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For, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: This forgotten but deserves-to-be-remembered film has been given a new life on Blu-ray thanks to the Criterion Collection. Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on March 23, 1984.

 “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” is a wonderful, gorgeous little independent film, and a grand example of what the best outside-Hollywood filmmakers can accomplish. In fact, no one in Hollywood would begin a project like this, for two reasons: It’s a western and its lead character is Hispanic.

But those two elements, combined with a beautiful, atmospheric film technique and superb performances all around — especially Edward James Olmos in the title role — add up to a uniquely satisfying piece of entertainment that also makes the viewer stop and think.


     Edward James Olmos, 'The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez'

Based on a true story, “Gregorio Cortez” is about a young family man, a Mexican farmer/ranch hand in 1901 Texas who doesn’t speak English and who becomes the victim of a mistranslation when he is visited by the local sheriff and the sheriff’s Spanish-speaking interpreter.

Because of this misunderstanding Cortez’s brother is shot by the sheriff, and the sheriff in turn is shot by Cortez. Realizing he has no choice, Cortez escapes on horseback and the film chronicles the 11-day manhunt that follows as some 600 Texas Rangers and members of the posse track him down.

The incident itself is repeated in flashback form, as we get different versions of what happened and as we come to understand just what the problem was. Some of that is a little murky at first but it is soon cleared up.

Director Robert Young has captured the terrain beautifully, and though the film was shot in Super-16mm, then blown up to 35mm, there is little indication that such is the case. Young has taken a moody approach to the subject and it blends perfectly with the tension built as we strongly identify with the puzzled, frightened Cortez in his flight. There is also a lovely musical score, co-written by Olmos (who also co-produced).

Olmos, who gave a stunning performance in the stage and film versions of “Zoot Suit,” is just as effective here in a very different role. He underplays Cortez in a low-key manner, well suited to the tone of the film. The supporting players are all very good as well (look for Ned Beatty in a bit part toward the end).

“Gregorio Cortez” pulls no punches in its portrayal of human weakness, of personal bias and prejudice, and the dangerous path toward violence that is often the result. But the film is not a preachy tract. This is a sensitive, haunting portrait of a gentle family man forced to violence, who then flees for his life. It’s a heartbreaking picture of survival and love, and one that will stay with you for some time.

Rated PG, mainly because the subject is just too intense for youngsters, and for some violence as well, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” is a riveting, fascinating character study, and an important one.