Monday, December 7, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Barbarosa"

"Barbarosa" is one of my all-time favorite Westerns. Most people haven't even heard of it, other than maybe that it was a movie starring Willie Nelson, whose film career didn't exactly set any fires.

It's a strange and moving tale about love and hate, redemption and myth-making. Nelson plays Barbarosa ("Red Beard" in Spanish), an aging bandito who wanders around the Texas-Mexico border robbing and running from a blood debt. He hooks up with a naive farm boy on the run, played by Gary Busey, and they have adventures before Barbarosa's past finally catches up with him.

I guess what I like most about this film is that it looks like a simple adventure movie but has a deep undertow of themes and subtext. It's much like "The Road Warrior," which came out around the same time as this one: There's a not a lot of dialogue, but what is left unsaid speaks volumes.

Over time the boy -- I say "boy" because that's what they refer to Karl Westover as in the film, even though Busey was nearly 40 when he played the role -- learns the details of Barbarosa's dreadful past. He became an outlaw protecting the Zavala clan from his own Texas Rangers, and fell in love with the daughter of the Mexican family patriarch, Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland).

Resentful of the gringo interloping in his family, Don Braulio had two of his clansmen assault Barbarosa on his wedding night, cutting off his ears. In revenge, Barborsa killed the men and shot off Don Braulio's leg. This earned him the name Red Beard, for in Don Braulio's version -- which he repeats incessantly to the children of his hacienda -- his son-in-law's beard turned from blonde to blood-red that night.

That was 30 years ago, and Barbarosa's beard is more gray than anything else these days. One by one Don Braulio has been sending out the best men of his clan to slay Barbarosa, and all have died in the attempt. Although now he has a steely-eyed youngster who may finally be up to the job.

Even though they only share one scene together, Nelson and Roland's emnity is the fire that heats the entire story. Both Barbarosa and Don Braulio see themselves as the aggrieved party, and is unwilling to lay aside his sense of honor -- even if their own family is hurt in the process. It's a nurturing process, except that it's their hatred that they carefully protect and keep nourished.

"All I ever wanted was to be a part of this family!" Barbarosa accuses. "And now you're not a part of this family?!?" Don Braulio indignantly responds.

I should mention that Roland had a long and illustrious acting career that stretched nearly 60 years. He was one of the few Mexican actors who found mainstream success in Hollywood, including a string of movies playing the Cisco Kid in the 1940s. "Barbarosa" was his last film.

Schepisi was one of the Australian New Wave wunderkinds who soon moved to making movies in Hollywood; "Barbarosa" was his first American film, and arguably Schepisi ("Six Degrees of Separation," "Roxanne") had the most illustrious career of the new Aussies -- with the probable exception of Peter Weir ("Witness," "Dead Poets Society," "Master and Commander").

The original screenplay was by William Wittliff, whose other works include "The Black Stallion," "Honeysuckle Rose" (also starring Nelson), "Legends of the Fall" and "The Perfect Storm." I love the naturalistic language of his dialogue, which sounds like authentic cowboy-speak:

Karl: "I killed a man."
Barbarosa: "Well, that ain't no high recommendation."
"He was a great big sumbitch; he was twice as big as me."
"Well, ol' Sam Colt makes everybody just about the same size."
"I hit him with a stick. I didn't use no Colt."

There's also a memorable bit where Barbarosa explains his theory of gunfighting. This comes soon after he meets Karl and is attacked by a Zavala assassin, calmly killing the man while standing stone still -- even after a bullet grazes his cheek.

"Keep your feet planted till you've done all the shooting you're doing to do. Nothing makes a man more nervous than somebody standing still when they oughtta be running like a spotted-ass ape."

A low-budget film, "Barbarosa" has a great feel for the sights and sounds of the late 19th-century border, from the chirping trumpet music to Barbarosa's slouchy hat, which looks like a cross between a sombrero and a Texas 10-galloner. There's also a neat trick he does with his Appaloosa horse, turning him around in place before taking off.

The last thing I'd like to talk about is the myth-making process. In many post-Golden Age Westerns, there's a conscious attempt to examine the way in which the gunfighters and bandits of the Old West gained their place in lore. In some films, like "Unforgiven," there's a character who's a writer or journalist who comments on the action and actively tries to build up the legend of events as soon as they've happened -- and even before.

In "Barbarosa," the hero himself is the primary author of his own legend. He actively engages in perpetuating his own story, especially supernatural tales about his habit of coming back from the dead.

In one famous scene, he is shot in the stomach by a fellow outlaw and falls into a grave Karl had been digging at his behest. When no one is watching, Barbarosa escapes while Karl fills in the empty hole. Despite the bullet in his belly, Barbarosa pauses that night to steal the bandits' gold and bury their leader in the sand up to his neck. When he gets back to town, he's pleased as punch to hear a song detailing how they exchanged places in the earth.

No doubt it was to his advantage to have his adversaries afraid of him, but watching the movie you can sense that Barbarosa revels in being a living myth. He plans to use all the gold he's stolen over the years to settle down with his wife and daughter, but of course the family trouble prevents that. The film ends with Karl taking up the horse, hat and mantle of Barbarosa to carry the legend on to a new generation.

4 stars

1 comment:

  1. Who knew you loved this film as much as I do. I always suspected you had fairly good taste, now I know.