Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ode to a Ballad: "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" (1983)



Entertaining western with a contemporary, unbiased mind set.

Taking place in 1901 Gonzalez, Texas, Gregorio Cortez is a Mexican on the run after being involved in not one but three different murders of some Texas law enforcement personnel. While cut and dried from the Texans' point of view, Cortez's full story of what happened remains to be heard. Edward James Olmos does a great job as Cortez. He does not speak English, and the film makers wisely do not subtitle his Mexican conversations, adding to the confusion of Cortez's crimes. He is confronted by a racist deputy and a sheriff, who accuse him of stealing a horse. Cortez's brother is shot and the sheriff is killed in a bizarre, confused shootout that sends Cortez to a friendly ranch worker's home. There, a posse attacks the house Cortez is in, and two more men are shot and killed. Cortez's brother dies as well.

Bruce McGill plays a San Antonio reporter who rides with the posse, and begins to get Cortez's story, as seen by the Texas Rangers. While the flashbacks to the killings are not along the lines of "Rashomon," they serve to illustrate the Texans' side well. As Cortez is caught and put on trial, he is represented by Barry Corbin, who finds out what really happened and tries to get his client off.

The film makers here do something very unexpected for this type of film- they show us that Cortez is neither a martyr or a saint. Cortez's side of the initial murder is not much different from the deputy's. The shooting started over a misunderstood translation between the deputy and Cortez and escalated.

Cortez's family is locked up in order to flush him out, and civil liberties are broken all over the place. Eventually, thanks to a end credits crawl, we find out Cortez was in and out of the courtroom many times as a result of these crimes.

The film opens with Cortez running, and a bunch of white guys chasing him, and bodies being returned to families, and I had no idea what was going on for the first ten minutes of the film.

Eventually, things begin to click, and Young's sure direction keeps it going. The cast is full of character actors whose names you do not immediately recognize but whose faces you have watched for years. Even Ned Beatty has a rather unnecessary cameo near the end.

If you are expecting another politically correct allegory about the plight of the Mexican in turn of the century Texas, you need to look elsewhere. This revisionist western shows us both sides of murder, and how both sides are at fault. (* * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie!: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez [VHS]