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Hot Movie Takes – “Barbarosa”

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

I am very much of the opinion that there’s nothing like a good Western. I like a great variety of Westerns, but I seem to be particularly drawn to the non-traditional iterations of the genre. The subject of this Hot movie Take post – the 1982 film “Barbarosa” directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Gary Busey and Willie Nelson – is a good example of a Western that on the surface owes only passing allegiance to genre conventions but otherwise does its own thing, exploring rich veins of metaphor and mythology, while remaining completely faithful to the genre at the same time.  I highly recommend it.

Hot Movie Takes – “Barbarosa”

@By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

It usually takes repeated viewings of a movie over a period of years before its images, moods and plot points get fully embedded in me. If I’ve only seen a movie once and years go by, then the less distinct my memories of it are. That’s true, with rare exceptions, even when it comes to good movies, The more time that passes, all I’m left with are general impressions. I mean, about all I know for certain is that I either really liked or disliked a movie. Such was the case with the off-beat 1982 Western “Barbarosa” starring Gary Busey and Willie Nelson, which I resolutely recall liking a lot but with the passage of time I had few vivid details of it left at my disposal. Until watching it last tonight in a superb upload on YouTube, it had been three decades since I last saw this picture directed by Fred Schepisi (“The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” “Iceman,” “Plenty,” “Roxanne,: “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Empire Falls”). I did have some residual artifacts of its look, its spirit, its lead actors’ performances and its use of lyrical realism and romanticism against a stark and harsh pre-Civil War Texas-Mexico backdrop. But I couldn’t have been much more specific than that other than to say it tells the story of a naive initiate rube, played by Busey, falling in with a sly, aging, red-headed bandit, Barbarosa, played by Nelson, whom generations of a Mexican family named Zavala have been sworn to kill. Oh, and that by the end, the young man carries on the Barbarosa persona.

The inspiration for the movie and the character of Barbarosa is Nelson’s album “The Red Headed Stranger.” Nelson asked his friend and fellow Texan, writer William Wittliff, to write a script based on the fictional outlaw figure in that album. Nelson chose well because Wittliff is one of the most talented screenwriters of the last half-century and some of his best work is in the Western genre. His credits include the mini-series “Lonesome Dove” and the film “Legends of the Fall.” He was also a writer on the feature “Honeysuckle Rose,” which Nelson co-starred in.

Now that I’ve seen “Barbarosa” again, I can confirm it is still the richly satisfying romp that registered with me the first time I saw it. And with it fresh in my head, I can be detailed about what makes it special. As Karl, Busey is the lone son of a farmer in Southern Texas. He’s accidentally killed his brother in law and is escaping the shame he feels and the revenge he’s sure will pursue him. In the Mexico badlands, he’s run out of provisions when he encounters Barbarosa. Within seconds of their meeting, Barbarosa is faced with a kill or be killed situation when a Zavala comes gunning for him, pistols blazing away. Karl sees for himself that he’s met up with a brave man very handy with his sidearm but it takes a few more incidents before he realizes he’s in the presence of a legend. Barbarosa, out of pity or loneliness or decency,  takes on Karl as his partner. There’s much the greenhorn has to learn from him. The two men, individually and together, must face down a series of threats and predicaments that are variously comic and tragic. Eventually, Karl learns that the trouble he’s trying to run way from is similar to the trouble that brings assassins after Barbarosa and that he, too, must confront the sins of his past.

The longer Karl rides with Barbarosa, the more he learns about the older man’s story and the deeper he gets into the outlaw life. He’s also forced to kill or be killed in the same way that Barbarosa is. We learn, along with Karl, that the Zavalas have been after Barbarosa for three decades and that Barbarosa has dispatched several of them over that time. And yet Barbarosa won’t brook Karl or anyone else saying anything bad about the Zavalas, It turns out they are his family by marriage. Long ago, he married Josefina, the daughter of the Zavala clan’s head, Don Braulio, played by Gilbert Roland. The source of the bad blood feud between the two men stems from Barbarosa’s wedding night reception, when during the drunken revelry Barbarosa accidentally killed one of Don Braulio’s sons. When Don Braulio exacted a nasty revenge that disfigured his son in law for life, Barbarosa repaid his father in law in kind. Their bond severed and Josefina forbidden to see her husband, Barbarosa is branded as the family’s sworn enemy. Year after year, Don Braulio has sent sons, grandsons and nephews from the family hacienda after Barbarosa and they’ve either come back disgraced – having failed to kill Barbarosa – or they’ve been killed themselves.  The scourge of Barbarosa, who refuses to leave the area and secretly sees his Josefina at the hacienda, has reached legendary, even mythical proportions. Songs recount his feats. The legend continues to grow, especially when Barbarosa and Karl escape the clutches of a Mexican bandit who shoots and apparently kills Barbarosa. When Barbarosa appears to have risen from the grave, the legend takes on added dimensions.

At one juncture, Barbarosa makes one of his brazen visits to see Josefina, who clearly still loves him, Karl follows him into the compound. To avoid being discovered, Karl takes refuge in a room that just happens to be the sleeping quarters of Barbarosa and Josefina’s very eligible daughter, Juanita, and the two  become very friendly. Juanita’s already heard the tales of Barbarosa’s “Gringo Child” sidekick.

I should note here that though the film upload is visually and sonically flawless, this print is a widely distributed version missing a key exchange near the very end that reveals Don Braulio has exploited the Barbarosa feud to retain control over the clan. He’s conflated the conflict into a holy mission, thereby demonizing Barbarosa, as a way to keep his family intact and him as unquestioned leader. He’s done this even though it’s meant wantonly sacrificing his own people for something that’s really only a personal vendetta for which he himself has as much to answer to as Barbarosa. Absent that information, the ending loses some of its clarity and punch.

But the ending still works because Karl’s had to face the same kind of blood oath mania and endured loss for his own indiscretion and he and Barbarosa have forged a deep friendship and love. By the time Barbarosa finally meets his match, Karl’s more than willing to take up the mantle of the legend. Besides, he still has Juanita to see.

Busey is perfect as Karl, who starts out a sweet, wide-eyed oaf and ends up a still just but much wizened and toughened rebel. Nelson pulls off the difficult task of being charismatic and enigmatic yet fully human. Roland brings just the right dignified bearing to his part.

The engaging script by Wittliff does a masterful job of balancing all these elements and keeping the story moving forward without ever getting bogged down. Schepisi’s fluid direction also maintains a good balance between the story’s fable-like qualities and gritty realism.

This kind of story that plays with notions of identity and reputation obviously appeals to Schepisi, who’s covered similar ground in films as seemingly disparate as “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” “Iceman,” “Roxanne” and “Six Degrees of Separation.” The cinematography by Ian Baker, with whom Schepisi has often worked, is striking. The music by Bruce Smeaton, another frequent collaborator of Schepisi’s, is haunting. The film’s theme of truth versus legend in the West and which should prevail is famously dealt with in some other fine Westerns, such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Shootist” and “Unforgiven.”

Some of my favorite Westerns are non-traditional ones and “Barbarosa” sure fills the bill. Others include “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “Bad Company.”

BTW, Busey’s always been one of my favorite actors and I’ve always particularly admired the work he did in the 1970s and 1980s, when he worked with some great filmmakers and held his own with some of Hollywood’s best actors. I consider his Best Actor Oscar-nominated performed performance in “The Buddy Holly Story” as one of the all-time great film portrayals, right up there with Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” because  like her he not only gave a great dramatic performance, he also did his own singing (and playing). I would love to see again two of his better films from the ’70s: “Straight Time” starring Dustin Hoffman and “Big Wednesday” written and directed by John Milius. He also starred in an obscure screwball comedy that I really liked called “Foolin’ Around” and in an obscure and fascinating art film titled “Insignificance” directed by Nicolas Roeg.

On a personal note, I screened “Barbarosa” as part of one and perhaps two Western film festivals I organized way back in the 1980s that were presented as part of River City Roundup.

NOTE: Make sure to select the upload of “Barbarosa” with the following descriptor because it’s far superior to another out there:

Barbarosa – Movies 1982 – Fred Schepisi – Action Western Movies [ Fʟʟ H ]

Josefina Powers

5 months ago 3,440 views

There’s no telling how long it will last, so be quick about it and watch it while you can.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1lzlLKNiyk

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