Willie’s first Western
The first lustrum of the 1980s was a wasteland for the Western movie, Cimino’s monumental flop Heaven’s Gate having almost sunk the genre for good – it did for United Artists too, which was swallowed up by MGM – and the few theatrical oaters that were made at all in the early 80s lost money, pictures such as The Mountain Men, Hard Country (if you consider that a Western), Cattle Annie and Little Britches and The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
This last was a production of Lew Grade’s Incorporated Television Company (ITC). Grade had moved from TV into film and had some late-70s success with the likes of Farewell, My Lovely and The Boys from Brazil but the Heaven’s Gate-like bomb Raise the Titanic did for the company. Grade, a witty man, quipped that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic. And so he sold out, to Universal, who thus acquired properties such as The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and Barbarosa was another. Universal released it in February ’82 (it had been made in the fall of 1980).
It’s an odd title, misspelled probably, for as written it means pink beard, barba roja being the Spanish for red beard and barba rossa the Italian, as in the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The bristly appendage in question in this movie is red, not pink, as a leading character attests. Anyway, mustn’t get too pedantic.
The owner of this tinted facial hair (which in any case is more gray than pink or red) is an outlaw, played by Willie Nelson. That’s one reason I’m reviewing this picture now, because in a recent article on a country-singer Western, in which I may have been a tad slighting of Willie as a thespian, reader Walter came to his defense and said of Barbarosa, “I think this Western Movie is a really good one and Willie Nelson is good in it.” Judging Mr Nelson’s Western acting by the likes of his Doc Holliday in the 1986 remake of Stagecoach or his John Henry Lee in Burt Kennedy’s Once Upon a Texas Train two years later, you’d have to say that as an actor, Willie made a great singer. That’s my opinion anyway. However, I do admit that his Barbarosa, which was his first Western role if you discount his part in The Electric Horseman in 1979 (not really an oater), was not at all bad, and certainly by far his best Western performance. Apparently he loved the script after reading only a few pages and said of the character, “I want to be this guy”.
That red-beard-attesting leading figure mentioned above, the don who orders the assassination of Barbarosa, the gringo who had the temerity to wed his daughter Josephina (Isela Vega), is none other than Gilbert Roland, in his last movie. I always liked Mr Roland, born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso in Mexico, silent latin-lover matinee idol, a fine actor for the likes of Vincent Minelli, John Huston and Anthony Mann, the Cisco Kid of course, 29 feature Westerns and many TV appearances too, he was the classic Mexican charmer. He’s really quite ruthless in Barbarosa.
But the story chiefly concerns the old outlaw as mentor and his new-found sidekick, the green German farm boy Karl, well acted by Gary Busey, who played drums for Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, among others but came to screen prominence when Oscar-nominated as Buddy Holly in 1978. The German side is as murderous as the Mexican one for young Karl accidentally killed another fellow and the deceased’s father is also hot on the vengeance trail. The two young Germans dieser alte Vater sends out to track down and kill Karl, two more of his sons, are, however, not terribly competent, and they get in it up to their neck. The child becomes father to the man eventually and Karl achieves redbeardedness.
The picture was directed by talented Australian director/producer/writer Fred Schepisi, who even brings a touch of Pasolini to the scenes of Mexican life. Schepsi said of the remote Texas locations, “You could do wide shots at both ends of the day, because of the way that the mountains were structured. And as you moved into to do closer work, there was always a direction you could point where you would get great light and good texture on the backgrounds”. This was his only Western but we can’t hold that against him (too much).
The screenplay was by Texan William D Wittcliff, who had written Honseysuckle Rose for Willie. Wittcliff said he was inspired by tales told him by his grandfather during his childhood living on a ranch in the Blanco Hill country.
I agree with Walter that this picture is pretty good. That didn’t help much at the box-office in those bleak times, though. Costing $11m, it grossed only $1,736,123 in the US. Ouch. Lord Grade was probably glad he was shot of it.
Jeff, good write-up of BARBAROSA(filmed 1980, released 1982), which I think is one of the Best Western Movies of the 1980’s. Yes, the early 1980’s does appear to be a wasteland for Westerns, but as we well know you can’t sink the Western Movie, it will always return by way of the comeback trail. The so-called critics(Barry Lane calls them “high falutin’ big mouths”) have been writing that the Western Movie is dead, since at least 1913.
Another of my favorites from the early 1980’s is THE GREY FOX(filmed 1980, released 1982), which I think Richard Farnsworth was born to portray, and I think he well deserved every award he received for his natural performance. Jeff, I know you like THE GREY FOX.
I highly recommend to all the readers of this site BARBAROSA and THE GREY FOX.
I tip my hat and slowly walk away.
Eastwood and the Kasdans deserve much praise for their mid-80s pictures PALE RIDER and SILVERADO, which, as you say, Walter, proved that reports of the death of the Western after the catastrophic failure of HEAVEN’S GATE were exaggerated. There’s life in the old genre yet.
I agree about THE GREY FOX. See https://jeffarnoldswest.com/2021/07/the-grey-fox-mercury-pictures-1982/
Jeff, I think there will always be Western Movies, tv shows, novels, and so forth. You just can’t keep a good genre down. Yes, I like SILVERADO(filmed 1984-85, released 1985), which reminds me of the type of Westerns that were made in the 1930’s and 1940’s, because it’s so much fun to view. It was good to see Clint Eastwood back in the saddle as the PALE RIDER(filmed 1984, released 1985), and I like the movie. It reminds me of SHANE.
There is another Western from the early 1980’s that I like, and think is well worth viewing. THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ(filmed 1981, released 1982) is based on a true story of a famous manhunt in 1901 South Texas. Gregorio Cortez became a Chicano folk hero. The movie is a rough-hewn gritty docu-drama style movie, which I think works in its way. The movie stars Edward James Olmos, James Gammon, Tom Bower, Bruce McGill, Brion James, Alan Vint, Tim Scott, Pepe Serna, William Sanderson, Barry Corbin, Rosanna DeSoto, and Ned Beatty.
PALE RIDER was, if not a remake of SHANE, certainly Eastwood’s homage to that film.
I don’t remember THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ. Must look it out.
Jeff, I first viewed THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ on the PBS AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE in 1982. It was later theatrically released by Embassy Pictures. In 2018 a restored version was released by Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD.
I might get that DVD, I think.
About Heaven’s Gate on which we will never agree (fortunately enough we live in a free world) I am surprised not to find him in your index anymore as I remember having exchanged with you about it. Maybe it was lost because of the transfer from the older blog ?
Yes, you’re right. Quite a few posts disappeared during the transfer, I’ve no idea why. I noted the other day that THE IRON MISTRESS had gone. I’ve saved some of the articles in Word on the computer so can redo some, but not all! Oh well, I’ll be forced to rewatch HEAVEN’S GATE. Who knows, maybe I’ll thing it’s a fine film this time (oh look, there goes a flying pig).
Jean-Marie, did you ever view HEAVEN’S GATE(filmed 1979-80, released 1980) on the big screen? I never have, because United Artists didn’t give it much time to be seen by most moviegoers here in the USA in 1980 and 1981, before they pulled it from theaters.
Yes I have ! 3 times when it was released the 1st time and 2 other occasions with the director’s cut 220 minutes version, the last one at the Institut Lumière in Lyon maybe 5 or 6 years ago. To me it’s a masterpiece, an immensely lyrical and political epic with all the ingredients of the tragedy, where individual destiny is crushed by history. The last minutes showing Kris Kristofferson on his yacht on Newport are among the most heartbreaking moments of cinema (as was the end of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, his first film). Cimino was truly a great cinematographer.
Jean-Marie, did you view HEAVEN’S GATE at France’s Grand Lyon Film Festival organized by the Institut Lumiere when director Michael Cimino and Isabelle Huppert were there to present the new restored director’s cut of the movie? This would have been on October 21, 2012. The movie clocked in at 217 minutes without the 3-minute intermission. The truncated version at 149 minutes was what you initially viewed in the early 1980’s. I envy you on having viewed the movie on the big screen. Did you think the movie was a masterpiece at 149 minutes back in 1981, or is it the uncut version? I first viewed the movie on television in 1988 on CINEMAX, which was one of our movie channels on cable-tv. It was in pan/scan, so it lost its widescreen splendor, but it was the uncut version. Anyway, at the time I thought it looked really good, even in pan/scan. Although, I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, but I didn’t think it was as bad as most critics of the 1980’s claimed.
I suppose I should view the 2012 restored director’s cut in the near future. Although, I would rather view MR. HORN(filmed 1978, premiered on CBS-TV February 1 and 3, 1979) with David Carradine, Richard Widmark, and Karen Black. Also, TOM HORN(filmed 1979, released 1980) with Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, and Slim Pickens.
To me I thought of it as a masterpiece at first sight. Then I read about it a lot, also being lucky to travel to Buffalo region in Wyoming afterwards discovering that local people were still reluctant to speak of the Johnson County war and that the whole story was still very controversial, adding to the movies fascination … I travel also later to Wallace in Idaho or Glacier NP where parts of the movie had been shot… I was not at the festival when Cimino was there unfortunately but I did see the film at the Institut Lumière though. Of course watching the film on a TV screen is somehow kind of heretical but do we have the choice anyway !? (I have the uncut version DVD too). In France, from the start most of the critics were positive…
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Gilbert Roland was phenomenal in Budd Boetticher’s Bullfighter and the Lady. Not a western, but possibly a career best for each of them.
Boppa, I don’t think Gilbert Roland ever gave a bad performance.
I agree. Though he was often stereotyped as the ‘tame’ Mexican, he was actually a first-class actor.
Jean-Marie, thank you for the link leading me to Nicholas Barber’s 2015 write-up “Heaven’s Gate: From Hollywood Disaster to Masterpiece.” I had read Barber’s write-up a few years ago and I realize that Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE has undergone a reevaluation over the last nineteen years, or so. Many reviewers are proclaiming the movie a masterpiece. Also, I respect your opinion of seeing the movie as a masterpiece at first sight. I’ve always been intrigued by the movie ever since I first read about it in VARIETY newspaper in 1979. I liked to check and see what new movies were in production. I liked Cimino’s previous THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT(filmed 1973, released 1974) and THE DEER HUNTER(filmed 1977, released 1978), so I looked forward to an upcoming Western from Cimino. I remember the mostly bad publicity around the making of the movie. I previously mentioned that I finally first viewed the move on cable tv’s CINEMAX movie channel in 1988. At that time, I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, but I didn’t think it was as bad as the so-called critics of that particular time tried to lead us to believe.
Jean-Marie you have inspired me to go back and view the 217-minute Criterion Collection DVD of the 2012 restoration, which was supervised by Michael Cimino. I viewed the whole epic scaled in all its wide screen spectacleness, although it’s not like viewing it on the big screen. In my opinion this was a better version, of course, but I still don’t think it’s a forgotten masterpiece, which was misunderstood by most of the herd critics of the day. Anyway, I think most of the critics in the USA hated the movie and saw their chance to punish Cimino for what they perceived as his betrayal in the making of THE DEER HUNTER(this is a whole different story, which I’m not going to go into here). Although, Kevin Thomas of the LOS ANGELES TIMES liked it, but he wrote that he never felt so totally alone. Gene Siskel of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE and PBS’ SNEAK PREVIEWS didn’t like the movie and after viewing it at the Cinema 1 theater in New York City in November 1980 wrote that, “To be fair to ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ it was selling a lot of tickets at the time of its closing(it played for one week) last Tuesday in New York. Almost every evening performance was a sell-out, undoubtedly triggered as much by the controversary as by anything else. And, at least at the screening I attended, there was a smattering of applause that greeted the film’s conclusion, many members of the audience later saying they resented the fact that the opinion of a few critics had determined the fate of a movie.” Siskel went on to write that, “During its one-week run at Cinema 1, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ grossed a substantial $40,500 at $5 a ticket, which is 50 cents more than the standard New York first-run movie fare.” It looks like to me that the movie was making money, because of all the controversy surrounding it and that people wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I think that United Artists shouldn’t have let Cimino talk them into pulling the movie and doing a re-edit, because that just sent the message that the critics were right in bad-mouthing the movie. Siskel ended his review with, “Amid all the failure, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was drawing as much attention to the art and commerce of filmmaking as any movie this year.
Yes, I know that HEAVEN’S GATE was viewed much more favorably in Europe than it was in the USA. Philip French of the London OBSERVER, French film magazine POSITIF’s Michel Ciment, London’s FINANCIAL TIMES Nigel Andrews, and others reviewed it favorably, even in its truncated 149-minute version shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1981. The movie had all the makings of a cult movie. At one time it was said that it was one of the most discussed movies that most had never seen. Today you can see the movie on DVD, Blu-ray, Criterion Channel streaming, and it might be playing in a theater in France.
After viewing the movie again, I still don’t see it as a masterpiece or an unqualified disaster. It does have a few things going for it. The attention to detail is amazing. The art and production design, set building and design, costume design, second unit work, locations, and music were outstanding, in my opinion. My maternal grandfather wore the same style gray narrow brimmed Stetson that Nate Champion(Christopher Walken) wore.
I wasn’t that impressed with Vilmos Zsigmond’s soft-focus photography although he probably photographed smoke, fog, dust, and steam filled scenes better than anyone else could have and I’m sure he did this as Cimino wanted. The color scheme used in the original versions with its sepia-hued color scheme just didn’t look right to me. Cimino’s supervised restoration for Criterion improved this tremendously with a new color scheme of vibrant natural colors, which I think is an improvement.
We’ve discussed this before and if you want an example of a 1970’s Western being more of its time than of the movies time period, here is HEAVEN’S GATE and I can live with that. The movie takes liberties in telling the story of the real Johnson County War in Wyoming and we don’t ask moviemakers to make historical documentaries. The real story is of a range war between the big ranchers and the small ranchers. Cimino’s screenplay added the Eastern European immigrants to help make an ambling qusai Marxian Western. Cimino makes Casper and Sweetwater, Wyoming look like the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. I don’t want to get political here on Jeff’s blog, but I think that’s a factor in Cimino’s retelling of Western History and the History of Western Movies. In other words, Cimino didn’t want to film the legend, he wanted to destroy it. NEWSWEEK’s film critic David Ansen called the movie a political passion play. To me Cimino has accepted a knee-jerk cynical worldview.
Looking back, I don’t think this was a popular theme going into the 1980’s in the USA. Cimino was either behind the times, or ahead of the times, depending on your political persuasion.
I think that the story is first and foremost and I think Cimino is lacking here. In my opinion, HEAVEN’S GATE is begging for a more connective narrative and flowing screenplay with a backstory to better explain what is actually going on. Cimino just jumps from 1870 Harvard to 1890 Wyoming, and I think the first 20-minutes could have been used as a better backstory. Also, I don’t think the mumbled dialogue helps either. I wonder how much was left out of the 325-minute rough cut of the movie that Cimino presented to the United Artists executives in June 1980? They asked him if he had them a movie and he replied that he almost did and that he could probably cut another 15-minutes. Needless to say, the executives were angry after viewing the over 5-hour movie, because they wanted a movie that wasn’t any longer than 3-hours. Cimino had filmed 1.5 million feet of film, which was 220-hours of filmed HEAVEN’S GATE. Wow! I wonder how much, if any, of the 325-minute rough cut still exists? That would be something to view. United Artists at one-time did have outtakes of the movie, which weren’t used in any version of the released movie.
I don’t have a problem with the actors and actresses of HEAVEN’S GATE, because I think they did the best they could with the script they had to go with, and they were upstaged at times by the photographed authenticity of the landscapes and the meticulous set designs.
HEAVEN’S GATE cried out to be a Western Movie Masterpiece and I think it could have been, but it failed in that respect, mostly because of a flawed screenplay, but this is just my opinion at the end of the day.
Jean-Marie thanks for triggering my memory of what I think is an interesting failure. I enjoyed thinking about and digging up a few whatnots.
I don’t think I will now re-review HEAVEN’s GATE. I’ll leave it to Walter and Jean-Marie, who are far more knowledgeable (and appreciative) than I am.
Jeff, I don’t blame you for not wanting to re-review HEAVEN’S GATE. There are so many truly great, near great, very good, and good Western movies and books out there to write about and discuss. I would much rather view and re-view the 6-hour LONESOME DOVE(filmed 1988, premiered on CBS-TV on February 5-8, 1989) any day and any time. LONESOME DOVE is a masterpiece, in my opinion, and I’m not alone in that thinking. Also, Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE(1985) novel is a GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.
Although, I can still be intrigued by an interesting failure.