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.