The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982)


(director/writer: Robert M. Young; screenwriters: Victor Villasenor/from the book “With His Pistol in His Hands” by Americo Paredes; cinematographer: Reynaldo Villalobos; editor: Arthur Coburn/John Bertucci; music: W. Michael Lewis/Edward James Olmos; cast: Edward James Olmos (Gregorio Cortez), James Gammon (Sheriff Frank Fly), Tom Bower (Boone Choate), Bruce McGill (Reporter Blakely), Brion James (Captain Rogers), Alan Vint (Mike Trimmell), Timothy Scott (Sheriff Morris), Pepe Serna (Romaldo Cortez), Michael McGuire (Sheriff Glover), William Sanderson (Cowboy), Barry Corbin (Abernathy), Jack Kehoe (Prosecutor Pferson), Rosanna DeSoto (Carlota Munoz), Buddy Vigil (Skin), Zach Porter (Fly’s Posse); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Moctesuma Esparza/Michael Hausman; Columbia; 1982)

“A subdued revisionist Western based on a Mexican ballad about a true story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A subdued revisionist Western based on a Mexican ballad about a true story–one of the most famous manhunts in Texas history. It’s set in 1901, in Gonzalez, Texas. It was originally produced for PBS’ American Playhouse and was released to theatres in 1984, but though receiving critical acclaim only did so-so at the box office. Director Robert M. Young (“Rich Kids”/”One-Trick Pony”/”Saving Grace”), who cowrites it with Victor Villasenor, bases it on the book “With His Pistol in His Hands” by Americo Paredes. It tells in a simplified and fair way the true story of that chase, giving all sides to the tragic incident.

There’s an 11-day pursuit of 450 miles in June of 1901, near San Antonio, to the border of Mexico by 600-Texans in a posse that includes sheriffs and Texas Rangers who are chasing a Mexican rancher named Gregorio Cortez (Edward James Olmos), who killed Sheriff Morris (Timothy Scott) after not understanding a question asked. The sheriff came over to Gregorio’s ranch to investigate about a stolen horse. It was a case of mistranslation, as Gregorio spoke no English and Sheriff Morris spoke no Spanish. Gregorio’s brother (Pepe Serna) translated for him and was slightly injured by the sheriff before he was fatally shot by Gregorio, while Boone Choate (Tom Bower) translated for the sheriff and just rode away after the shoot-out. Meanwhile the sheriff’s relative Deputy Mike Trimmell (Alan Vint) was out of sight down the road and would run into Boone. Since there’s no subtitles in the opening shoot-out and the Spanish goes untranslated, we don’t learn about what was mistranslated until the third act when the fugitive has been captured. During the courtroom drama we get it translated into English (the tragedy can be blamed on the shortcomings of a translator who couldn’t distinguish in Spanish between “horse” (caballo) and “mare” (yegua)). The real Gregorio Cortez served 12 years of a 50-year sentence until freed on a Governor’s pardon.

Blakely (Bruce McGill) is an able reporter from San Antonio, who rides with the posse and tries to get some clarity on the incident as he interviews all concerned. News of the slaying spreads across the state quickly by telegraph, adding more tension to an already tense scene. Also, there’s Mexican resistance to Texas as a state, as it’s set some 50 years after Texas broke free from Mexico.

The film’s irony is that the ballad builds Gregorio into a mythic figure even though he’s no hero. It’s well-intentioned, informative and aims to keep things authentic (the courtroom used in the film is the same one used in real-life for Gregorio’s trial), but it never stirs the heart.