Waiting on Happiness

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From the beginning of the world they have not heard,
nor perceived with the ears:
the eye hath not seen, O God, besides thee,
what things thou hast prepared for them that wait for thee
Is. 64:4

For years, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has been hailed as one of the most influential Revisionist Westerns of all time. From William Goldman's Oscar-winning script to Redford's quiet smolder; from Newman's shocking good looks to its brilliant cinematography and unforgettable "Raindrops" sequence, George Roy Hill's homage to some of the West's most over-mythologized bad men shaped an entire generation of Western filmmakers. Yet the greatest contribution to the genre made by this sporadically spectacular buddy film may only now be coming into focus; after all these years of fame and fortune, it can now be recognized as "the foundation upon which Blackthorn was built."

From Spanish director Mateo Gil, Blackthorn explores the fascinating question of "what might have been,"—what if Butch Cassidy had not died that day? What if he had miraculously escaped the volleys of the Bolivian Army, living out the last twenty years of his life as a lonely, peaceful mountaintop rancher? Would it be "Ever After," with the happiness conspicuously absent?

Feeling his end approaching, the once-proud Butch—known to the locals simply as James Blackthorn—resolves to see America one last time before he dies. Upon returning from the bank with the funds necessary for his safe passage to the States, Blackthorn is ambushed; and while the aging outlaw quickly vanquishes his assailant, the damage has been done: startled by the gun-play, Blackthorn's horse runs off with the last twenty years' worth of his earnings.

The assailant-turned-victim, a young Spanish mining engineer named Eduardo, explains to Blackthorn that he is being pursued for the $50,000 he stole from a ruthless mine owner. Intrigued by how much of his rash and brash young self he sees in the Spaniard (and more than a bit bedazzled by the cache stowed safely away in a nearby mining shaft), the now-destitute Blackthorn agrees to partner up with his one-time assailant on the condition that he receive a half share of the stolen money. They set off across the stunning, lonely landscape of Bolivia, but their journey to freedom proves more violent and more deeply tragic than he could ever have imagined, trapping him once again in the failed dreams and remorseful memories that have haunted him every day since his escape. Forced to choose between the final comforts and the demands of justice and decency, Blackthorn is confronted once again by the dichotomy from which he has hidden for so many years. Will he lapse back into his old reckless self, or will he finally recognize that his pursuit of fame and fortune has damaged him more deeply than he could have possibly imagined?

Like the hedgerow shrub which gave rise to his pseudonym, Blackthorn's prickly exterior shields a bitter fruit. He is a man without hope—a man whose past is littered with failed attempts to seize happiness through the pursuit of material possessions and worldly fame; whose present is dominated by regrets over his misguided youth; and whose future is a bleak landscape where hard-won understanding will never translate into true happiness. For Blackthorn, the lessons of his past have come too late; his recognition of the true nature of happiness (and the only way to achieve it) little more than a depressing coda on a life once so full of promise. Yet despite the dreary future before him, the aging bandit is finally at peace, for he has come to recognize that which has so long eluded him: happiness is not something you find; it is something that finds you.

Modern society tells us that youth is the time for passion and promise; old age for wealth and respect. As youngsters, we should pursue the things that will make us happy; and when we are old, we should appreciate them. But this view—a view which permeates every fiber of this "self-made" world of ours—presupposes that we can reach out and grasp the things that will make us truly happy, and (even more paradoxically) that we can retain these things once we get our hands around them. Yet neither is truly the case.

2/7/2012 5:00:00 AM
  • Catholic
  • Through a Lens Darkly
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • Blackthorn
  • Mateo Gil
  • Christianity
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Joseph Susanka
    About Joseph Susanka
    Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.