Maybe Judge Bryan Byun didn't love this 1982 Willie Nelson-starring Western quite as often as he could have, but it was always on his mind.
"You ain't got enough ass in your britches to pull the trigger on Barbarosa!"
The name is murmured, chanted, or shouted again and again throughout the movie, and chances are that, long after the end credits roll on this forgotten classic of a Western, you'll find the name rising to your lips as well. Barbarosa is that rarest of gems, a film about a legend, about mythmaking itself, that is told without a shred of self-importance or bombast.
Barbarosa was made in 1982, and despite being championed by critics like Ebert and Siskel, faded into obscurity. Which is a shame, because it's one of the most enjoyable, authentic Westerns of all time. I'm not sure why this film hasn't gotten its due; my theory is that it arrived during a particularly dismal period for the genre, a slump that followed the revisionist, politically charged Westerns of the 1970s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid), and preceded the 1990s revival sparked by Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven. (It can't have helped that Barbarosa came out only a couple of years after the monumental disaster that was Heaven's Gate.)
In any case, Barbarosa is one of those criminally unrecognized films that deserves more of an audience. But does this DVD release do justice to this quality motion picture? Or should it be sent, in Barbarosa's words, running like a spotted-assed ape?
Facts of the Case
Willie Nelson, in one of his too-rare starring roles (look for him as Uncle Jesse in this summer's The Dukes of Hazzard), plays the title character, an aging bandito who roams the border country of southern Texas, robbing travelers (he picks on old, shabby folks because, he explains, it's the wealthiest travelers who try to look the poorest) and living on a diet of armadillos. For thirty years, he's been on the run from Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland), wealthy patriarch of the Mexican Zuvalla clan, who also happens to be his father-in-law. It seems that, on the night of his wedding to Don Braulio's daughter Josephina (Isela Vega), Barbarosa (which means "red beard" in Spanish) shot off Don Braulio's leg, for reasons that aren't fully revealed until late in the story.
Since that fateful night, the men of the Zuvalla family have gone after Barbarosa, one by one, only to be shot and killed. Meanwhile, the legend of Barbarosa has ripened into myth; he has become a quasi-supernatural figure, the subject of ballads, a devil in human form whose name is whispered everywhere with terrified reverence. Barbarosa haunts the countryside like a deadly spectre who never misses a shot and calmly stands his ground when shot at, even as bullets graze his cheek.
As the film begins, Barbarosa stumbles upon Karl (Gary Busey), a big, oafish German-American farm boy who, like Barbarosa, is on the run from his in-laws, having accidentally killed his brother-in-law. Pursued by the dead man's brothers and elderly father, Karl seeks shelter with the gruff, lawless thief who, possibly sensing an end to his days of chasing down his own armadillo meat, takes the lad under his wing. Barbarosa attempts to educate Karl in the fine points of highway robbery, but, much to the older man's chagrin, Karl has his own ideas on living the bandito lifestyle. What begins as a rocky master-apprentice relationship deepens over the course of the film into a genuine friendship, and later, a family bond.
Director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark) shoots the film like a Spaghetti Western, packing it with extreme close-ups and laying on the colorful dialogue ("Kill him. Kill this Barbarosa. Bring me his cojones. Bring them to me on a stick, so we can see them and honor you.") But Barbarosa couldn't be more different from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The tight close-ups communicate subtle layers of character rather than expressionistic tension; this is a film populated by human beings, not larger-than-life superheroes, and Barbarosa himself is revealed early on as more of a cranky old man than a legendary gunslinger. And though this film, like just about any Sergio Leone horse opera, has its heroes chasing sacks of gold, Barbarosa revolves around the theme of family rather than the lust for money.
Karl and Barbarosa are both men estranged from their families, who ostensibly yearn to come in from the wilderness and live quiet, domestic lives, even as their hearts tell a different story. And for Don Braulio, Barbarosa may be a hated enemy, but he's also a unifying force, an eternal foe that draws his clan close to him, around a shared myth. If Barbarosa didn't exist, Don Braulio would have to invent him (which, as the film suggests but never states outright, may be close to the truth).
In some ways, Barbarosa anticipates the de-mythologizing of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, made ten years after this film. After Barbarosa engages in the colorful adventures that fuel his legend—in one scene, he seems to emerge from his own grave as an avenging spirit—he gleefully witnesses his own mythologizing process, at one point eavesdropping on some musicians singing about his latest adventure as avidly as an actor reading a review of his new movie. Again and again, we see how Barbarosa's longevity as a fugitive isn't due to extraordinary prowess (though he is amazingly skilled) so much as his ability to exploit his fearsome reputation. (He defeats one enemy merely by stating matter-of-factly and with supreme confidence that, when he kills the man, where will that leave his family?) And just as Don Braulio needs to keep the myth of Barbarosa alive to keep his family together, Barbarosa needs it just as badly, to give his life meaning and to justify his outlaw existence.
A movie as fine as Barbarosa deserves an equally fine DVD presentation. But what we get is…well, to quote the Red-Bearded One again, "what cannot be remedied must be endured." The primary offense is an ineptly cropped full-frame transfer, which ruins the film's gorgeous landscape shots, and leaves us with too many scenes that appear to be two noses engaged in heated debate. The print itself is okay for a fairly obscure, non-blockbuster '80s film, with faded but mostly clear, clean images. Barbarosa, set in the south Texas chaparral, isn't exactly a panoply of vivid colors, so the washed-out appearance doesn't detract from the equally washed-out mood of the film. Audio is presented in what's billed as Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, but which doesn't sound much better than mono, with muddy and distorted patches marring an otherwise acceptable presentation. Bonus features are nonexistent; this is one of those DVDs that boasts "Scene Index" and "Interactive Menus" as special features, so we should be grateful that there are even English subtitles. Oops, sorry, there aren't any subtitles, either. This is as barebones as DVD releases get (the menu looks like an introductory Photoshop project), but about par for the course for an Artisan catalog dump.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Barbarosa may be a great Western, but it certainly isn't the most audience-friendly Western ever made. It's sedately paced by today's standards, riding at a steady lope that resonates with the languid mood of the south Texas setting. Its moments of action and bloodshed aren't dictated by Hollywood convention, but serve the needs of the story. Schepisi and screenwriter William Wittliff (The Perfect Storm, Lonesome Dove) don't underline every plot development or expository passage, but give the audience enough credit to figure out what's going on. At a mere 90 minutes, Barbarosa doesn't have time to become dull, but viewers more accustomed to overheated theatrics or breakneck pacing in their Westerns may find the film a little slow.
The worst aspect of the film is probably the music. I'm not sure what Schepisi and score composer Bruce Smeaton had in mind, but the music in this film is often weirdly incongruous—whimsical when it should be solemn, overblown when it should be restrained. It's too bad they didn't simply have Willie compose some songs for the soundtrack.
If you're a lover of Westerns, do yourself a favor and check out Barbarosa. Natural, engaging performances, gritty Old West authenticity, and a story that manages to feel familiar and timeless while holding more than one surprise, all combine to make this one of the most compelling, likable entries in the genre.
This court doesn't have nearly enough ass in its britches to convict Barbarosa. Case dismissed.
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