervated survivor of Dresden, a dreamer who uses the fan-

tasy world of Tralfamadore as a shield against the suffering

witnessed at Dresden. Consequently, Tralfamadore and the

mythical American values associated with it become fantasti-

cal, its virtues inadequate and inappropriate for modern life.

For Billy, Tralfamadore is an alternative to Dresden

and Ilium, a familial paradise in which guilt is absolved

and death denied. However Hill, by controlling the cinema-

tic elements, denies Tralfamadore's substantiality. Tralfa-

madore is linked to Billy's mental processes, made a part

of his world, not separate from it, and the Tralfamadorian

assertions about the nature of the universe are denied by

the film's assertions. Tralfamadore can be seen only as an

escapist fantasy, a self-created refuge from the world.

The assertions of Billy and those of the Tralfamadorian

voice make clear the true nature of the Tralfamadorian vision:

on the planet there is no responsibility, suffering, or death.

When Billy arrives in the dome, he is informed that there is

no such thing as free will. "We've visited 31 inhabited

planets," the voice tells him, "and studied reports of a

hundred more. Only on earth is there talk of free will."

Without free will, of course, there can be no individual

responsibility, for actions are then determined by fate

or chance. Better yet, Billy discovers, there is no time--

everything has always been, is, and will be. Nor is there

any pain. The soothing voice tells Billy that "the best

way to spend a pleasant journey is to ignore the bad moments

and concentrate on the good." Billy responds to this vision,

and it has an almost miraculously salutary effect on him.

In the final confrontation with his daughter and son-in-law,

Billy makes it clear Tralfamadore has rescued him. "I'm

not going to commit myself to an institution. If it weren't

for Tralfamadore I might have needed an institution." For,

as he says, "on Tralfamadore you learn that the world is

just a collection of moments all strungtogether in beautiful

random order." He has also learned that "if we're going to

survive, it's up to us to concentrate on the good moments

and ignore the bad." Billy has found a world which lacks

individual responsibility, where suffering can be eliminated,

and where death no longer limits. Even without Montana,

Tralfamadore is a conventional paradise.

But the film undercuts Tralfamadore, just as it sati-

rizedDerby and Ilium. The style, structure, and content

reveal that death, suffering, and accountability are inte-

gral parts of the universe; any attempt to deny their exis-

tence is a willful disregard of the facts, an unwarranted

retreat into fantasy. Crucial to Billy's conception of

the world is the idea of randomness, of moments strung to-

gether in arbitrary order. But the style of the film shows,

contrary to his assertion, that all is interconnected. The

events of the film are linked associatively, not in random

order, suggesting that Billy's journey is internal, a mental

exploration of his past and pondering of his future, not a

real experience.

In the opening scene, for example, we go from the

loud clicking of the typewriter to the clacking of the

tanks, from the rasping sound of the slide into the foxhole

back to the typewriter, from thoughts of Montana to Montana,

and from a cooing Billy on Tralfamadore to a cooing Billy in

the foxhole. The scenes are linked, not disparate. There

are also other cuts that emphasize the connection between

events. We move from the face in the soupbowl to the face

on the lawn, the diamond in Derby's hand to the diamond at

the anniversary party, and from the p.o.w. camp shower to

the Ilium swimming pool shower. In addition, there are in-

stances where two sequences are joined by a voice over, a

technique that creates an even stronger impression of unity.

When selected from the p.o.w. line by the German photographer,

Billy moves freely between his image and voice and that of

the American photographer at the dedication of the Pilgrim

building. On the operating table, Billy flashes back to

Dresden, seeing incidents there, but hearing the respirator

and the doctor's voice. Rumford's political tirade supports

visuals from the hospital and Dresden, and the Tralfamadorian

voice explains the dome and Dresden. After the operation,

the Slaughterhouse-Five corridor dissolves into the Ilium

hospital corridor, another transition device that links

rather than separates the two incidents.3

Such devices disprove the randomness proclaimed by

Billy, for they clearly join separate experiences. The

transitions also show that the war is the dominant, formative

experience in Billy's life, and suggest that we are wit-

nessing an attempt to reconcile the past and the present.

Almost all the cuts are between Dresden and some other seg-

ment of Billy's life. His trip up the stairs with Spot

parallels his trip up the stairs of the bomb shelter; the

flashing traffic light is intercut with the bombing of

Dresden; the American photographer recalls the German; the

plane crash throws him back to Dresden and Slaughterhouse-

Five; the door to his roomleads instead to the p.o.w. camp

or to the annihilated city; and his son's call of "Dad"

mingles with the young German's call of "Papa." He moves

from the burning bodies in Dresden to Montana's arms; from

the earth of Dresden to his couch on Tralfamadore; and from

the roadway in Dresden to his final triumphant moment.

Billy is still a prisoner of his war experiences, even on


If all is not random and arbitrary, beyond our control,

then one may be able to make choices and be accountable for

those choices. Free will is still a possibility. In addi-

tion, the film makes it clear, contrary to Billy's asser-

tion, that time is an integral part of the universe. Billy

blithely tells us he is free of time. The opening shots of

the film show us an extreme close-up of Billy's letter to

the Ilium paper: "I have become unstuck in time," he de-

clares. Since his conversion to Tralfamadorianism, he is

no longer bound by time, and can now travel freely between

past, present, and future. As he tells his lecture audience,


moments before his assassination, there is no mortality.

"It's time for me to be dead for a little while, and then

live again." Resurrection is possible; life is eternal;

man's age old dream of immortality has been attained. But

the film questions this viewpoint. In the opening scene,

before we meet Billy, we hear the ticking of a clock. As

the camera moves through the house, viewing the world from

his perspective, we hear the measured rhythm of the time-

piece. The plane crash is preceded by the the ubiquitous

barbershop quartet, singing "there'll be some changes made,"

an ironic line, and an aural reminder for the audience that

the world is fluid, not fixed. The operating room sequence

is underpinned by the sound of the respirator, its regularity

a mimic clock. In two crucial scenes the clock is an inte-

gral element, serving, when contrasted to Billy's Tralfama-

dorian dogma, to undercut his statements. The scene with

Robert, the young Green Beret, is played against the sound

of a ticking clock, even though such measured ticking would

not be audible during an ordinary conversation. Robert's

conversion to Campbellism is the final defeat for Billy.

The father-son relationship so vital to Billy with his own

father, with Derby, and now with Robert has been destroyed.

The myth of the family, around which Billy has built his

vision of happiness, is shattered, and the ticking of the

clock places this loss in the stream of time, making it

part of an ongoing process.

Later, after his election to and salvation on Tralfa-

madore, Billy returns to Earth to defeat his nagging daughter.

He calmly explains the paradise on Tralfamadore to her, ap-

parently overcoming the interfering female presence at last.

But ever present in the background is the ticking of a clock,

one more reminder of a temporality Billy insists does not

exist. Finally, the penultimate scene in the movie is built

around the concept of time. Billy helps Lazzaro loot, ap-

propriately enough, a grandfather clock, and he is soon

pinned down by it when the others flee the sound of gunfire.

The image, in conjunction with the other reminders of time,

suggests Billy is still pinned by, and subordinate to time.

Billy's final claim that suffering can be eliminated

is also questioned. First, we can note that an act of will

abolishes suffering, a strange method for a planet without

free will, and second that the narrative of the film makes

Tralfamadore clearly escapist wish-fulfillment. The dome

serves as a refuge from, not at alternative to, Dresden and

Ilium. Even though the events in the film are non-chronologi-

cal, there is still a definite narrative order. All crucial

events occur within a short period of film time, and are so

arranged that the pleasant ones seem a response to the pain-

ful. They are in effect intercut, and, as with all cross

cutting, a relationship is established between the two

incidents. For each failure he endures or pain he suffers,

Billy is rewarded with a moment on Tralfamadore, and the

conjunction suggests that Tralfamadore is an escape from

the world.

The two climactic moments in his life, the experiences

of Dresden and the devastation of life in Ilium, are joined

by the mingling of the young German's cry of "Papa" and

Robert's call of "Dad." They are followed by Billy's first

trip to Tralfamadore. In his talk with the voice, Billy

mentions Dresden, "the end of the world," and suddenly we

are there, watching the collection and burning of the bodies.

As Billy stands there, masked against the diseased air,

watching the bodies of the women and children piled and

burned, the voice tells him the way to spend a pleasant

journey. Immediately Billy is back on Tralfamadore, encoun-

tering and winningMontana--an infinitely more pleasant ex-

perience than Dresden. Not only does the voice preach

escapism, but the structure of the film suggests it. Billy's

next visit to Dresden reveals the senseless death of Edgar

Derby, but this is quickly overturned when we cut from Billy,

slammed to the earth by the guards, to Billy recumbent on

his couch in the dome, talking with Montana about having a

baby. After the triumph over his daughter, his death scene,

and the final experience in Dresden, Billy glances to the

sky to catch sight of the sun. In the film, light has

served as a metaphor for the avenue to Tralfamadore. At

the sight of it, Billy finds himself once again in Montana's

arms, a part of his family, at long last triumphantly at-

taining his ideals. Life in Ilium, Dresden, and even death

have seemingly been overcome, but the triumph is muted for

the audience by recognition of the narrative structure.

Tralfamadore is ultimately reduced to the status of

a dream. The associative nature of Billy's "time-tripping"

suggests his journey is mental, and thus Tralfamadore a

mental waystation, and the contravention of the Tralfama-

dorian vision also contributes to our perception of it as a

mental phenomenon. The perceptive viewer realizes that

Tralfamadore is an escapist fantasy. Billy's idealistic

beliefs have crumbled under the pressures of the world, and

he has retreated inward to safety and security.

Our realization that Billy is deceiving himself re-

duces our sympathy for him. We discover that he is a

dreamer, a child of fantasy whose purblind imagination has

no resources other than fantasy (in this case Tralfamadore)

for dealing with the horror and meaninglessness of modern

life. We may sympathize with his problems, and even with

him, but no longer identify with him because he and his

solutions seem dwarfed by the complexity of the problems.

Billy's transformation from pleasant stereotype to

complex character is effected through a variation of con-

ventions and the use of motifs. First, we can note that

Billy differs from the standard naive character. Ordinarily,

characters in films of this genre demonstrate their right

to their success by evidencing courage, pluck, some special

skill, or just the ability to survive in a harsh world.

The character, like Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, should

already possess the virtues and skills, and only lack the

opportunity or experience to use them. And usually the

naive character wins some reconciliation with society, often

through a romantic involvement with an acceptable member of

society. Billy does none of these things. For all his

good qualities, he demonstrates no special skill or virtue;

he simply endures. Throughout the film he lacks the vitality,

the distinguishing character, the enlightened but unarticu-

lated wisdom, or the strength with which we can identify.

Billy lacks character; as Rumford says, "I could carve a

better man out of a banana." Nor does Billy triumph by virtue

of his skill; he gains Tralfamadore and Montana accidentally.

Nor does he effect a reconciliation with society. He attains

his socially approved happiness in a world outside the re-

cognizable social fabric.

In addition, Billy is presented as a child of fantasy,

someone who understands the world in fairy-tale terms. He

wears boots from the p.o.w. production of Cinderella, a

story which deals with the kind of magical transformation

Billy undergoes. He also talks of Dresden as "a land of

Oz," and he later tells Val "to follow the yellow brick

road," the ribbon, to the car. The story of Oz, with its

emphasis on the permanent and abiding virtues of the honest

family, also has special relevance for Billy's story. His

entrance into Dresden shows him as a pied piper, a child

among children, oblivious to the concerns of the war. Adult

fantasies are also a part of his life, as the longing looks

at the whores suggest. The drive-in scene with the Montana

porno film shows the same sexual fantasies. As the nude

princess calls to her attendant, Billy wishfully nods yes,

yes to the voice.

Billy's escapist vision is further emphasized by the

blanket motif. We see him wrap himself in a blanket for

protection from the physically and psychically unpleasant.

It surrounds him as he stumbles through the snow, and later

as he trudges in the p.o.w. line. When the old timer in the

box car begins talking about the hard winters in Troy (which

is the Anglicization of Ilium), Billy draws the blanket over

his head. We then cut to the hospital where Billy, crab-

like, peers out of the blanket at his mother and Mr. Rose-

water. The way he shuts out his mother is emblematic of

the way Billy eventually shuts out all painful experiences.

But the futility of such action is illustrated in the second

box car scene. Weary rips off the blanket to accuse Billy

of murder, forcing Billy to witness his death.

A more telling demonstration of Billy's limitations

is Hill's use of light. It serves as the medium by which

Billy ascends to Tralfamadore, and thus it becomes a visual

metaphor for Tralfamadore. Light's long association with

poetic inspiration may also be operating here, and Billy's

ability to accept and incorporate Tralfamadore is evidence

of his open imagination. However, in the film light also

reveals not only the familial paradise of Tralfamadore, but

also the grotesque world of Dresden and the war, the symbol

of death and horror here on earth. Billy's positive use of

light contrasts with the more negative use made of it in

the film, and the discrepancy again suggests that Billy is

myopic, that his vision is selective.

In the world of the film, light reveals more than hap-

piness. In the box car, the German guard's weaving flash-

light intermittently reveals Weary's frozen face. The

searchlights in the p.o.w. camp illuminate not only the sing-

ing, vivacious British, but the brutish Russians as well.

The composition of the shots of the two groups is similar;

light above and behind illuminates both Russians and the

cheerful welcoming party of the British. Later the blinking,

shaking light of the bomb shelter creates a pattern that

matches that of the incendiary bombs walking across Dresden,

and that in turn is intercut with the blinking red traffic

light. Light thus triggers associations with Dresden as

well as Tralfamadore. When candles are lit in the bomb

shelter, the bottom lighting creates grotesque shadows; the

German commandant's head, for example, becomes a death mask.

And the movement from the protective dark of the shelter

to the light of day and the annihilated city typifies the

relationship between light and dark in the film: one re-

veals, the other conceals.

Even the Tralfamadorian light is-associated with death.

Its first appearance coincides with Billy's eviction from

his son's christening party. As the song in the background

ironically proclaims "true love will come shining through,"

Billy sits despondently on the lawn. The Tralfamadorian

light comes down, shines briefly, and disappears. Billy

follows it into the sky. The camera rests on the sky briefly

and momentarily we hear Lazzaro's voice, once again threaten-

ing Billy. The point seems clear: The same sky which houses

Tralfamadore houses Lazzaro. Later, on Tralfamadore, Billy

and Montana will ask for the night canopy so that they can

get acquainted. The camera pulls back to reveal the dome

against the heavens, then pans right, the stars gradually

dissolving into the reflections from the Dresden china

figurine in Derby's hand. Once again the film suggests that

Dresden and Tralfamadore are a continuum, not separate enti-

ties, and that Billy has selectively chosen those elements

he wishes to see.

Billy Pilgrim, then, fails to be the classic American

hero. His voyage is not one outward to discovery, but in-

ward to fantasy. He creates a vision of happiness that

protects more than Derby's idealism or Val's materialism;

divorced from reality, it protects his reality. Fantasies

are not necessarily harmful or escapist, but Billy's is

obviously a retreat from the problems created by his war-

time experiences.

The film questions the dream and the dreamer, and thus

asks that we examine the values associated with the fantasy

world. It offers no solutions of its own to the problems

that defeat Billy, and perhaps that is a major fault, but

it suggests that the spiritual homilies we take for granted--

the exaltation of family and virtue--are insufficient also

and in need of revision. Through its ironic mode, the film

makes the discovery of the limitation of traditional beliefs

seem our own, and its point is made more forcefully than

something didactic like Johnny Got His Gun. No longer will

the audience be allowed, as Billy suggests, "to ignore the

bad moments and concentrate on the good."

Slaughterhouse-Five shows one man's, an Everyman's,

inability to cope with the complexity and difficulties of

modern life. And, like Butch Cassidy, it lays the blame

for this problem on the antiquated assumptions of the cul-

ture. The examination of the cultural conventions, however,

is far from complete, for Hill, in his next film, continues

to explore, again through genre, the American social fabric.


Typical is Charles Champlin, in a review for the
Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1972, partially reprinted in
"Slaughterhouse-Five," Film Facts, ed. by Ernest Parmentier,
15, No. 5, 1972, p. 93. Champlin writes that "Slaughter-
house-Five is perhaps not intellectually profound, but it
is impassioned, warm, human and positive. Its last images
are of a blissful nursing mother and happy father in a kind
of geodesic heaven with decor by Sears set amidst styrofoam
clouds beneath a Rodgers & Hart moon. It's a multi-message
which I think can be said to say that the terrestrial and
celestial paradise may not be that different; the trick is
knowing and appreciating what the earthly treasures are.
The power of Vonnegut's work is that he reads all the bad
vibes in the world, the horrors, the cruelties, the insani-
ties, but counterattacks with kindness, love, forgiveness
and understanding, virtues which grow more fantastic every

Other critics who liked the film generally agreed
with Champlin's reading. See, for example, Arthur Knight,
"Space Craft," Saturday Review, 15 April 1972, pp. 10-11;
Colin Westerbeck, "The Screen," Commonweal, 96, 28 July 1972,
pp. 405-06; and Daniel Brudnoy, "Films," National Review, 24,
No. 32, 18 August 1972, pp. 911-12.

Those who disliked the film did so because they felt
the optimism was muddled or unjustified. For example, Paul
Zimmerman, "Pilgrim's Progress," Newsweek, 79, 3 April 1972,
p. 85; Stephen Farber, "'Slaughterhouse': Return to Shangri-
la?" The New York Times, 11 June 1972, Sec. II, p. 13, col. 1;
and Stanley Kauffmann, "On Films," New Republic, 166, 13 May
1972, p. 35.
Harold Lloyd and Jerry Lewis made careers out of
playing just such characters. See Stuart Kaminsky, American
Film Genres (N.P., 1976), pp. 160-70.

This argument might counter those critics who found
the time-tripping uneffective. See Vincent Canby, rev. of
Slaughterhouse-Five, The New York Times, 23 March 1972, p. 51,
col. 1. Also, Penelope Gilliat, "Slaughterhouse," New
Yorker, 48, 1 April 1972, p. 53.

Richard Shickel, "An so it goes--onscreen," Life,
70, 28 April 1972, p. 16, suggests "the withdrawals and fan-
tasies . are Pilgrim's principal defense against the
terrors of the times and finally become his principal re-

Canby, p. 54, col. 1, and Kauffmann, p. 35, both sug-
gest Billy is meant to be "Everyman."



It would seem a contravention of critical and popular

taste to assert that The Sting (1973), Hill's most commer-

cially successful film, is more than slick entertainment.

But the assertion can be made. As do all Hill's films, The

Sting questions a cultural convention, in this case the com-

monly accepted belief in the efficacious operation of moral-

ity and justice. It shows that concept to be inaccurate

at best, an idealized conception of the relations between

and the nature of men. A sincere belief in it leads only

to misconceptions which, if too blindly followed, can cause

fatal mistakes. Johnny Hooker, the central character, wants

to avenge the unjust death of his old friend, Luther Coleman.

He is motivated by a certainty that there is an order to

the world, and we sympathize because we share his certainty

that an act of vengeance will be an act of reparation for

Luther. Justice will be satisfied, and wrong will once again

be counterbalanced by right. But the emotional involvement

that fires him turns out to be detrimental, for it pushes

him into situations (his affair with the waitress) filled

with danger. He learns instead that he is better off to

deny the possibility of justice and a larger ordering force;

a concern for others or for a social order is seen as counter-

productive. The proper pursuit of man is the cultivation

of the self; his energies should be focused on enterprises

which yield the greatest sense of self-satisfaction, for

this is the only worthwhile goal for an individual. Hooker's

last minute epiphany subverts the conventional response to

the film. Instead of a comfortably familiar ending, we

must reexamine the old moral conventions denied by Hooker

and evaluate the new, self-centered doctrine implicitly

urged by him. The conventional story is transformed into an

exploration of contemporary morality, something far differ-

ent than expected.

Such an interpretation admittedly flies in the face

of accepted critical opinion. Most critics, while admitting

the film's commercial potential, dismissed it. Pauline

Kael, who led the onslaught, is typical in her remarks.

The Sting . is meant to be roguishly charm-
ing entertainment, and I guess that's how most
of the audience takes it, but I found it visually
claustrophobic, and totally mechanical. It keeps
cranking on, section after section, and it doesn't
have a good spirit . the director is the im-
placably impersonal George Roy Hill. The script,
by David S. Ward, is a collection of Damon Runyon
hand-me-downs with the flavor gone.1

Paul Zimmerman of Newsweek found it enjoyable,but stale,
light entertainment. Stanley Kauffmann and Colin Westerbeck

concurred, with only John Simon giving unqualified approval.

No serious film journal bothered with a review, but some

critics did find it more than mechanical. Stanley Solomon,

in Beyond Formula, saw it was a well-done and enjoyable

variation of the big caper film.

I would suggest both these schools of thought are in

error. The film is neither vapid imitation or masterful

variation; it is an exploration through a genre story of

the metaphysical conventions that uphold the genre and the

society that endorses it. It asserts the antiquity and in-

appropriateness of those metaphysics, implicitly disputing

what is so often unquestioned. We can see this if we note

(1) the ways in which the story conforms to the conventions

of the genre, (2) the ways in which it differs from the

genre, and (3) the implications of the relationships between

the genre story and the variations of it.

The Sting is obviously a genre story, a big caper film.

According to Stuart Kaminsky, in American Film Genres, a

big caper film has a conflict between individuals and an

impersonal society, a concentration on an elaborate scheme

to steal massive amounts of money, a requirement of great

skill to achieve the goal, an understandable and sympathe-

tic reason for the commission of the crime, and success.

Hill's story meets all these criteria. The two distinct

individuals, Hooker and Gondorff, work against a large,

impersonal force, represented by Doyle Lonnegan; their

elaborate scheme requires great amounts of skill; and we

emotionally endorse the con artists, not only because they

are more human and engaging than Lonnegan, but also because

their motive--revenge--is understandable and sympathetic

in the context of the film. And, of course, they succeed.

Stanley Solomon asserts that the crime film must establish

a moral heirarchy, with some criminals more sympathetic than

the others; work with a plot that requires great skill; give

an understandable motive to the protagonists; and grant them

success. The Sting also meets his genre criteria, for it,

as Solomon notes, "provides a brilliant example of how the

genre creates a reasonable facsimile of moral order within

a situation that in areal-life equivalent would be beyond
moral considerations." As Solomon sees it, "Redford's moti-

vation is revenge against the man who ordered his colleague's
murder." In spite of the complex plot, "the overriding

issue is clear; Redford and Newman risk their lives to pull

off their confidence game, not for the huge sums of money

they can gain from it but, on Newman's part, for the sake

of the artistry of his plan and his affection for Redford

and, on Redford's part, out of a desire to revenge his

murdered friend."

In addition, we can note features from other genres

that are part of The Sting. The protoganists exemplify fi-

gures who, because of their knowledge and skills, can ef-

fect justice in cases beyond the reach of the law. Private

detectives, such as J. J. Gittes in Polanski's Chinatown

and Sam Spade in Houston's The Maltese Falcon, are obvious

examples of this type of character. The protagonists also

share qualities with the con artist figure, another staple

of American popular culture. For example, they, like the

George C. Scott character in The Flim-Flam Man, or the

Ryan O'Neal character in Paper Moon, attract because they

possess more wisdom and moral character than those who are

bilked. They succeed because of the greed or stupidity of

others, seldom conning those who are good. Associations

with such character types only strengthen the familiar

aura that surrounds Hooker and Gondorff.

The most important point in the big caper film, for

both Kaminsky and Solomon, is motive, and this essential

characteristic deserves some elaboration. The con men gain

our sympathy because their desire to avenge Luther's death

implicitly affirms a concept central to the American under-

standing of the world. The idea of justice, a moral-legal

system that operates to reward right and punish wrong, is

ingrained in most Americans. As children they learn that

those who transgress are punished, certainly in the after-

life and usually in this life. The concept places evil in

perspective, and comfortingly assures believers of the

eventual triumph of a just, benevolent world. The con ar-

tist's revenge is not the pointless, irrational vengeance

of the Lee Marvin character in Point Blank, the Glenn Ford

character in The Big Heat, or the Tab Hunter character in

Hell to Eternity; it is rather a just punishment of a crimi-

nal who is beyond the law. We sympathize with the con men

because their action represents the operation of the justice

in which most still unthinkingly believe. It is essential

that we consciously as well as intuitively understand that

this conventional precept forms the base upon which The

Sting is built.


However, there are significant variations from the ex-

pected genre conventions which combine to create a second

narrative that stands juxtaposed to the genre story, its

existence challenging the conventions upon which the genre

story is based. Essentially, the typical genre story moves

from a troubled situation to a positive resolution. Even

if the criminals are caught, it is usually after the suc-

cessful completion of their caper, and their small victory

against the impersonal establishment has been gained. In

The Sting, the con men's seeming victory is shown as a hol-

low "triumph" by the second narrative. The film does not

reaffirm any conventional beliefs about justice--in fact,

it denies that justice can be obtained--and thus it chal-

lenges the basic conventions of the genre. The Sting asks

us to look again at what seems obvious and given.

Before discussing the variations that create the second

narrative, I would first like to show how Hill encourages a

critical questioning of the genre story by the use of arti-

fice. By presenting the film as a work structured for a

purpose, by defusing the commercial illusion that we are

watching a self-contained, complete world, Hill stimulates

a critical, distanced attitude that moves us beyond the

stock response to genre films.0 Attention focused on the

artifice prevents attention to the characters, and the

distance that results makes it easier and more natural to

question both them and their motives.

The opening and closing titles serve as a frame which

calls attention to the role of manipulation in the film.

Drawn in the Saturday Evening Post style associated with

the thirties, the titles seem a calculated commercial ploy,

but we should note that four of the five (the first is the

only exception) make some indirect reference to the film

as constructed work. The second shows the characters in

costume on a set, with director Hill looking on from the

left; the third, writer Ward looking on another set from

the right; and the fourth, the two masks that are the tradi-

tional symbols of performance. The ending title shows workers

dismantling the wire-shop props, another reminder of the

structured nature of the film. Significantly this is pre-

ceded by a momentary break between the final iris-out and

the last title during which we hear Marvin Hamlisch's voice

counting out the beat for the musicians. The obvious de-

liberateness of the break and the subject of the final title

bring us back to the starting point: What we have watched

was put together, and we are meant to note its constructed

nature. Within the film proper, the wipes and irises con-

tribute to our consciousness of artifice. By their very

nature, these devices, rejected by most filmmakers because

of their obviousness, call attention to the making involved

in filmmaking.

The story also contains several incidents that con-

tribute to the distancing effect suggested by the titles and

transitional devices. By emphasizing that appearance is

manipulative, the scenes implicitly ask us to step back and

examine the phenomenological world more carefully. The two

biggest surprises in the film, for most, are the revela-

tions of the Sallino and FBI sub-plots. Each works because

the audience brings stock expectations to the incidents.

Most assume that Loretta is the love-interest; she seems

honest and lonely, and aids Hooker in his escape from the

gunman. Our attention is focused on the black-gloved man

who, with his stylized dress and Italian features, seems

a more conventional threat. Such judgment causes a re-

versal of expectations in the alley gunfight that, while

in one way a source of pleasure, serves as an implicit re-

minder of the inadequacy of stock responses. The "death"

scene is even more of a surprise because once again the au-

dience accepts conventions so unhesitatingly. The deaths

of Cole and Sallino are filmed in the traditional Hollywood

stylized manner, with bright red aniline dye and no exces-

sive gore. The final scene is shot in exactly the same way,

and we assume the characters are dead. When they pop back

to life, we cheer, because the surprise makes the Mick's

loss more complete. But the reversal of expectations, for-

gotten in the triumph, is equally important. By playing

with accepted conventions, conventions that the film it-

self uses in earlier scenes, Hill calls attention to the

artificiality of the surface, pointing out that anything

can be manipulated for effect.

In addition, the film as a whole can be seen as a series

of incidents structured for effect. We are continually con-

fronted with scenes in which appearances have been manipulated,

and these scenes provide not only entertainment (because we

usually are aware of the manipulation), but, when taken as

a group, remind us of the illusory nature of any surface--

including, by extension, the film itself. The opening scene

shows the numbers operation delayed by a "raid" meant to

keep up the mayor's reputation for honesty. The first con

involves an attempt by the numbers runner to trick the two

men (he promises them their money will be safe with him) as

well as the con of the numbers runner by the grifters. We

also witness the crooked gambling den in which Hooker loses

his money, the counterfeit money that buys time from Lt.

Snyder; Hooker's cheery disposition, which masks his despair

at losing the money, and his calm acquiesence, which masks

his anger at Luther's retirement; Hooker's continued silence

about the pursuit of the thugs and Snyder; the transforma-

tion of Hooker into "Kelly"; the refined surface that hides

Lonnegan's crudity; Lonnegan's attempted con of "Shaw";

Loretta Sallino's performance; the revelation of the black-

gloved man's purpose; the Western Union ploy; all the action

in the wire-shop; the FBI drama enacted for Snyder; and,

of course, the "death" scene. In every sequence we dis-

cover that there is an additional dimension to the situa-

tion which, when perceived, alters our understanding of it.

The characters (and occasionally the audience) are deceived

only because they bring certain assumptions to the inci-

dents instead of relying on objective evidence and their

own ratiocinative powers. (For example, we assume the con

men are dead; the audience and Hooker assume Loretta is

honest; and Lonnegan assumes that "Shaw" is no match for

his powers.)

The critical attitude encouraged by the titles, transi-

tional devices, and the story makes us sensitive to the ways

in which the characters differ from the usual genre figures.

The first significant variation is the linkage of the con

men to Lonnegan. We gradually discover that there are simi-

larities between the two groups, and this prevents the total

sympathetic identification common in most films of the genre.

Lonnegan and Gondorff, for example, despite their obvious

differences in personality, characteristics, and goals,

share a number of traits. Both men are directors of organi-

zations, and both use their subordinates to further their

own goals. In the card game sequence, both men are perform-

ing. Lonnegan, crude, emotional, and vicious, hides behind

a mask of refinement and rationality; Gondorff hides his

intelligence behind a facade of vulgarity and simplicity,

playing the fool for others. Both men-cheat, but neither

for monetary gain. Lonnegan wants "to bust that bastard

bookie once and for all"; Gondorff must prod Lonnegan into

revenge. Obviously, the central action of the picture, the

unfolding of the sting, involves both men in the same sort

of role playing. Lonnegan pretends to be a bettor, Gondorff

a bookie; Lonnegan wants to revenge and enrich himself,

while Gondorff wants revenge and the pleasure of seeing his

plan work. Both are masters of illusion who recognize the

importance of facade. Lonnegan tells Floyd he must kill in

order to preserve his image of strength, to keep others from

testing him. Gondorff tells Hooker that "you've got to keep

his [Lonnegan's] con after you take his money"; the illusion

must be maintained to forestall revenge. And both are will-

ing to play rough to maintain their facades. Lonnegan has

his men kill Luther so that the illusion of omnipotence can

be kept; Gondorff has his friend protect Hooker by killing

Sallino, again in order to protect the illusion of the

wire-store. The fact that neither man pulls the trigger

does not mitigate their responsibility for the killings;

nor does the fact that the action is directed against crimi-
nals alter the immorality of the act. We excuse the con

men because their motives seem to justify such actions,

but later even this judgment must be altered.

Hill also uses editing and composition to suggest a

union between the two groups. Several match cuts through-

out the film join the movement of members of both groups.

For example, after Hooker loses his money and his date,

he moves right to left down a street; the picture then wipes

to a car moving right to left toward Lonnegan's headquarters.

Shortly thereafter we cut from Floyd moving right to left

away from Lonnegan to Hooker moving right to left up the

stairs to Luther's. The transition between the golf

course scene and the first merry-go-round scene is made with

a reverse spin that joins the motions of Floyd and Gondorff.

Later there will be similar reverse spins that move us from

Hooker's face outside the wire-shop to Loretta's at the

cafe, and Snyder's visage in the FBI headquarters to Gon-

dorff's in the brothel room. Such transitions subtly sug-

gest a union between two worlds that convention demands be

kept separate.

Lighting and composition also associate the con men

with Lonnegan. For example, there is a strong vertical motif

used in connection with both. The opening shot follows

Mottola up the stairs, the vertical motion joined with the

horizontal lines of the steps. Immediately after the first

con, Hooker and Luther are associated with vertical lines,

which, with their connotation of prison, suggest criminal

activity. They are framed through a gate with vertical

slats, and run through it, pausing in the vertical shadows.

The window just behind Hooker is blocked with vertical bars.

After they split, Hooker is seen through the vertical bars

of the pawn shop, buying the egregiously garish suit. On

three separate occasions, high angle shots of Hooker enter-

ing an apartment building are framed through the vertical

slats of the bannisters. Also, the vertical lines created

by the merry-go-round poles adumbrate this compositional

device, as does the vertical movement of the freight ele-

vator in Lonnegan's packing house (as a freight elevator,

it is constructed of vertical slats) and Hooker's ascension

in the hotel elevator. Lonnegan is framed by the vertical

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