DirectorRobert M. Young
Release Date(s)1982 (August 14, 2018)
Studio(s)American Playhouse Corporation for Public Broadcasting/Embassy Pictures (Criterion – Spine #940)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is based on the true story of one of the most famous manhunts in Texas history – an eleven-day pursuit over 450 miles and a miscarriage of justice. Mexican farmer Gregorio Cortez (Edward James Olmos) was forced to run from the Texas Rangers after a language misunderstanding led to the death of a lawman. Cortez, on horseback, evaded capture for close to two weeks. This incident was commemorated in a Mexican folk song, later written about in the book “With His Pistol in His Hand” by America Paredes, the basis of the movie.
Set in 1901, the film is a Western with many of the trappings of typical Hollywood Westerns. Director Robert M. Young (Rich Kids, Saving Grace) attempts to give the movie a documentary feel by unfolding events in a jigsaw-like structure. As in Rashomon, we see the shooting of the sheriff (Timothy Scott) a couple of times from slightly different points of view as different witnesses tell it, with events juxtaposed to show what led up to it and what happened during Cortez’s extended getaway.
Working on a limited budget, director Young creates a solid Western, highlighted by the posse closing in on the lone Cortez but repeatedly being outridden and out-maneuvered despite their superior numbers. Chase films have to maintain excitement throughout, lest they become repetitious and suspense is diluted. Young keeps the pace brisk, cutting back and forth between Cortez and the posse. Reporter Blakeley (Bruce McGill) accompanies and interviews members of the posse, regularly wiring reports of the pursuit to his San Antonio newspaper. This device provides insight into the various men and serves as a clever method of exposition.
The film also explores the Texas Rangers at the turn of the twentieth century. Though history has portrayed them as upstanding lawmen determined to bring peace to the frontier, the Rangers did not always mete out equal justice, singling out Mexicans and other minorities and often dispensing “trail justice.” At this point, the Rangers were attempting to polish their image. Politically, capturing Gregorio Cortez would be a feather in the organization’s cap.
Director of photography Reynaldo Villalobos achieves some beautiful shots, many taken at sunset and dawn with natural backlighting. He uses handheld cameras, a regular tool of documentary filmmakers, to give the proceedings a tense, unsettled feel. This puts us right in the midst of the action.
For a low-budget feature, production design is impressive, with a real vintage train, scores of horses, gunfights, and scenes of the chase covering plains, mountains, and forests.
Mr. Olmos, whose appropriately sparse dialogue is in Spanish, with English subtitle translations, plays Cortez as a peaceable farmer spurred to violence by a misunderstanding. Since the scene of the killing is not translated, we don’t know exactly what the mistake was until the trial scene. Cortez has become a legendary figure because he’s come to represent injustice, racism, and the lack of understanding between white Americans and Mexicans. After the movie, on-screen notes reveal what happened to Cortez after his trial.
The film was originally produced for PBS’ American Playhouse in 1982 and was released to theaters in 1984. It received critical acclaim but did only mediocre box office.
The new 2K digital restoration looks terrific and showcases Mr. Villalobos’ cinematography beautifully. As with most Criterion Collection Blu-ray releases, bonus materials are plentiful. There’s a new interview with actor/producer Edward James Olmos; a booklet containing an essay on the movie by film scholar Charles Ramirez Berg; and a cast-and-crew panel from 2016 including Olmos, director Robert M. Young, Producer Moctesuma Esparza, director of photography Reynaldo Villalobos, and actors Bruce McGill, Tom Bower, Rosanna DeSoto, and Pepe Serna.
The panel was presented at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences screening of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. It features each of the participants, in turn, commenting on their role in and thoughts about the production. Their personal comments are interesting and address the guerrilla type of filmmaking they were engaged in, how they came to be part of the production team, and lucky breaks during filming. The booklet is well researched and thorough, with dates, names, and a discussion of how important the movie was to indie filmmaking.
- Dennis Seuling