Blackthorn ( Spain-France-Bolivia-UK 2011)

The chasing posse (whose identity is unclear at first)

I missed this in cinemas but caught it through my HDD Recorder on (very) late night TV. Blackthorn is an excellent Western with an interesting background. Shot entirely in Bolivia with Spanish, French and UK inputs, the film was directed by Mateo Gil, best known perhaps as the writer of four films for Alejandro Amenábar (including Mar Adentro and Agora discussed on this blog). It was written by Miguel Barros and photographed by Juan Ruiz-Anchía (born in Bilbao, but long in the US). The cast includes leads who are American, Spanish, Irish, Danish and Peruvian. This is certainly a ‘global film’ as well as a Latin-American Western from the a region between Mexico and Argentina, the more usual locations for the genre.

Sam Shepard as the grizzled Blackthorn

Magaly Solier as Blackthorn’s lover

The genealogy of the narrative is however pure Hollywood as it offers a third episode to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969). There had already been a ‘prequel’ to the 1969 story in 1979 and since they were historical characters, the Butch and Sundance appear in other Western films and TV series. Blackthorn argues that Butch, Sundance and Etta Place survived a battle with Bolivian police in 1908 but Etta and Sundance then returned to the US while Butch Cassidy changed his name to James Blackthorn and retired to a small house in the hills to rear horses. The film begins in 1928 (when Butch/Blackthorn is 62 and played by a grizzled Sam Shepard). Etta has died and Blackthorn decides to return to the US to find Etta’s son (Blackthorn may be his father but he writes to him as ‘nephew’). Blackthorn sells his horses to pay for the trip but the money is then lost and Blackthorn finds himself on the run again, but this time with a Spanish mining engineer (played by Eduardo Noriega, another Amenábar film alumni). Much of the film is a chase narrative which will eventually lead to Blackthorn being discovered by his old foe Mackinley (Stephen Rea), once a Pinkerton detective, now an ‘honorary consul’ and town drunk. Intercut with this chase are short flashback sequences which show Butch (the younger version played by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance (Pádraic Delaney) and Etta back in 1908. From these plot elements and castings it is clear that this is a ‘twilight Western’ with other inflections.

In the film’s press notes Gil:

One of the things that I like most about the Western is that it’s a truly moral genre. The characters face life and death, and other very important matters (freedom, commitment and loyalty, courage, treachery, ownership and money, justice, friendship and even love) in very pure and simple terms. The decisions they make are not only very dramatic, but set examples. What more can you ask from a film? From any dramatic work? It’s a genre that helps us look at our own life and find a way to face it.

But Gil disrupts this purity:

By facing these matters from a modern point of view (conscious of the fact that the legendary American outlaw will end up as just another extra in Hollywood Westerns).

His innovation is to introduce the Noriega character as an unreliable character. This has another dimension as well. The engineer is a Spanish adventurer, a representative of the ex-colonial power and as one IMDb user commented “a Madrileño in a film produced by Catalans” – so, clearly a bad guy.

A composition that emphasises the landscape and the distance between hunter and hunted

The other intriguing statement by Gil refers to the ‘look’ of the film and its tone:

Blackthorn would not be a film made up by grandiose images and ‘traditional aesthetic’, of slow camera movements and tall crane shots; but of closer images, near to the characters, that allow us to see the landscape through their eyes as they reveal the most intimate side of their dramatic voyage. The deep-seated feelings our main character feels for the land that has sheltered him; his feelings about the past and how they are reawakened by the appearance of his new comrade; his feelings towards the woman with whom he spends his afternoons, although the passion of love is absent, affection, respect and carnality are all present; his feelings toward a young man he has never met but who could very well be his son, to whom he writes and directs every last effort; how he feels about the small things that surround him, his clean but simple home, his horses, what he chooses to take with him on this last trek, where he chooses to sleep each night as they advance . . .

This is a thoughtful film, under-appreciated by critics but appealing to fans of Westerns, I think. Gil’s ideas about the camerawork are put into practice by Ruiz-Anchía and I wish I’d seen this on a giant screen. We see the two hunted men traversing the high salt flat plateaux and then we see their PoV as across the staggeringly beautiful landscapes the tiny figures of their hunters race towards them. By contrast, the camera loves the craggy, weatherbeaten face of Sam Shepard. It’s an iconic image and Shepard seems to become the image of all ageing cowboys (he even sings four popular folk songs on the soundtrack, including ‘Wayfaring Stranger’).

Gil’s comments ring true in the simplicity and realism of his vision. This is one of the most beautiful, but also the harshest Westerns I’ve seen. It’s slow and pensive despite various shoot-outs. It has little to do with most Italian Westerns that I’ve seen, though the use of Irish actors – Etta is played by Dominique McElligott in the flashback sequences – did remind me of Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria with their Irish characters. In the classic twilight Western, the two central characters are usually two men of the same age with different views on how to deal with the death of the West. Here, Blackthorn tries to reconcile his past with a still possible future whereas the Noriega character is a younger man and a pragmatist. The other difference here is the role of the indigenous people of Bolivia who are not typed in the same way as Mexicans or Native Americans. They make up the group of hunters but they are ‘personalised’ in the character of Blackthorn’s lover played Yana played by the Peruvian actor with a growing presence in international cinema, Magaly Solier (see Magallanes, Peru 2015).

Blackthorn has some Spanish dialogue but is mainly in English. It’s well worth seeing.

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