Blackthorn is the assumed name of Butch Cassidy, outlaw of the old West, who in this film survived his famous shoot-out with the Bolivian army in 1908 and is hiding out, waiting to finally make his return to the United States to see his child. When a misunderstanding leads to Cassidy losing his horse and life savings, he is drawn into one last adventure that puts his long-standing moral code to the test.
This film is steeped in the ‘ageing outlaw makes one last stab at glory’ trope. Although conscious of the weight of the myths it deploys, the film does so straightforwardly, without any self-reflexive winks or nods, and this is to the film’s credit. It’s interesting to recall Richard Lester, who, despite being fond of self-conscious japes himself, helmed a Butch and Sundance ‘prequel’ and a beautiful, melancholic epitaph for Robin Hood that, in some ways, this film resembles.
Blackthorn begins in 1927, the year of the first transatlantic telephone call and of the first talking picture. But down in rural Bolivia, there’s not the faintest hint that the jazz age is in full swing. Cassidy assigns the ending of his era to the coming of the railways and big corporations. The frontier was of course declared closed in 1890, so Cassidy is by now well and truly an outlaw out of time.
Cassidy meets the handsome and charismatic Spaniard Eduardo Apodaca and agrees to help him, at first largely for pragmatic reasons. But soon the two become friends and, in the course of their attempts to recover money Eduardo has stolen and to dodge the assassins on his trail, Cassidy re-discovers his lust for adventure.
The flashbacks to the Butch and Sundance days that are interspersed throughout the main narrative were perhaps a misstep: they naturally invite comparison with George Roy Hill’s legendary 1969 film. But they do highlight the strength and subtlety of Stephen Rea’s performance as Mackinley, who, with the passing of the years, transforms from dogged detective of the Pinkerton agency to a near-nihilistic derelict, swilling chicha straight from the bottle.
The Western has usually been the preserve of self-sufficient male characters. The women typically stay back at the ranch, threatening to tie the men to the spot with their apron strings. It seems as though Blackthorn will go this way: Cassidy outlines his view that there’s no greater riches to aspire to than being ‘your own man’ and the depiction of Yana, Cassidy’s much younger, seemingly subservient Bolivian mistress may irk some. But in one of the film’s later scenes, when Cassidy feels forced to justify his outlaw past, he explains that he’s never killed anyone in cold blood. In contrast, in one of the flashbacks, Etta Place, Sundance’s lover and the mother of Cassidy’s child, efficiently dispatches three of their adversaries, whom Cassidy has wounded during a gunfight. Furthermore, Cassidy’s adversaries on his last adventure are ruthless female assassins. These femmes fatales seem less an expression of the Western’s traditional misogyny than an admission that the grasping, avaricious threadbare conditions can all too easily cheapen life, turning one into a hardened cynic, whose wealth can only be prised from their cold dead hands.
Films with a ‘buddy’ narrative have often prompted academic interpretations of the homoerotic aspects lurking beneath the manly surface. In a film where Cassidy, in an attempt to allay Eduardo’s saddle sores, spits into his hand and rubs his saliva into the cleavage of his friends buttocks, telling him ‘your ass is softer ‘n a book-keeper’s’, one hardly needs to reach for Jacques Lacan to elucidate the subtext. Cassidy constantly looks back to his friendship with Sundance, and in his memories, Etta is depicted right from the start as a beautiful disruption to this manly camaraderie.
The Bolivian landscape is breathtakingly beautiful: we see verdant green hills, a dusty desert and abandoned mine, vast rock outcrops, and there’s a memorably suspenseful sequence set among the Uyuni salt flats - exactly the sort of landscape that is rarely portrayed on film, and that, in its desolate, dreamlike urgency recalls certain moments from Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala. There’s also some curious use of the zoom throughout the film that perhaps reflects the influence of the Spaghetti Western, although Gil’s measured, economical style is a far cry from the operatic style of A Fistful of Dollars or the grime-spattered histrionics of Django Kill!. The score, though effective, at times verges on something that Mark Knopfler might have composed, but there’s also a fantastic scene where Cassidy and Eduardo set out on a lengthy trek during which Cassidy plays a gloriously out of tune version of the folk standard ‘Sam Hall’ on a ukulele.
Director Mateo Gil is better known as a scriptwriter (he worked on both the Spanish and American versions of Vanilla Sky), and in many respects Blackthorn is very much a script-based film. The film has been well cast and features fantastic performances throughout. Indeed, Gil’s often matter-of-fact, character-driven approach is perfect for the material. We never feel that the film is puffed up with a sense of its own importance, or even that it’s trumpeting how beautiful the on-screen landscapes are. There’s a plot twist towards the end of the film that doesn’t just add intrigue, it’s the payoff to Gil’s belief that the Western is ‘a truly moral genre’. But it’s a morally complex genre; Cassidy hasn’t always practised what he preaches, especially where romantic passions are concerned. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains here, although some are far more villainous than others.
The decision to set almost all of the film in Bolivia, and to depict impoverished miners and the native Quechua population without exoticism, means that this is very much a Western from an outsider’s perspective. It also means that it is free of the visual clichés associated with the genre. A Western in possession of a social conscience, but without lapsing into preaching or patronising, this is an unassuming film in some ways, but ultimately it’s self-assured, elegiac and sometimes strikingly beautiful.
John A. Riley