“Butch Cassidy was one of the most wanted outlaws in North America in the early 20th century, leading legendary gangs like the Wild Bunch and the Train Robbers Syndicate. Hounded by the law and big companies, he fled to South America with his friend the Sundance Kid. Both were supposedly killed in a shootout with the Bolivian army in San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1908. Recently investigators analyzed remains found at the location where witnesses had claimed they were buried. They were not there.”
So begins Blackthorn, a new Western written by first-time screenwriter Miguel Barro, and directed by fellow Spaniard Mateo Gil, best known as author of the screenplays The Sea Inside and Abre los ojos, the basis of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky. It’s an intriguing premise: what if Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, had effectively faked his own death, and survived into old age? After all, Parker’s own sister famously claimed to have encountered her brother several times between 1908 and 1925, a reputable physician claimed to have treated him long after his supposed death, and there is considerable anecdotal and circumstantial evidence supporting the theory that he died in 1936, or 1938, or even as recently as 1945.
Barro imagines the grizzled outlaw, definitively played by Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and convincingly portrayed here by Sam Shepard, living out his days as a small-time rancher in Bolivia, under the name ‘James Blackthorn’. In 1927, aged about 60, he learns of the death from tuberculosis of his beloved Etta Place (played in flashbacks by Dominique McElligott), withdraws his savings from the bank, and decides to return to America, to be with the son he has never met. Things do not begin smoothly, however, as an encounter with Spanish thief Eduardo (Abre los ojos’ Eduardo Noriega) leads his horse to bolt, taking his money and belongings with it. Although Blackthorn is inclined to make Eduardo pay for this mistake with his life, the Spaniard convinces him that he is on the run from the owners of a mine from whom he has stolen thousands of dollars – a fortune he will share with Blackthorn if his life is spared. Thus, the pair sets off to the abandoned silver mine where the money is reportedly stashed, leading them on a journey which will lead Blackthorn back into the path of the Pinkertons’ Mackinley (Stephen Rea), the lawman who has pursued him for years, and believes – correctly, it transpires – that rumours of the famous outlaw’s death have been greatly exaggerated. For the ageing Blackthorn, it will also be a journey into his past, with flashbacks from the early 1900s in which the young Shepard is well represented by Danish actor Nikolaj Costner-Waldau (Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones), while the Sundance Kid (aka Harry Alonzo Longabaugh) is played, less effectively, by Padraic Delaney.
It’s a laudably ambitious undertaking, the principal pleasure of which is the Bolivian location work, whose full potential is realized by the breathtaking cinematography of Juan Ruiz Anchia. Shepard makes easy work of his role as Blackthorn/Cassidy, but an underwritten script means that his performance largely boils down to his physical presence and that caught-in-the-throat voice. (Perhaps Shepard, a gifted playwright and screenwriter in his own right, should have been given the opportunity to flex his writing muscles.) The script’s shortcomings are perhaps most noticeable when Mackinley learns that his nemesis has survived all these years, the dramatic potential of which is largely wasted in the film’s final stretch.
If Blackthorn fails, it is also in part due to the long shadows cast by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and by other tales of ageing gunfighters, from The Shootist to Unforgiven. In the two decades since the latter film’s revisionist take on the Old West, the once-mighty Western has ceded its dominance to science fiction and fantasy, with only the very best screenplays making it into production. The upside of this is that the genre has produced some bona fide classics in recent years, including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and a score of worthy successors to the great Westerns of old: Tombstone, Open Range, The Proposition, Seraphim Falls and Meek’s Cutoff to name a few.
The remarkable commercial success of True Grit suggests that there is life in the moribund genre yet, and it’s appropriate that one of the first films to appear in the wake of that film’s success should concern itself with a legendary figure who, although long thought dead, is very much alive – much like the Western itself.