Then said Gregorio Cortez
With his pistol in his hand,
“Ah, so many mounted Rangers
Just to take one Mexican!”
(Part of the corrido Gregorio Cortez, translated by Américo Paredes)
Westerns have always liked Ballad titles. We have already reviewed on this blog The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Ballad of Lefty Brown and The Ballad of Little Jo. I guess it isn’t too surprising as a ballad is a poem that tells a tale, and the term is also used for any stylized storytelling. Westerns are, in a way, ballads.
Gregorio Cortez is especially ballad-like because Cortez is still the subject of corridos sung on the border, and a corrido is often about oppression, history, the daily life of criminals and/or the vaquero life – Western subject-matter, in fact.
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is curious in that it seems like a foreign-language film. Though shot in Texas and New Mexico, with several quite well known American actors, it appears dubbed. Spanish-speaking characters speak Spanish. James Gammon and Barry Corbin, for example, speak English and it’s their voice alright but they aren’t lip-synched. Odd. But it’s an excellent movie, and one of the chief reasons for that is the performance of said Messrs Gammon and Corbin, two of my favorite late-20th century Western actors.
Second-billed Gammon has done fifteen feature Westerns and you will doubtless remember him especially in Wyatt Earp, Appaloosa, Silverado and Wild Bill. That craggy face and gravelly voice has always been very well suited to our noble genre. He’s lawman Frank Fly in this one, on the trail of presumed murderer Cortez, and he’s just great. Corbin, a Texas rancher when he isn’t doing movies, is, for me, particularly memorable for his parts in Lonesome Dove, The Homesman, the TV Monte Walsh and Crossfire Trail with Tom Selleck, and Conagher, especially talented at the wise old Western bird, with a twinkle in his eye. In Gregorio Cortez he is the lawyer Abernathy, with Rosanna DeSoto very effective, I thought, as his interpreter, stoutly defending Cortez in one of his (many) trials – they shot the trial scene in the actual courtroom used at the time. Gammon and Corbin both look quite young! But it was 1980. They were entitled.
The title role was taken by Edward James Olmos, Gaff in Blade Runner and Lt Castillo in Miami Vice, who apparently declined the role of Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek (because he would have had to work exclusively on that). Westernwise, he was Captain Salazar in the Lonesome Dove prequel Dead Man’s Walk, has a role in a Mario Van Peebles oater currently in post-production and is to be Joaquin Murrieta in an announced picture. He’s rather good as Gregorio Cortez, suffering injustice but essentially dignified. Olmos also wrote the music.
Based on a true story, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez tells of the border folk hero who on June 14, 1901, when he was 26, was involved in an altercation in which he allegedly killed Sheriff WT (Brack) Morris, going on the run from the Texas Rangers for thirteen days and becoming the subject of one of the largest and most closely-followed manhunts in US history. Cortez sought shelter at the ranch of a friendly family, the Robledos or Robleros, in Belmont and was tracked there by County Sheriff Robert M Glover. In the ensuing so-called Battle of Belmont, Glover and a posse-man, Henry Schnabel, were killed. Cortez escaped and, pursued by a posse that at times included up to 300 men, he traveled nearly 400 miles on horseback and more than 100 miles on foot. He was finally taken (he gives up in the movie) on June 22.
The first of Cortez’s trials began on July 24, 1901, in Gonzalez, Texas. Eleven of the twelve jurors wee Anglo and Cortez was sentenced to fifty years for second-degree murder. As Cortez was in a Gonzales jail, a lynch mob of over 300 men tried to hang him. The attempt was unsuccessful, but tensions grew further, especially when on January 15, 1902, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Cortez’s sentence. Five other trials followed and on January 1, 1905 Cortez began a fifty-year sentence for the killing of Sheriff Glover (not for the death of Sheriff Morris) in Huntsville. This is likely to have been a perversion of justice in the sense that Cortez almost certainly did kill Sheriff Morris in the original incident, whether in self-defense, provoked or however it happened, but there was no hard evidence that he killed Glover in Belmont; it could just have well been another member of the Roblero family who fired the fatal shot.
Efforts to have Cortez released finally succeeded in 1913 when Governor Oscar Colquitt issued a conditional pardon. Cortez was freed on July 14 of that year. He went back to Mexico where he fought for Huerta in the revolution. He died (the cause of death is argued over) aged 40 in February, 1916.
The picture was shot in five weeks in 1980, on a modest budget, and helmed by Robert M Young, a director better known for documentaries – this is his only Western. It was also co-written by him, and Victor Villaseñor, from the book on Cortez by Américo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand. Originally produced for PBS’s American Playhouse, it was released theatrically in 1983.
The cinematography was by Reynaldo Villalobos, of Seraphim Falls fame, and is very attractive, I must say. There’s quite a lot of fashionable darkness, especially interiors, but there are also some fine shots of the Gonzales, Texas locations as well as the Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe, and I spotted scenes in my beloved Las Vegas, NM (the setting of my forthcoming novel), including the totally excellent Plaza Hotel.
There is a suggestion in the movie that the Texas Rangers were in danger of disbandment in the early 1900s, considered as old-fashioned and no longer useful, but that they found the Cortez manhunt and its surrounding publicity politically useful to prove their continued usefulness. I don’t know how true that was. Certainly the Rangers were not known for their kid-glove tactics and we see them in the film extracting information on Cortez’s whereabouts by lynching or threatened lynching, which was perfectly possible. It is difficult to know how else they knew Cortez was at Belmont.
The movie employs the stratagem of having a journalist, Blakely (Bruce McGill), who says he reported on Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, accompany the posse of Rangers and periodically telegraph his dispatches. The posse is old-school, quite ‘Western’ as it rides by train or on horseback, and Gammon struggles with the new-fangled telephone, while the journo arrives in an up-to-date automobile. In fact the story was front-page news in the San Antonio Express. According to the newspaper, Cortez, in reality a lone Mexican vaquero, was transformed into the ruthless leader of a gang of brutal desperados.
I liked the naturalistic dialogue, often with overheard snatches of conversation, and the authentic look of the picture. The action is subdued and low-key; it’s not a shoot ‘em up Western. Janet Maslin in the New York Times thought it too subdued: “The sincerity of Robert M. Young’s film is readily apparent, yet in its soft-spoken and serious way, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez presents a no less exaggerated portrait of the old West than the wildest and woolliest cowboy sagas. If frontier characters didn’t truly rope and ride and yell ”Yahoo!” without interruption, neither can they have been as solemn, quiet and reflective as the figures in this deliberately muted drama.” She thought that the film was “earnest, well-meaning and informative, but it never takes flight.”
I don’t think that’s quite fair. There is an impressive atmosphere of realism in this grim tale of injustice. This and the good acting combine to make The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez a quality film, worth watching. The DVD is good visually. The film was selected in 2022 for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.