Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Blackthorn (Magnolia Pictures, 2011)


Butch Cassidy lives!


Of course Butch Cassidy, about whom we were talking the other day (click the link for that), didn’t die in that shoot-out in Bolivia at the end of the 1969 movie (click for review). He’s alive and serving behind the cold meats counter in my supermarket. Alongside Elvis.


We all love to speculate that Butch and Sundance weren’t the ones shot down by the Bolivian armed forces that day. Wikipedia tells us (so it must be true) that there were claims, such as by Butch’s sister Lula Parker Betenson, that he returned to the United States and lived there anonymously for years. Various people, including Butch’s doctor, are said to have known him back in the States in the 1920s.


But the evidence doesn’t stack up to much, pards, I am afraid. It really looks like Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh perished in November 1908 near San Vicente, Bolivia, after they had taken part in a mining payroll robbery.


Still, the notion that they got away lingers and many believe it. Never underestimate people’s credulity. The same is true of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, and for all I know Jimmy Hoffa. And the idea of an old Butch was strong enough to fuel a 2011 film, Blackthorn. I saw it at a movie theater (always the best way) when it came out and again recently on TV.


It’s actually very good.


I would say that it’s a gritty modern Western in the proper tradition. Sam Shepard is excellent as the aging Parker/Cassidy, now going under the name of Blackthorn. Ian Nathan in Empire talked of his “creaky charisma” and said he “unleashes a growly old-timer to rival Rooster Cogburn.” You see, although Sundance didn’t survive that shoot-out (and his end is graphically and tragically described), Butch did, and he is now living a quiet life raising horses on a hill farm, visited by a Bolivian lover (Magaly Solier) but still nervously scanning the wanted posters and keeping his hat down over his eyes when he goes to the bank. And he wants to return to the US where a son could live – though whether Etta Place’s child is by Butch or Sundance, who may know?


Shepard outstanding


It’s well directed by Spaniard Mateo Gil, his only Western, and although at 102 minutes the movie is certainly not fast-paced, being pretty much a chase yarn, it does build tension. So, well done, Señor Gil. There’s another Spaniard, this time a Basque, Juan Ruiz Anchía, behind the lens (he also did September Dawn, not a great film but attractive visually) and the La Paz, Potosí and Uyuni locations are very fine indeed. We get a sense of arid beauty. Roger Ebert said, “The way it looks here might have persuaded John Ford to move on from Monument Valley.”


Director Gil


Of the supporting cast, Eduardo Noriega, another Spaniard (but playing a Spaniard) is alright. No complaints. He plays the roguish fellow Blackthorn falls in with, rekindling the adventures with Sundance of yesteryear – and in fact Noriega’s mustache is a bit Redfordish, deliberately or not.


Noriega is the new Sundance-ish pard for Butch


Best by far, though (after Shepard), is Stephen Rea as the broke-down, worn-out ex-Pinkerton man Mackinley. He is magnificent. We understand his passion, almost obsession, with catching the bandit pair yet now, as an old, alcoholic honorary consul, when his nemesis finally arrives after all these years, he can’t cope. He is a genuinely tragic figure. Northern Irishman but Dublin resident Mr Rea (you see it’s a pretty Eurowestern all in all) does, frankly, a wonderful job.


Rea superb


Padraic Delaney, guess what, another Irishman, does pretty well with his flashback-limited part as Sundance and manages to look a bit like young Redford (though not really much like Longabaugh).


Delaney is Sundance


There’s quite a good twist in the tale (or tail). Straight chase-stories can be a bit slow-moving (they go at the pace of a walking horse, mostly) and they need a little extra spice to pep them up. This story has that. So well done the writer, Miguel Barros. I wonder where he comes from?


The San Francisco Examiner called it “a quietly enjoyable riff on a celebrity desperado made compelling by an electric central performance.” And the reviewer added, “Gil demonstrates a gift for tone, a feel for the Western and a talent for casting; it all adds up to an effective blend of entertainment and wistfulness unfolding in breathtaking vistas.” Variety liked it too, calling it “A classically minimalist Western.”


Pretty Western


Not everyone was an admirer. Dennis Schwarz praised the “good scenic photography and a grand performance by Shepard” but overall said that the “romantic elegy to the outlaw is unconvincing, plodding and too full of sentimentality.” Maybe a bit harsh, that.

Anyway, pardners, if you haven’t seen Blackthorn, mosey along to your local movie theater, when it finally reopens, or if you have to watch it on TV get one of those big screens. You won’t regret it.



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