[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.