The real-life history of the Western outlaw Butch Cassidy (b.1866) – along with that of his bandit partner, The Sundance Kid (b.1867) – has captivated successive generations. While his story had been known among Western history aficionados, it would be the 1969 smash-hit film, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, which launched the legend into the consciousness of the general public.
In 1901, Cassidy (real name Robert Leroy Parker), Sundance (real name Harry Longabough) and Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, journeyed by ship to Argentina to avoid the ever-encompassing reach of law enforcement in the American West. By 1908, Place had left the two men (her subsequent whereabouts to this day still undetermined) and Cassidy and Sundance had returned to banditry. According to many, their return to the outlaw life saw them gunned downed by soldiers in the isolated village of San Vicente, Bolivia in November of that year.
Yet, there have been a number of writers – and accounts from Cassidy family members and friends – that contest his death in Bolivia. While the consensus among many historians is that circumstances do point toward Cassidy’s demise in San Vicente, there is the concession that such a conclusion is not definitive. What if Butch Cassidy did not die there and then?
Blackthorn, released in 2011 and directed by Spanish filmmaker Mateo Gil, picks up on the idea of Cassidy surviving and seeking to return to the United States from South America in the late 1920s. Sam Shepard plays Cassidy.
The film was shot on location upon the altiplano of Bolivia – altiplano means “high plains” in Spanish. In a Spanish interview for the DVD release of Blackthorn, Gil discussed how that dramatic Bolivian landscape was an advantage for the film, not solely in terms of authenticity but also as a way to engage the viewer. In Gil’s estimation, audiences with pre-conceived notions of Western landscapes have become “immune to the scenery in a way”. Given that many casual viewers of the Western consider John Ford’s heavy use of Monument Valley’s desert and rock landscape to be a “typical Western landscape”, that assessment has resonance.
For Gil, highlighting the South American geography, one not often found in Westerns, was a way to re-engage the viewer with the power of landscape. Gil argues that doing so allows an audience to see landscape in a fresh way and to “feel its importance again”. At a number of points in Blackthorn that importance is transmitted as the characters struggle against distance and heat. The landscape must also be “read” and used to advantage. In the following image, Cassidy (Shepard) gestures before defending himself and a companion against pursuers who have chased them to an exposed rock in the middle of the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia.
To this writer, Blackthorn (2011) and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) share a connection in their use of landscape. As the newer film acknowledges the power of geography, so too does the earlier Western within the extended posse scene. In a segment almost a half-hour in length, Cassidy (Newman) and Sundance (Redford) seek to evade law enforcement by travelling thru water and over rock before finally using a feature of landscape to their advantage.
Of potential interest to fans of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, actress Dominique McElligott, who played Lily Bell in the AMC series, takes on the role of Etta Place in a number of flashback scenes in Blackthorn (2011). Here is the trailer for that film (note: mature images):
As a final note, as Thom Hatch relays in his new book, The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (2013), the Pinkerton Detective Agency has never officially closed its files on Cassidy and Sundance. For info about that book, please see this previous post: The Last Outlaws.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)