Review: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 28, 1983]

I approached last week’s invitational screening of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez with a sense of grim duty. I’d had three chances to see the film over the past year or so—on PBS-TV, in the Eighth Seattle International Film Festival, and earlier this month at the Tenth Telluride Film Festival—and I’d breezily given it a miss every time. Too many danger signals were ringing in my ears: the threat of earnest boredom and laundered aestheticism implicit in the PBS sanctification, for one; and the frequency with which Third World indictments of Anglo injustice have substituted politicized rant for legitimate drama. Also, an independent, primarily documentary-oriented filmmaker had directed the picture, and filmmakers of this stripe often display a self-righteous contempt for narrative obligations—as though narrative were not the answer to a universal hunger for form and illumination, but merely something foisted on the cinema by that imperialist monster “Hollywood.” If The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was tainted by any of the aforementioned syndromes, I wasn’t anxious to sit down in front of it.

I rehearse these (well-founded) antipathies in a spirit of endorsement, for I suspect they are shared by more than a few discerning filmgoers, and I would urge such persons not to give Gregorio Cortez a miss this time around. It turns out to be a fine, powerful, superbly crafted movie, with a universal dramatic impact far beyond any narrowly ethnic or political reference. Even more surprisingly, though by no means incidentally, it’s also an exciting, original addition to the honor roll of that supposedly moribund genre, the Western.

The film’s basis is factual. On June 12, 1901, in the vicinity of Gonzales, Texas, a sheriff by the name of Morris rode his buckboard out to the home of one Gregorio Cortez, cowhand. Morris suspected Cortez of horse thieving, and asked him, through an interpreter, whether he’d traded any horses lately. Cortez, an honest man, replied that, no, he hadn’t traded a horse (masculine), he’d traded a mare. The interpreter mistranslated the reply, the sheriff drew further conclusions based on the mistranslation, and several seconds of desperate, indeed hysterical, gunfire ensued. As a result, Morris lay dead and Gregorio Cortez became the subject of a legendary manhunt.

***

Director-adapter Robert M. Young plunges us into the thick of this pursuit straightaway: Gregorio Cortez is riding for his life even as the film begins. Like a lash curling round a post, the narrative wraps back upon itself to tell us how Cortez came to be fleeing, then snakes ahead to another segment of the pursuit, then wraps back yet again to show us the instigating action from a slightly altered point of view. Somehow the effect of this technique is to make every aspect of Cortez’s tale as immediate as the creak of leather and at the same time set every element, every perspective, within the frame of history. Such storytelling is at once thrilling and scrupulously circumspect, direct and analytical.

This impression is reinforced by the textures of Young’s images and the rhythms of their passage across the screen. I can’t recall another Western with such a potent flavor of the documentary about it. When Cortez crests a hill or descends into an arroyo, we seem to feel the terrain as vividly as the man moving through it. Young doesn’t dote on realism-for-realism’s-sake; these textures are completely integral with the movement of the adventure. The camera is beautifully directed, but in such a way that the events before us seem beyond directorial intervention. Maybe there isn’t quite enough left of the waning sun to fully illuminate the posse scrambling through the sage; it feels right, as though this were somehow 1901 cinéma-vérité—there would be no means, and no time, for the camera eye to make an adjustment.

Such a tactic keeps faith with the lot of the characters themselves. Cortez and posse alike never have a big, clear picture of what’s going on—a fact that has tragic, and fatally ambiguous, consequences in one scene. And because our own vision of the events is at once as honest as Young can make it and restricted, an unexpected equanimity is conferred upon this history. The story of Gregorio Cortez’s ordeal is in large measure a story of reflexive, institutionalized bigotry and its toll in human suffering. But Young’s posse members, far from being treated as racist straw-men, are carefully individualized and seen, at crucial moments, to be curiously ethical characters, capable of quiet self-examination even as they play out a scenario they have been conditioned by their life and culture to take for granted. It only increases the tragic stature of the tale that such ethics are insufficient to spare Cortez.

As Gregorio Cortez, Edward James Olmos stands at the core of this film, in more ways than one. (He also co-produced the movie and collaborated on the music score.) A brilliant actor known for such superstylized performances as the gliding master of ceremonies of Zoot Suit and the sinister, origami-making police detective in Blade Runner, Olmos here has to give an all-but-wordless performance (and those few words in a Mexican dialect). There’s no facile, salt-of-the-earth piety in his depiction of Cortez’s heroism, nothing rhetorical about the strength and dignity he finds in the character. (The key to Gregorio Cortez—and a suitable subtitle for Gregorio Cortez—might be borrowed from the title of an earlier Robert M. Young film: Nothing but a Man.) I’ll never forget the scene in which he slips into a bordertown cantina and takes a meal under the careless gaze of a few of his 600 pursuers. He overhears that his wife and children have been thrown into jail and that his brother, wounded in the initial gunfight, has died. Helplessly, he begins to weep; and still the hunters do not notice him.

The rest of the cast contribute performances of strength and complexity—most notably, James Gammon as the third sheriff to be set on Cortez’s trail (newly appointed to succeed his deceased predecessors); Tom Bower as Choate, the interpreter too sure of “the facts” to get his translation right; Alan Vint as the nephew of Sheriff Morris, linked to Cortez in a complicity neither of them quite understands; Walter Hill regular Brion James as Rogers, a captain of Texas Rangers whose unspoken respect for Cortez is subtly related to his appreciation of what a worthy adversary can do for him politically. Their characterizations go a long way to making The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez a compelling drama of conscience at the same time as it describes a ferocious injustice.

Copyright © 1983 by Richard T. Jameson