Blackthorn—Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Magaly Solier (2011; Dir: Mateo Gil)
This is a wintry Euro-western, with a Spanish director and mostly Spanish-speaking cast, shot in Bolivia. It’s a “what if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in San Vicente in 1908?” story, starring Sam Shepard as the aging Butch. It takes place mostly twenty years after Butch’s supposed death in Bolivia, as Butch, now calling himself James Blackthorn, considers a return to the U.S. Etta Place has died of tuberculosis in San Francisco, leaving a young adult son with whom Butch has corresponded. “I been my own man,” Blackthorn comments. “Nothing’s richer than that.”
Butch sells his horses and has a nest egg of $6000, sufficient to return to America. While returning with the money to say goodbye to friends (particularly a young Indian woman named Yana [Megaly Solier]) before leaving the country, he finds a dead horse and rides on. He is ambushed by the horse’s former rider, a young Spaniard named Eduardo Apodaca who had worked for a mining titan and robbed him of $50,000. He was on his way to retrieve the money when he was shot at and lost his horse. Now Butch’s horse, with his money, is scared off. In return for reluctantly helping Apodaca out of the desolate, remote area to the mine, Apodaca promises Butch half his loot.
There are flashbacks showing the young Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) being captured at one time by Pinkerton agent McKinley (Stephen Rea) and escaping. As in the story we remember, Etta left Butch and Sundance in South America, returning to the U.S. alone—and pregnant in this version. In San Vicente, Butch and Sundance are thought to be killed, but they get away, although Sundance is mortally wounded. Butch helps him die in as humane a fashion as possible, and goes off to his life as a solitary rancher for the next twenty years.
While retrieving Apodaca’s ill-gotten gains, they are trapped in the mine by a posse of native trackers and frontiersmen. Apodaca knows of a secret exit, and they make it away to Butch’s ranch, where Apodaca recovers from a wound. One morning a couple of women show up, saying they have recovered Butch’s horse with the money. They pull out guns, shoot Butch, kill Yana and Apodaca finally gets them. But Butch and Apodaca are on the run again, this time with Butch badly wounded.
They are followed by the relentless posse into the desert, where Butch, Apodaca and attrition wear the posse down. Finally, Butch gives Apodaca the good horse that should get him out of the desert and instructs him to meet him in a town on the other side. It seems unlikely Butch will make it.
But somehow he does. We next see him in a near-coma on a doctor’s table. The doctor seems to know who he is, and sends for the alcoholic McKinley, now an honorary consul in that town, to ask him. McKinley says it is Butch, and sits with Butch until he awakens. By that time he has thought better of giving Butch over to the authorities. But he informs Butch that, instead of robbing a mining baron, Apodaca has stolen the money from poor mining familiies who had been awarded the played-out mine by a Bolivian court. Butch sees this as an affront to his Robin-Hood-style ethics and similarly to his views on the sacredness of friendship.
[Spoilers follow.] With McKinley’s help Butch escapes the town, once more into a desolate high desert, heading for the Andes to cross into Chile. Apodaca, it turns out, was also in town, and barely escapes with his loot. The two of them make their separate ways across the desert to the Andes foothills. As Apodaca wakes up one morning he finds Butch watching him and hopes that they can continue their escape together. Instead, Butch shoots him in the leg, runs off his horse and leaves Apodaca and his money to the pursuing posse, which now includes soldiers. As he climbs the mountains on his horse he hears shots as they find Apodaca. The soldiers have forced McKinley to accompany them, and as they crest the mountains on the Chilean border they are frustrated at having seen Butch’s track but not being able to find him. So they strand McKinley there without his horse. Not knowing anything of this, Butch moves on, presumably to make it back to the U.S., although that’s not shown.
There are a lot of positives about this bleak film. Sam Shepard is convincing as the aging Butch, and the younger actors in the flashbacks are enormously attractive, especially Coster-Waldau (now known from his appearance in HBO’s Game of Thrones) and McElligott (later seen in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, a western series). Coster-Waldau and Shepard do seem believably to resemble each other. In a way, this attractiveness is a problem: we’d like to see more of the younger Butch, Sundance and Ella than of the supposed main story, which takes its time developing. Noriega is also very good as the amoral Spanish robber Apodaca.
The use of the vast Bolivian landscapes is very good, with superb cinematography by Jose Ruiz Anchia. It captures some of the wide-open feel of many good westerns, but it doesn’t look at all like the North American west. It’s fascinating in its own way. The music by Lucio Godoy is excellent, with wonderful use of U.S. folk music in songs like “Sam Hall.” It’s not a long movie at an hour and forty-five minutes, but it’s not tightly put together, either. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be quite enough story here. Watching this, one is reminded that a European sensibility has some differences from the American approach to westerns. Not one of the greats, but one would like to see this sort of thing tried more often.
Shepard’s natural wintry reserve plays well in westerns, and it’s the heart of this movie. He’s a living example of how a certain kind of what initially seems to be inexpressiveness actually translates well to a style of acting that works and seems quite natural in westerns. That’s not to say that all inexpressiveness works in westerns; the argument is that for some actors it’s not as inexpressive as some may take it to be. For more Shepard in a western context, see him in Purgatory and the miniseries Klondike and Streets of Laredo. He also has a small role as an aging Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and appears in All the Pretty Horses (2000). One could wish that more westerns were being made so Shepard could be in them, even at his age (in his seventies).
Another quibble: Granted, Butch spent his adult years in wild places with rough companions on the wrong side of the law, but this Butch seems to drink heavily and swear a lot for a Robin Hood with a Mormon upbringing who maintained some connections with it. One can see him drinking and using occasional bad language, but probably not to this extent. This is rated R for profanity and violence.
For another story of Butch not dying in San Vicente, if you can find it try John Byrne Cooke’s novel South of the Border, with Butch in Mexico during the revolution.