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Doc digs into infamous outlaws' past

Wild West duo's real lives rivalled their Hollywood story

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The Fort Worth Five: from left, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid), William (News) Carver, Benjamin (The Tall Texan) Kilpatrick,  Harvey (Kid Curry) Logan and Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy).

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The Fort Worth Five: from left, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid), William (News) Carver, Benjamin (The Tall Texan) Kilpatrick, Harvey (Kid Curry) Logan and Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy).

They are, thanks mostly to Paul Newman, Robert Redford and director George Roy Hill, among the most recognizable names in the Wild West chapter of American history.

Not surprisingly, the real story of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid differs somewhat from the classic Hollywood yarn concocted by William Goldman in his Oscar-winning screenplay for the beloved 1969 Newman/Redford adventure.

But as it turns out, the fact-based retelling in the new PBS/American Experience documentary Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is no less intriguing and thrilling than the feature-film version of the tale that galloped across the big screen nearly half a century ago.

Written, produced and directed by Emmy-winning documentarian John Maggio, this hour-long examination of the lives of Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh -- a.k.a. Butch and Sundance -- looks deep into each of their pasts in an attempt to understand how and why they ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Parker was born into a devout but dirt-poor Mormon family in Utah; early in his teens, he took a job at a cattle ranch and soon met a small-time rustler named Mike Cassidy, who gave him an early education in cutting corners and committing easy but profitable petty larceny.

By age 18, Parker was ready to strike out on his own criminal career, and in his first big strike -- the robbery of a bank in Telluride, Colo., -- the outlaw who now called himself Butch Cassidy (both in tribute to his mentor and in an effort to preserve his real family's good name) showed himself to be a master tactician with an inclination toward non-violent thievery.

Harry Longabaugh was born in the industrial town of Phoenixville, Pa., but from an early age, he dreamed of exploring the Wild West he had read about in pulp novels. At age 14, his wish came true when he landed a job at a cousin's ranch in Colorado, and quickly became a skilled cowboy.

But after a harsh, blizzard-filled winter decimated cattle herds and left many ropers and wranglers unemployed, Longabaugh turned to crime. He was arrested and jailed for horse theft in Sundance, Wyo., and during an 18-month stint in prison, he gave himself the nickname he would carry throughout the rest of his outlaw days.

The pair met while both were taking refuge along the infamous Outlaw Trail -- a series of mountain outposts between Montana and New Mexico that were almost impossible for badge-toting types to invade -- and eventually became the key members of the Cassidy-run band of robbers known as the Wild Bunch.

As much as Maggio's documentary is an efficient chronicle of Butch and Sundance's numerous heists and getaways, it also serves as a fascinating window into the evolution of law enforcement in the United States.

In the late 1800s, the methods employed by Cassidy and company kept them consistently ahead of the mostly local sheriffs and posses that pursued them. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired by fed-up bankers and railroad barons who demanded an end to frontier robberies, began employing modern, nationwide investigative techniques that eventually made it impossible for the outlaws to continue.

Wisely, Butch and Sundance determined they were no longer safe on American soil. They fled to South America in 1901, seeking a new start in Argentina, while the Pinkertons systematically either captured or killed the remaining Wild Bunch members who had declined their bosses' offer at a second chance south of the equator.

Those who've seen the beloved 1969 Newman-Redford oater might be surprised by the different (and decidedly less blaze-of-glory-ish) ending this film theorizes for the duo, who in the end were undone by their inability to suppress their desire to make easier money than life on the straight and narrow could provide.

It is, of course, a much less cinematic final act to the outlaws' tale, but this decidedly more plausible conclusion in no way diminishes a truly captivating Old West saga. Any way you tell it, the story of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is legendary.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2014 D3

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