In 1982 when THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ aired on PBS and then was released to theaters I remember hearing about it but never had the opportunity to see it. It fell off the radar with few video stores even carrying the title to get that second chance. So seeing that Criterion has made the effort to bring it back was a treat to learn.
Based on a true story the film takes place in 1901 Texas and tells the tale of Mexican-American Gregorio Cortez, a man accused of cold bloodedly killing a sheriff and the 10 pursuit that followed with the combined efforts of local lawmen and the Texas Rangers. It’s important to note that word accused in there. As we watch the film, told effectively in disjointed fashion, we learn that the shooting took place not as a premeditated killing but as a misunderstanding of words.
Sheriff Morris (Timothy Scott) and his interpreter Boone Choate (Tom Bower) arrive enquiring about a stolen horse that someone claims Cortez (Edward James Olmos) sold them. Boone’s understanding of Spanish isn’t quite up to par and the words he hears leave the Sheriff with the only option being to arrest Cortez. Guns are drawn, shots fired and the next thing you know Cortez brother Romaldo (Pepe Serna) is mortally wounded, the sheriff dead and Boone going after help.
Once word gets out the chase is on as a posse is rounded up and sets out in a combined mode of trying to capture the fleeing Cortez and vengeance for the shooting of the Sheriff. Much of that issue is what forms the story here, the attitudes of those living in those days in that location. Mexican-Americans were looked down on by the whites who had moved in and taken over the area. An attitude filters through much of the movie when it comes to some but not all of those in pursuit. While many would liken this to attitudes viewed in the news today keep in mind the movie was made in 1982.
The end of the movie isn’t spoiler free as it’s historically known. Cortez was indeed captured after that 10 day trek and tried. It is during the preparations for the trial nearly 2/3 of the way into the film that we have an interpreter who actually can speak Spanish and find out what really happened. Was it homicide or justifiable self-defense?
There are several things that make this movie stand out from so many others. The first is the topic itself, one rarely discussed or seen in movie westerns up to that point. Prior to this film Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had been tossed to the side portrayed as either servants or bandits. It was as if there was no in-between. There was no depiction of them as cowboys working the range like all others. The same held true for blacks at the time who made up a vast number of cowboys. It took this long for someone to consider that there might be a story that hadn’t been told yet.
Another thing that makes the movies standout is the efforts of director Robert M. Young. A documentary film maker used to shooting things that way gave the look a different appearance than most films shot about the west. He went for a look of authenticity for the film using the ambient light that was around rather than shooting with huge lights. Shot mostly on location this way it gives the look of the film a certain amount of grit and makes you feel like you’re there rather than on a set.
That look of authenticity goes further with the set decoration and costumes used for the film. Far too many westerns have that studio feel to them, streets with little or no dust yet nothing but dirt. Clothes that have that new fresh look rather than appearing lived in and many made ignoring the designs, styles and makeup of those clothes from the time period. Nothing seems that way here.
If that wasn’t enough Criterion has done a tremendous job with the film, starting with a 2k restoration that looks amazing. Extras are essential to this release but let me tell you what they are first. There is a new interview with actor and producer Olmos, a new interview with Chon A. Noriega, author of “Shot in American: Television, the State and the Rise of Chicano Cineman”, a cast and crew panel from 2016 including Olmos, Young, producer Moctesuma Esparza, cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, and actors Bruce McGill, Tom Bower, Rosana DeSoto and Pepe Serna and an essay by film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.
Now, here is why these extras are so important. They tell the story within the story. It isn’t just important that a movie like this was made but the fact that it was able to happen to begin with and what transpired after. Made with the assistance of PBS to be aired on those stations it also had a run in theaters as well. How that was handled is a story unto itself. There are plenty of stories about independent films that were made and mishandled by major studios once picked up for distribution. This film is among those. With the potential to be a major hit it was this mishandling that made it fall short. Not a problem with the film but the promotion and handling of it. Watch the extras and you’ll have the chance to hear Olmos tell the tale better than I can here.
On the whole Criterion has done another exceptional job with this film. And they’ve also done what they’ve done in the past which is provide not just a great job of how it’s presented but allowing a lost treasure to have the opportunity to be discovered by those who missed it the first time around and those who’ve never heard or seen the film. You can’t ask more for a release on a film like this.