HomeMoviesFrom Sundance to The Gun: A Robert Redford Career Retrospective

From Sundance to The Gun: A Robert Redford Career Retrospective

Written by Tom Moore

When news broke that The Old Man and the Gun would be legendary actor/director Robert Redford’s last role, I found myself suddenly interested in the film. I couldn’t exactly figure out why, though. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Robert Redford fan and after looking through his IMDb page to see what other movies I’d seen of his, I suddenly realized I had only seen about two or three. Then again, is it that surprising that a 23-year-old wouldn’t have watched many Robert Redford movies?

Redford’s big moments were really a part of my parents’ and even my grandparent’s generations and for me, Redford always seemed like just a famous name. But instead of deterring me from caring, I did what any other millennial would probably do: I made a list of Redford’s best and highly regarded films, endured some harping from my grandparents for not seeing these movies earlier, grabbed a spot on my couch, and did a binge-watch of films throughout Redford’s career to see what I’d been missing.

So, let’s take a look at what makes Robert Redford the iconic actor and how he has made a deep impact into the current Hollywood landscape.

Nowhere else should anyone start but with Redford’s first film, War Hunt. At this point, Redford had just been making the rounds across different TV shows, so seeing the opening credits say, “and introducing Robert Redford,” felt incredibly special. Even here, you can see Redford’s acting chops as he makes the simple character of a rookie entering the Korean War actually feel complex. Redford perfectly brings charisma to a man who is slowly discovering the horrors of war. Not to mention that Redford’s performance in the lead showed that even at a young age, he could stand strong against other acting greats like John Saxon.

From here, Redford embarked on a journey to not only create iconic film characters, but to also be the archetype for future films to follow. When thinking about Redford as an archetype, my mind immediately goes to his role in the sports classic, The Natural.

Redford’s performance in the 1984 baseball film reminded me of a famous phrase from the 2011 Bennett Miller film, Moneyball. When Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane asks, “How can you get romantic about baseball?” this phrase is the embodiment of Redford’s performance as a man who has an unbelievable talent and love for baseball. Redford makes his character impossible not to love and his depiction of his character’s disgust for greed over fair-play undoubtedly inspired other sports films like Rookie of the Year, which took The Natural’s whimsical story and modernized it for a younger audience.

Redford’s more political outings with The Candidate and All the President’s Men showcased his care for stories that affect the world. His portrayal of Bob Woodward—one half of the iconic duo of reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal—is truly iconic, and possibly even one of the best biographical performances in film. Elsewhere, Redford even portrayed the charismatic bachelor in The Great Gatsby and the common con man in The Sting. These characters seem simple on paper, but Redford brings a great complexity to them that captures the viewer’s attention. Redford was nominated for his first Academy Award for Best Lead Actor in 1973’s The Sting because of those qualities and he couldn’t have been more deserving.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, how could I forget to mention Redford’s arguably most iconic performance in the classic Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Don’t worry, it’s impossible to forget; it really is the best showcase of Redford’s acting ability.


In that film, he teamed up with Paul Newman, another iconic actor, and they shared an incredible chemistry that just cannot be denied. They created characters that would not only define a generation, but help create a beloved genre. This film would start the concept of the “buddy/buddy-cop” films and it’s all thanks to Redford’s more hard-nosed and action-oriented Sundance Kid perfectly complementing Newman’s wilder and more fun Cassidy.

Oddly enough, Redford wasn’t even the first, second, or third choice to play the Sundance Kid. The role was originally offered to Jack Lemmon, but he wasn’t interested. With Lemmon out of the picture, other actors like Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, and Marlon Brando, were contacted but, ultimately, Newman and the film’s director, George Roy Hill kept suggesting Redford until 20th Century Fox caved.

On set, Redford reportedly brought great energy and excitement to the film—as he wanted to do his own stunts, including walking on top of a moving train—and not rehearse as much so his and Newman’s relationship felt more spontaneous.

The film initially failed because Redford really wasn’t a household name at the time and the Western genre was starting to go out the door. Not to mention, it was a bit controversial with it not being a typical western, as it played on the tropes of the genre, didn’t take itself too seriously, and included black and white stills from silent films. Critics gave it middling reviews, but audiences had other feelings and through word of mouth, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid became an overnight hit. Redford himself gained a lot of respect for the role Redford use that to create a community to support other filmmakers.

After sitting through a small film festival in Utah, Redford knew how he could make a difference. He founded the Sundance Institute (of course named after his most iconic performance), with the goal of celebrating independent filmmakers and giving them a platform. Soon after, he took over that Utah film festival and, in 1984, helped create the Sundance Film Festival. But instead of doing just showing films, Redford knew how important it was for filmmakers to get financing so that they could stand tall against the mainstream giants. So, he decided to get investors and other filmmakers involved so that he could create a filmmaking community that supported one another.

Now, many might not realize that Redford or the Sundance Kid would have anything to do with the festival, but not only has it become synonymous with independent film, it has supported some of the most prominent independent filmmakers of the last 40 years. Films like The Usual Suspects, Memento, Reservoir Dogs, American Psycho and Whiplash all saw the light of day because of Sundance.

Redford also made a difference behind the camera, as he started his directing career with 1981’s Ordinary People. Redford’s desire to explore human emotion and morality is made clear in the films he directs. His focus on conversations in long takes is actually quite striking, as I felt like it gave me time to digest what was happening—specially as the conversations between these characters are deep and important to their relationships.

Whether it’s Timothy Hutton’s Conrad talking to his therapist about his feelings after his brother’s death or Conrad talking to his father about how his mother is riddled with hate towards him, Redford’s use of long takes is very effective in creating powerful scenes. His use of cuts is also expertly done in arguments. He tends to keep the camera on other characters to see their reactions, so moments like the one where Conrad yells at his mother as they hang up the Christmas tree can have a strong impact.

He was rewarded for his work with Ordinary People with the Academy Award for Best Director. Not good enough for you? Well, when you’re a first time director going up against competition like Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull, Roman Polanski for Tess, David Lynch for The Elephant Man, and Richard Rush for The Stunt Man, I’d say that’s a pretty impressive win.

He would be nominated again for his fourth film, Quiz Show, and direct eight other films that would include actors from different generations. Look, the fact that he can get actors like Will Smith, Matt Damon, Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore in his films shows how highly regarded Redford really is.

Whether its the actors or the projects themselves, choice has also been a big part of what makes Robert Redford iconic. He didn’t necessarily just take any role and looked more for roles that were different and unexpected.

Thinking back to my American Independent Cinema class in college, I remember watching Redford in All is Lost, where Redford stole the show since he was the only one in it. Redford plays a mostly-silent sailor who is trying to survive after his boat is damaged in a storm. Because of the limited dialogue, the film relies heavily on his facial expressions to describe the courage and strength of the character, only dubbed as “Our Man.” Thankfully, director J.C. Chandor chose the right man for the job as the film showcases the excellence that Redford brings while saying very little.

Redford is also shown to be very capable in the role as it showcases his character’s sailing expertise through actions. Even after his boat has a hole in it from strangely colliding with a metal container full of shoes, he just fixes the boat without panic. It’s this type of performance that truly strays from the norm and showed how Redford really cares about creating a genuine character.

Redford has even taken on some roles with Disney and Marvel, like the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Pete’s Dragon. With Winter Soldier, he only played a minor antagonist, but his desire to experience more high technology filmmaking and interest in the way the MCU films were changing filmmaking made him extremely interested in the role. He is open to all kinds of filmmaking and never saw the MCU as something unworthy of his talent. This excitement carried into his performance and helped the film garner the reputation of being one of the best in the MCU. Even with his smaller role in Pete’s Dragon, he finds a way to bring a sense of whimsical wisdom that I found really enjoyable.

Given his incredible career, what does it matter if Redford’s last film doesn’t hold up, right?

For those worried, rest assured, The Old Man and the Gun is a legitimately perfect ending to Redford’s career. It basically embodies everything he has worked for in film. He truly gives the performance of a lifetime and it was easily one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve seen on-screen.

The best thing I can say about Redford’s performance is that he carries his character’s same happiness for robbing banks into this film and it really makes his final performance feel rewarding. He really feels like he has done a full-circle back to his days as the Sundance Kid and it’ll be tough for fans not to get a little teary-eyed seeing him onscreen. Not to mention, there’s a sense of both respect and love for Redford from all of the other actors in the film and it resonates nicely with his more charismatic approach.

So, after exploring Robert Redford’s career and seeing his deep impact on the film industry, I can only feel a sense of sadness that it took me so long to appreciate how much he has done for film. It’s crazy how much I under-appreciated seeing Redford in The Great Gatsby as I read the book back in high and not realizing how important it was to have him in that role. Redford really grasps the complexities of Jay Gatsby as he carries his romantic charm and lavish lifestyle very similar to how the book describes.

After seeing some of his best work, it feels odd saying that he is an incredibly under-appreciated actor whose work people should look at if they get the chance. While it’s sad to see him go, there is a great sense of satisfaction knowing that, like his character in The Old Man and the Gun, Redford left his mark on the film industry with a smile.

Pop-Break Staff
Pop-Break Staffhttps://thepopbreak.com
Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.

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