Butch Cassidy (Tom Berenger) is in prison, serving a sentence for robbery, one of many, when he is called to see the Governor (Arthur Hill) who introduces him to Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey), the man who brought Butch to justice. The Governor has a proposition for the jailbird: he will be set free if he promises never to break the law again, and as he is a man of his word the authorities would respect that he would stick to the straight and narrow. However, Butch knows what kind of man he is, and has to turn them down - but then has a brainwave. How about he promises never to break the law in this state ever again?
So that's Cassidy introduced, what about The Sundance Kid? He would be played by William Katt and something of a loner, planning a career in crime and already on the run for shooting up a saloon casino, but what most people would be wondering about Butch and Sundance: The Early Days is what's the point in going back to tell the backstory of two lead characters from one of the most beloved Westerns of all time? It was plain that was the prevailing mood in 1979 when this was released as not only were there no stars here (youthful Berenger and Katt not considered good box office at the time), but few were really interested anyway.
So the film flopped, and was largely forgotten even in the canon of cult director Richard Lester, only occasionally revived for television showings for those curious enough to see what the filmmakers had thought up. One of those filmmakers had been the scriptwriter of the original classic William Goldman, here taking care to see all his good work was not bastardised by anyone, and it's true there was nothing if not a respectful tone to The Early Days, which if largely fictional preferred to make allusions to the previous film, so there was the odd "Who are those guys?" piece of dialogue here, a reference to the approaching modernisation of the West there, and it ended with an extended sequence featuring a train robbery.
Lester always had a strange attitude to heroic fiction, and here his ambivalence to the traditions of those types of characters was well to the fore. They may be villains in the eyes of the law, but once they meet up Butch and Sundance are the ones we're meant to be backing chiefly because of their good humour and camaraderie, yet there's little to illustrate their career choices in giving into their greedier impulses is going to do them any good. We already know that because we've seen the work this was a prequel to, and the fact that hardly anyone would seek this out if they had not seen that was both a strength and weakness of the production: you knew what you'd get to a degree, but it wouldn't be the same.
For a start, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were nowhere to be seen, which left Berenger and Katt to perform somewhere between their own interpretations of those former performances and something more applicable to the material at hand. It was a tricky balance to achieve, but surprisingly they were very sucessful at it within the confines of a script which couldn't allow anything very much major to occur to the characters as all the important stuff happened in the first movie. The results were the equivalent of a noodling guitar solo, skirting around the tune but pretty much there for its own sake, for the audience to remark on the solid job of professionalism all concerned had managed, as the sole life-changing incident depicted was the killing in self-defence Sundance has to carry out, and with the mood wavering between serious and more often humorous this one scene stood out like a sore thumb. But it all looked very pretty, and if you really had to have this prequel it could have been worse; as it is, it's reminiscent of the TV series Alias Smith And Jones. Music by Patrick Williams.