I’m very disappointed that it’s taken me so long to watch “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” a Robert M. Young Western drama that has gone shockingly under mentioned for years. A mix of “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “Rashomon,” in many ways it’s a very history accurate and groundbreaking example of the genre. Young’s drama pictures a hideous crime and paints it in the shades of people’s prejudices and how we can perceive certain events when emotions and biases play a big hand.
Edward James Olmos gives an incredible performance as Gregorio Coretz, a farmer and rider who speaks no English. When officers appear at his house one day questioning his ownership of horses, a mistranslation causes a fight which ends in his brother and the sheriff being shot and killed. Horrified and desperate, Gregorio goes on the run, evading Texas Rangers and setting out alone, venturing as far as he can. Now with his fate in the hands of a group of law men that have cobbled his story together based on accounts, he is put on trial for murder, hoping for justice.
Young’s film is a simple but very compelling drama based around a crime that was both unfortunate but based heavily on the motives of preconceived notions and prejudices. Cortez is neither a hero nor a villain, but a man driven to extremes when something unfolds before his eyes that he can barely comprehend on before he acts. Young never sensationalizes the journey of Gregorio Cortez, exploring him as a human being with his own flaws, thrust in to a situation that can’t possibly resolve in his favor. One of the more genius plot elements is how Young and co. works with our own language barriers, depicting much of what Gregorio says to his friends and comrades without subtitles.
Thus, if we don’t know even the most basic Spanish, we simply have to trust in these individuals that everything is playing out as it should. Not to mention the performances are so stellar that the language barrier isn’t even a problem. Edward James Olmos commands the screen as Gregorio Cortez, a man drowning in grief and shock, who also has no idea how to get out of this extraordinary circumstance. The film could have easily been swept up in a haze of Texas Rangers chasing Gregorio, and his attempts to evade them constantly. But most of the chase is pretty much just the first half of the narrative, while the second half is based around Gregorio fighting to gain his freedom and fight to maintain his innocence. The film is filled with a slew of wonderful character actors including James Gammon, Bruce McGill, Tom Bowers, Brion James, Alan Vint, and Rosanna DeSoto.
The latter of whom has a brief but brilliant performance as an interpreter teeming with her own views on the trial, but is forced to be as objective as possible. “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” is a sad, but beautiful Western drama teeming with magnificent turns from the cast. If you want to see Edward James Olmos in a truly unique period piece, I highly recommend it.
Criterion includes a twenty eight minute interview with actor and producer Edward James Olmos from April 2018. Here he discusses the importance of playing a hero of Latin ancestry, making the film outside the mainstream, and how the film revolutionized grass roots movie promotion and distribution. There’s a new nineteen minute interview with Chon A. Noriega, the author of “Shot in America: Television the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema.” He explores the new wave of Chicano cinema in the 80’s, and how the film re-invented the Western. Finally, there’s a twenty three minute cast and crew panel from 2016 including Olmos, director Robert M, Young, producer Moctesuma Esparza, cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, and actors Bruce McGill, Tom Bower, Rosanna DeSoto, and Pepe Serna. The package from Criterion includes a liner notes booklet, with an essay by film scholar Charles Ramirez Berg, along with a brand new cover by Juan R. Fuentes.