In June of 1901, a Mexican American tenant farmer named Gregorio Cortez led authorities on one of the most remarkable manhunts in U.S. history. Somehow, again and again, over hundreds of miles of harsh land, this lone man was able to evade a large group of mounted, armed men who seemed to be just on the verge of capturing him. The story was quickly made into a ballad which helped spread the news among other Mexican Americans who were very interested in the fate of this hero.
I’d never heard of Gregorio Cortez until The Criterion Collection announced they’d be releasing Robert M. Young’s portrayal of the legend, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. It follows that I’d also never heard of this 1982 western, but looking into it I started to suspect that The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez would tick so many of my boxes. I’m happy to say now that I’ve seen it that the film is excellent! Beyond being a well made, compelling chase film, western, and procedural, this is an important, rare western that doesn’t treat the Mexican Americans in the west as props and villains. It’s a film with a social conscience that attempts to return, as much as one film can, the hijacked narratives of this time and place — and we’re still dealing with the despicable and dangerous prejudices that mock, dehumanize, and kill today. For three decades, the film been very hard to see, but this week The Criterion Collection released it on home video, and it’s the first time the film has been available on DVD or Blu-ray. Let’s not let it languish again!
The film begins with the chase well underway. Cortez is depicted as the lone rider, charging along the horizon (impeccably shot in 16mm).
At this point, unless we know the story already, or can understand the ballad that is sung in Spanish while Cortez rides, we don’t really know what’s going on or why he’s running. The film, which is not quite but which is almost in the style of documentary at times, shifts to the Anglo community for some context. A couple of dead bodies are being towed into town, and the picture tells a story we film viewers are primed to sympathize with:
One of the men, a deputy we’ll see again and again (played by Tom Bower), after comforting a new widow, looks around and simply says: “I’m about sick of this senseless killing. What are we gonna do about it?”
As the manhunt continues, a reporter from San Antonio (played by Bruce McGill) joins to transmit the story to the rest of the nation. This is when we get the background, as told to the reporter by the deputy:
A horse had been stolen, the deputy and Sheriff W.T. Morris (played by Timothy Scott) went to the home of the Cortez brothers, Romaldo (played by Pepe Serna) and Gregorio (played by Edward James Olmos). Sheriff Morris didn’t speak Spanish (or Mexican, as they put it), and the Cortez brothers didn’t speak English, so the exchange was translated by the deputy. You can see in this still below all three men looking back to the translator, though the dispute is between them.
The conversation starts out casual, even if there is visible tension built in by the confrontations itself. The sheriff asks if they’ve recently traded for a horse. No, Gregorio says, but they did get a mare. The deputy, translates this terribly, making it sound like Gregorio and his brother are mocking the sheriff. Tell them they’re under arrest, says the sheriff, already having jumped to his conclusions. Asking why they are being arrested if they didn’t do anything wrong, Cortez is surprised to see the sheriff pull a gun on them. The sheriff, you see, has just been told by the deputy that they say they can’t be arrested.
It’s a major theme in the film: faulty — sometimes deliberately misleading — communication that both highlights and widens the gulf between two cultures and culminates in tragedy. In this case, a shootout ensues in which Romaldo is injured and Sheriff Morris is killed. Interestingly, throughout this entire exchange — throughout the entire movie — Young and his team decided to forgo subtitles, so if you don’t understand Spanish you’ll be as in the dark as to what Cortez is saying to Sheriff Morris as Sheriff Morris himself was. If you do understand Spanish, you’ll see that the deputy badly mistranslated (likely to deliberately provoke) the entire conversation, converting Cortez’s statements into defiance.
If only this were the only instance of faulty communication, the only hijacked narrative.
As the manhunt continues and the story is told to the reporter by this obviously prejudiced deputy; the reporter tells it to his white readers. Throughout, we see many instances of sloppy (at best) rhetoric. The men — particularly that deputy — keep talking of the Cortez gang. The posse even confronts and kills two random Mexican Americans and he says: “Neither one of these is Cortez. They could be part of the gang, and those horses they got are probably stolen.” After a pause, he adds: “Two less Mexicans we gotta chase down.” But we know, and so do others in the posse, that Cortez has no gang. He’s alone and always just on the cusp of captivity.
We know that if he is caught — and I’d suggest going into this film without reading much more about the story — he’s already got the system built against him. This is one of my favorite discoveries of this year. Assuming you, like me, had no idea this film existed, I highly recommend it.