The decade of the ’80s, particularly the first half, was a bleak time for the American Western. Though a few good films were made (Tom Horn and The Grey Fox among them), audiences mostly stayed away. The debacle of Heaven’s Gate in 1980 might’ve been partly responsible, but that was as much the fault of bad publicity and marketing as it was of director Michael Cimino’s unbridled self-indulgence. Decades later, Heaven’s Gate is a much better film than its reputation.
The genre’s two biggest hits were mid-decade: Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. Both films deserved success, but I suspect the box-office was fueled by star power more than anything else. It wasn’t until the ’90s, spurred by the popular and critical acclaim afforded Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, that the Western began a very slow resurgence.
One forgotten great one of the early ’80s, Fred Schepisi’s Barbarosa, has finally been restored to its pristine glory on Blu-ray, after languishing for decades on bargain-basement home video (if found at all), abysmally cropped, with its brilliant cinematography all but bleached out. As with the restoration of Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, the resurrection of Barbarosa (1982) is cause to rejoice.
Everything comes together in grand style in Barbarosa — writing, acting, direction, cinematography and music. The screenplay is by Texas native Bill Witliff, whose earlier films included The Black Stallion, Honeysuckle Rose and Raggedy Man. Two of his best scripts were for The Perfect Storm and Legends of the Fall.
Back to Barbarosa. The story opens with Karl Westover (Gary Busey), an adult “farm boy” as he’s called throughout, on the run after accidentally killing his brother-in-law. Both families are from stern European Protestant stock, and the murdered man’s father is sworn to vengeance, his remaining two sons the intended instruments of justice. In his flight, Karl crosses paths with Barbarosa (Willie Nelson), an ornery outlaw with his own family woes.
Decades ago, Barbarosa blew a man’s leg off — Don Braulio, his girlfriend’s father (Gilbert Roland). Since then, he’s faced and killed several members of the old man’s clan, each chosen by the crippled Don Braulio as his avenging spirits. Making an unlikely duo, Karl and Barbarosa team up for a rip-roaring adventure both mythic and comic, its subject the stuff of legend.
This was Willie Nelson’s first starring role after Honeysuckle Rose, and he fit the saddle and shot the guns here as naturally as he played the guitar and sang in that film. After reading only the first three pages of the script, he reportedly told his agent he had to play the role. He knew this guy inside and out.
As the hayseed bumpkin, Gary Busey had the second-best role of his career (after an Oscar-nominated turn in The Buddy Holly Story). He and Willie (both good ol’ Texas boys, like Bill Witliff) perfectly complemented each other — one, a bumbling tenderfoot; the other, a grizzled loner. Their interaction is the real heart, soul and funnybone of the movie.
Don’t overlook the great Gilbert Roland in his last role, after a prolific and illustrious career stretching back to the Silent Era. He’s mesmerizing and — like everything else about Barbarosa — fun to watch.
Australian director Fred Schepisi went on to have a very successful Hollywood career — Steve Martin’s Roxanne and Six Degrees of Separation among his many American ventures — Barbarosa was his first in the U.S., mostly on the basis of his second Australian film, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Though an outsider to California and the Hollywood system, he turned out to be the man for the job, crafting a Western that breaks stereotypes while preserving their spirit.
Cinematographer Ian Baker, who assisted Schepisi in almost all his other films, took a lesson from John Ford, practically transforming the Big Bend landscape of Texas into one of the film’s characters, just like Ford did with Monument Valley in so many classics. Barbarosa is a visual feast of rugged beauty, the spectacular background images reinforced by the distinctive music of Schepisi’s and Baker’s fellow Aussie and frequent collaborator, Bruce Smeaton.
First One-Eyed Jacks and now Barbarosa — it’s turning out to be a great year for Western classics and those of us who love ’em.