ScreenPrism: What is the significance of the "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)?
Professor Julian Cornell: Part of the reason for that scene is to display the bicycle, which is the symbol of the future, the symbol of progress, the symbol of technology. That’s the only elegy moment in the film. If you look at The Wild Bunch (1969), which came out around the same time, it had more of an elegy aspect, with the idea of the car. In The Wild Bunch, the car is clearly the end of this way of life. Here the bicycle, which seems benign, is the beginning of the end. The bicycle symbolizes that the characters that are exemplified by Butch and Sundance are gone — over and done with.
What I like about the scene is there’s a lot more to it than just this musical number. One of the things people didn’t like about it at the time is it doesn’t fit. The tradition of Western scoring is to use classical versions of pioneer music motifs, country and western music — like the music John Ford used. John Ford cared about historical accuracy, so that’s why there’s always music that actual settlers would sing and play in John Ford movies. The score of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) doesn’t have any of that. It’s brought to our attention by having a pop song. It’s almost in the middle of the movie, too. In some ways it’s this new tradition of scoring, where the song is a pop song or in a popular idiom (in this case, it’s a song by Hal David and Burt Bacharach), where it’s meant to be narrating the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
It’s interesting because Butch is a guy who clearly isn’t shy about talking, yet this is supposed to be what is going on his head: his optimism. You know, raindrops keep falling on my head. It may be raining but I am going to still be upbeat and positive. It narrates his feelings, but it’s also a moment of respite for the audience. It’s a light moment. But I think it’s very self-aware because it clearly knows this is not the kind of song that’s supposed to be in a Western. This is not the kind of scene that’s supposed to be in a Western. They even interrupt the song with this other kind of musical interlude, this really upbeat Big Band music while he’s goofing around on the bicycle, and then the song comes back to wrap that in.
So it’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t seem motivated by narrative. It seems to be gratuitous. There’s no point to this in terms of story and character, but it’s all about the tone and conveying the character’s very self-aware optimism. That’s what the song is kind of about: I’m going to be happy and upbeat because that’s my choice, to do that, to be that. I run hot and cold on whether it’s a good song or not—it’s an earworm. It gets in there and it won’t leave.
Within the movie, the whole point is it doesn’t fit.
SP: It’s also a touching moment between Butch and Etta. It’s almost like she has half a healthy relationship with each of the men.
JC: Right. She asks him, “Do you ever wonder if I'd met you first, we'd be the ones to get involved?” The idea of possibility is a big part of the movie — the possibility that things could have gone differently.
But in a way the inevitability is not the closing of the frontier but the end of this way of life. For these guys, it’s inevitable that it works out this way. They’re dying in a hail of gunfire. That’s what’s happening. Of course, I guess people knew that, anyway. That’s part of the legend of Butch and Sundance is that no American lawman could catch them, and it took the army to get them. They had to call in the Bolivian army.
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