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UTAH : In pursuit of

Butch and Sundance

April 20, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

ST. GEORGE, UTAH — "Most of what follows is true."

That's the opening of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the 1969 movie about two bandits born as the sun was setting over the mesas and buttes of the old Wild West.

Morally ambiguous, the movie struck a chord with Vietnam War-era audiences who stood and cheered when Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance met a hail of bullets in a dusty Bolivian town, etching the final freeze frame onto my 15-year-old heart.

I didn't know it then, but the movie wrote something else there: a love of the sumptuous Western scenery, which I rediscovered on a trip last month to southern Utah.

Only part of the movie was filmed here, and the real Butch robbed banks and trains all across the West, making frequent stops at Fanny Porter's high-class bordello in San Antonio. But with five national parks, Utah's concentration of grand Western scenery is unrivaled in North America, and it's also where Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, was born in 1866.

On the Parker spread in the beautiful Sevier River Valley 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, Butch learned to be a cowboy first and, later, how to put his brand on other peoples' livestock. He trained his mounts not to shy at the sound of gunfire and to stand still when he jumped into the saddle from behind.

Apparently, he pulled only one big job in Utah, the 1897 Pleasant Valley Coal Co. payroll robbery at Castle Gate. But between heists, he and his Wild Bunch gang often hid out in isolated nooks and crannies on Utah's Colorado Plateau.

I set out to track the historical and Hollywood outlaw in Utah but got only as far as St. George when I started running into a third persona: the apocryphal Butch, who is in some ways the most interesting because of the people who told me about him.

Legend, lore and facts

Sprawling St. George is the capital of Utah's Dixie, so named because Mormon church leaders dispatched pioneers like Butch's father, Maximillian Parker, to settle and propagate cotton here around the time of the Civil War.

Downtown, at the Washington County Library, I met bear-sized Bart Anderson, a retired St. George hematologist, historian and folklorist, widely known as Ranger Bart because he has devoted his golden years to giving slide shows at nearby national and state parks.

Of the 111-program repertoire, the one on Butch is the most popular.

It features some well-known vintage photos of the outlaw, including the mugshot taken when he was sent to the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary for horse-stealing in 1894 and a group portrait of the Wild Bunch dressed like city slickers. That picture, thought to have been taken in 1900, was proudly displayed in the window of a Fort Worth photography studio. When law enforcement officials spotted it, they used it to create wanted posters.

The Butch it portrays is a handsome, affable-looking man with a mischievous smile beneath his mustache. By many accounts, he charmed locals and lawmen, paid a penniless widow's mortgage, rode back for his dog in the middle of an escape and never took a man's life (though his Wild Bunch henchman Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, is often remembered as a psychopathic killer).

"Butch was a contagious fellow, well-liked," Anderson said. "The movie got that much right."

But interviews with scores of people revealed what Anderson considers fallacies in William Goldman's Oscar-winning "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" screenplay: Elzy Lay was the real brains of the gang. The relationship between Butch and Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place, played in the movie by Katharine Ross, was far from platonic.

And, as so many locals claim, Butch didn't die in South America on Nov. 6, 1908. Instead, he and Sundance rode all the way back to Utah, stopping in Mexico to meet Pancho Villa.

Others have tried to prove the opposite, including writer Anne Meadows. In her book "Digging Up Butch and Sundance," she marshals documentary evidence about the movements of Butch, Sundance and Etta after they fled the U.S. in 1901 and reports on the inconclusive exhumation of a grave thought to contain the remains of the outlaws in the village of San Vicente, Bolivia.

The movie takes a middle ground by leaving their fate to the imagination but faithfully underscores the passing of the outlaw era in the scene in which Butch takes Etta riding on a bicycle, a newfangled contraption at the time not about to supplant the horse, in his opinion. The scene, set to Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," was filmed in the ghost town of Grafton on the Smithsonian Butte Road Scenic Backway, a graded dirt road southwest of Zion Canyon National Park.

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