Robert Redford: 10 essential films

Two handfuls of the finest films starring the magnificent Robert Redford, who shot to fame playing the Sundance Kid at the tail end of the 1960s.

Christina Newland

Downhill Racer (1969)

Downhill Racer (1969)

Robert Redford, that enduring icon of glossy stardom and elder statesman of the American indie circuit, has been easy to define by what he stands in opposition to. A natural athlete bored by his upbringing in suburban California, Redford became the reluctant byword for WASP America. In the 70s Hollywood era of dark-haired, dynamic actors – many of Italian or Jewish descent – Redford remained an old-fashioned leading man. With his rugged, leonine good looks, you could hardly imagine him slouching unnoticed into your local corner store.

Redford easily could have been absorbed into the establishment, playing romantic heroes without making so much as a dent in the artistically fertile American renaissance of the decade. But even in the most mainstream of fare, his subtlety and self-awareness shine through. Looking back on the actor’s career as he turns 79, it’s clear that the Sundance Kid was never averse to taking risks – or to putting his liberal politics on the line.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Director George Roy Hill

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Beloved in most quarters, George Roy Hill’s irreverent cowboy-buddy film has a unique place in culture – perhaps because it was such a light-hearted mix of components. Its two bickering outlaws belonged more to contemporary cool than they did to the violence and machismo of much of the rest of the genre. Perhaps J. Hoberman explained its appeal to non-western fans best when he quipped that the film was “less dirty than dirty blonde”. While Newman had long been a superstar, the film changed Redford’s fortunes considerably – between 1968 and 1970 (according to biographer Michael Feeney Callan) he went from sleeping in hotel corridors to gracing the cover of LIFE Magazine.

Downhill Racer (1969)

Director Michael Ritchie

Downhill Racer (1969)

Downhill Racer (1969)

Redford’s early performance as a young Olympic skiing champion is magnetic and self-contained, revealing the actor’s capability for iciness. Director Michael Ritchie peppers what might have been a classic sports tale with oh-so-60s subversion: rapid editing, hazy cinematography, and plenty of snap zooms. On paper, the narrative is traditional: a handsome young athlete comes from nowhere and emerges victorious at the Winter Olympics. Except that the athlete himself is aloof and arrogant, casting aside any interest in modesty or teamwork. The athlete-as-hero myth is methodically undermined, revealing him to be an obsessive and unlikable figure. For all the excitement of the sport, his eventual victory feels more like an empty anti-climax.

The Candidate (1972)

Director Michael Ritchie

The Candidate (1972)

The Candidate (1972)

Redford’s collaborations with director Michael Ritchie are often unfairly overlooked; Ritchie knew both how to acknowledge and to undercut the star’s golden boy appearance. Made on the cusp of Nixon’s re-election and written by an ex-speechwriter, The Candidate sees one Bill McKay lead a seemingly hopeless campaign for Democratic presidential nominee. Redford’s distant charisma and unreadability are crucial – they allow the audience, and presumably his political constituents, to project what they like onto him. Genuine ideals slowly recede as he increasingly leans on tired platitudes and publicity-friendly endorsements. The cold irony seems to be that the less he stands for, the more his popularity peaks.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Director Sydney Pollack

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

The first of Redford’s seven collaborations with director Sydney Pollack, Jeremiah Johnson was filmed in the brutal winter of the Utah mountains, not far from Redford’s Sundance ranch. Set in the late 19th century, it’s about a bearded mountain man locked in a vengeful war of attrition with Native Americans. Pollack offers a critical look at the encroachment of white ‘civilisation’ on native culture, and celebrates a union between man and nature that seems to preface Redford’s later passionate environmental activism.

The Way We Were (1973)

Director Sydney Pollack

The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were (1973)

Overwrought, weepy, and fantastically enjoyable, The Way We Were plays its hand with a lush theme song and an innate awareness of its lead actors’ personas. Barbra Streisand is Katie, an earnest student radical with a tangle of mousy hair. Redford is Hubbell, a college jock so irritatingly square-jawed that Katie quips at him: “Look who it is, America the Beautiful.” Both as an expression of the emotional toll of the Hollywood blacklist – and as a rebuke to every latter-day romance where the smart guy gets the attractive girl – The Way We Were is the kind of unabashedly swooning romantic drama that you’d be foolish to call a guilty pleasure. 

The Sting (1973)

Director George Roy Hill

The Sting (1973)

The Sting (1973)

This joyful Depression-era film features Paul Newman as a greying old-trick confidence man and Redford as a small-time thief and gambler. Segmented into novelistic sections, the yarn about good-natured con men avenging an old friend is insubstantial and entertaining – sheer Hollywood fantasy. The Sting is a magnificently nostalgic film, without an iota of new wave sensibility. At worst, it can sometimes feel like a glamour vehicle for its stars, positioned to let two of Hollywood’s most handsome men swan around in a variety of tuxedos. Still, that’s hardly a deterrent – and The Sting is a reminder that old-fashioned films with traditional stars were still thriving amid the counterculture stylings of the decade.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Director Sydney Pollack

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

In this high-70s political thriller, Redford is a government pencil-pusher who suddenly finds himself at the top of the CIA’s internal kill list. It’s a mixed bag of a film; if the upshot is simply the corruption of the CIA, it’s not exactly a shocking revelation. One only has to look at their covert operations abroad in the mid-70s to guess as much. Nonetheless, the concluding moments – ambiguous, pessimistic, and hinting at futility – give the film a real sting in its tail.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Director Alan J. Pakula

All the President's Men (1976)

All the President's Men (1976)

Aided by cinematographer Gordon Willis’s superlative use of shadow and light, All the President’s Men was the last in a trio of films directed by Alan J. Pakula that are loosely known as his ‘paranoia trilogy’. It was Redford who approached Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the men responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal and bringing down a President. The pair were initially uneasy about having their story adapted for the screen, but Pakula was exacting – sticking faithfully to the first seven months of real-life events. It’s perhaps the penultimate journalist-as-hero film, but Redford’s turn as Woodward contains the slightest hint of ruthlessness – just enough to let you believe that careerism plays a part in many good deeds.

Brubaker (1980)

Director Stuart Rosenberg

Brubaker (1980)

Brubaker (1980)

Stuart Rosenberg’s absorbing prison drama – based on real-life incidents in an Arkansas prison – stars a typically subdued Redford as Henry Brubaker, the new reform warden at a rough southern prison. Abuse and corruption are rife, polluting local business, the state police, and even the governor’s office. Brubaker, a principled, steely-minded individualist, begins to make radical changes to the prison, and steadily realises just how rotten the whole system is. It’s easy to see why Redford was attracted to the liberal cause of prison reform – and the heroic role. While Brubaker can be a little bit on the nose at times, it’s a wholly likable film – and Redford is a pro at embodying a hard-headed idealist.

All Is Lost (2013)

Director J.C. Chandor

All Is Lost (2013)

All Is Lost (2013)

J.C. Chandor’s second film, after Margin Call (2011), imagines a spry 77-year-old sailor who is inexplicably alone at sea. He awakes one morning to find his boat has been badly punctured by a wayward shipping container. As the situation degenerates, Chandor offers what what feels like a gorgeously pared down re-telling of The Old Man and the Sea – a simply-told, enthralling survival story, expressed with minimal dialogue. Redford’s familiar, weathered face, which we know has been lined by wind and Utah sun, is the only one we see for the duration of the film. As he drifts through the open sea, lonely and maybe doomed, Redford gives a defining late-career performance of endurance and desperation.

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