Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Nine: The Mythmaker

The ninth installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look at the life and legend of outlaw Butch Cassidy through an interview with film director (Blackthorn) Mateo Gil…

by: Christian Niedan

Sam Shepard was a prolific playwright and actor whose acclaimed career featured dozens of written works for the stage, and even more screen roles that featured his lean, stern appearance. A recurring theme that ran through both Shepard’s crafts was that he spawned nuanced and authentic characters that lived in the modern American West based on ones from the mythic “Wild” era recounted in 19th century dime store novels.

A popular character in these “Dime Westerns,” as they were coined was Butch Cassidy (born Robert LeRoy Parker) and his “Wild Bunch” gang. Cassidy teamed with Harry “Sundance Kid” Longabaugh for a decade-long string of train and bank robberies, before committing a crime spree in Bolivia. It was there that both men were reportedly killed in 1908 at a boarding house in the small town of San Vicente, during a shootout with local authorities. Their outlaw history together was dramatized by screenwriter William Goldman for 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – with Paul Newman’s Cassidy charging into deadly gunfire at film’s end.

In 2010, Spanish filmmaker Mateo Gil resurrected Cassidy in the form of Sam Shepard for the film Blackthorn, with a screenplay by Miguel Barros that posed the mythic question: “What if Butch Cassidy lived on?” That’s not as fanciful as it might sound. A 1991 exhumation of Cassidy and Longabaugh’s reputed gravesite in San Vicente turned up no remains. So, to better ground his script in the plausible, Barros retraced Cassidy’s steps across Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, where the film was shot on location. With that foundation, Gil portrays his cinematic Cassidy as a chase-weary outlaw who chose to retire and fade away, rather than die by the gun. To that end, Gil’s film picks up with Shepard’s 61 year-old Cassidy in 1927, after 19 years spent living as “James Blackthorn” on a secluded Bolivian ranch. In 2011, I interviewed Gil about Blackthorn for my film site, Camera In The Sun, and he discussed how time and place shaped his take on Butch Cassidy.

Mateo Gil: “For me, the role of Bolivia and the role of all those years that Sam’s Butch spent in Bolivia is just loneliness, and the relation with his old years. It’s not a movie about Bolivia. Bolivia’s not the main issue. It’s not really a character. The landscape is a kind of visual expression of the character’s feelings, nostalgia, etc. That’s the way I saw this landscape, and the role of Bolivia in the movie. But you know, there is a thing that’s important for me. I always felt that the audiences are so accustomed to seeing great landscapes in movies that we have become immunized to landscapes. We don’t feel landscape anymore. But if you do a Western in a kind of similar landscape, and not the same landscape as always, you can achieve a reaction. People see the landscape again, because it’s a little bit different. It’s like when Robert Altman made this wonderful movie called McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Everything was snow and, with Jeremiah Johnson, it was the first time that you were seeing a Western in a different landscape. It’s the same landscape, but everything is white, and so everything was different. The effect is beautiful, and I thought about these movies when I was choosing the landscapes in Bolivia. I thought, ‘This is new for all Western audiences.’ But at the same time, the landscapes have the same feeling, same loneliness, same nostalgic thing, same dry desert thing. That’s important for me.”

That idea of society-escaping isolation had dramatic significance for Shepard – specifically within his best-known play, True West, which is having a 2019 Broadway revival with Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated work is built around two rival brothers, and how a Hollywood screenwriting gig forces them to confront their relationship – then, to contemplate a retreat into the desert, and away from life’s responsibilities. In Blackthorn, Sam Shepard’s secluded Butch Cassidy has been forgotten by his old pursuers. However, even in 2011, Paul Newman’s version of Cassidy was still fondly remembered by filmgoers — something Gil had to contend with.

Gil: “At the beginning, we were very scared about some comments with the news about this movie, before shooting it, that came to the press and the internet. We read that some people were saying things like, ‘What are these people doing with this wonderful ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? What are they doing now?’ We were a little bit afraid about this. But in the end we thought, ‘This is an homage to this kind of cinema, the old times of cinema, and the old Western heroes.’ And nobody is going to be upset with a movie like that. Because if you’ve seen the movie, you can see that Butch Cassidy alive is a kind of excuse to talk about these old Western heroes. So in the end we thought, ‘I think it’s OK.’ But there was this problem with the flashbacks. We wanted the flashbacks in the movie, because through these flashbacks you can get a feeling about these old times of freedom, of a strong friendship between them, about principles, about a lot of things that we need the audience to feel in order to understand the story of the present. We knew that these flashbacks had a mood not similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but you could see some common issues. And it was a little bit risky, but I think that we achieved a nostalgic tone in these flashbacks.”

Beyond nostalgia for the long-gone outlaw era portrayed on screen in Blackthorn, there are myths and legends about Cassidy and Longabaugh that still survive in Bolivia.

Gil: “There are some legends there, and mostly in the south of Bolivia around Tupiza, there are a lot of legends. They have two museums about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And everybody says that he is kind of a friend of a friend of a friend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And they have these legends, and they have a kind of a love about these two characters. So they always wanted to make a movie about them, but there is no big film industry there. So to make a movie about Butch Cassidy is not an easy task for the Bolivians. So, they were very happy with this movie we made.”


Author’s Note (Update): In January 2019, the Richmond Community Theatre in eastern Michigan presented an original play about Butch Cassidy, titled “Bandit Invincible,” based on a book of the same name by RCT member John Salsido. Fellow RCT member Bryan Braun provided a synopsis of the play to Voice News for its preview of the show:

“It takes place in 1935. A young writer with the Federal Writing Project, Ben FitzHarris, played by Noah Chapp, is sent to investigate a mysterious manuscript that was sent to and rejected by Sunset magazine.

The manuscript contains little-known but startlingly accurate stories about the life of the outlaw Butch Cassidy. The writer of the manuscript is William T. Phillips, played by Braun, a longtime machine shop owner in Spokane, Washington.

After an acrimonious first meeting, a package arrives at Phillips’ door that motivates him to go with FitzHarris to Lander, Wyoming. There, they meet the Boyds, who recognize Phillips as the infamous outlaw once known as Butch Cassidy.”


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