Criterion Review: THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ (1982)

Edward James Olmos stars in this gritty, cross-cultural folk tale

The Western. It’s a genre where cultures clash, survival drives actions, and efforts to enforce a rudimentary rule of law often clash with those looking to get rich, or just get by. American cinema and the Western have always been closely entwined, much like the relationship between America the country and its neighbor to the south, Mexico. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez brings together the North and South during the early 1900s in a cultural criss-cross, where something lost in translation leads to two sides interpreting an incident in a very different way.


Forced to run from the Texas Rangers after a heated misunderstanding leads to the death of a lawman, Mexican American farmer Gregorio Cortez sets off in desperate flight, evading a massive manhunt on horseback for days. Producer-star Edward James Olmos, seeking to shed new light on a historical incident that had been enshrined in a corrido (folk song), enlisted director Robert M. Young, a longtime practitioner of socially engaged realism, to helm this trailblazing independent film, a landmark of Chicano cinema. Shifting its perspective between the pursuers and the pursued, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a thrilling chase film and a nuanced procedural that peels away the layers of prejudice and myth surrounding Cortez, uncovering the true story of an ordinary man persecuted by the law and transfigured by legend.

The film centers around the titular Gregorio Cortez and the aftermath of a case of mistaken identity that left an indelible mark on Mexican folklore. A word mistranslated to law enforcement during an investigation of a stolen horse wrongfully points the finger at Cortez. When he is accosted by the non-Spanish speaking sheriffs, he defends himself, resulting in the death of one of their number. Cortez escapes, thus beginning one of the largest manhunts in the history of the Texas Rangers.

The original folk tale of this 1901 incident was the subject of a dissertation by one Americo Paredes back in 1956, later adapted into the book With His Pistol in His Hand, one of the early foundations in his career as a renowned journalist and academic of folklore and the source for this feature film. This backstory puts into context the history behind the movie, as well as the depth of writing and perspective offered. Cortez has become a man revered by the Mexicans while held up as a murderer by the Texans, with a language barrier being the flashpoint for an incident further fueled by perceptions and stereotypes. Time and embellishment over the years have only compounded things. As much as it is a tale of injustice, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is about how the seeds of a folk tale are planted. It explores not just the injustice of his pursuit, but his endurance against such odds.

Edward James Olmos crafts a most sympathetic lead and helps imbue the film with a tangible sense of authenticity. The supporting cast is replete with character actors such as James Gammon, Bruce McGill, Brion James, and Rosanna DeSoto, who add further texture. Director Robert M. Young pulls from his background as a documentary maker to plant the audience as observers of natural events unfolding. Flitting between perspectives, events unfold in a non-linear manner, deliberately omitting English subtitles when following the Americans, thereby immersing viewers in the same limited understanding they encountered. While the travails of the Mexicans in this period are very clearly depicted, there is also balance offered by showing the Texas Rangers at this point in their history, attempting to bring some respectability and honor to their position as well as law to the land. The focus of the film is on one man, but it also serves to broadly encapsulate much of the culturally charged strife that existed between Anglo-America and their Mexican neighbors. It’s a travesty that The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez still feels so relevant today.

The Package

The release presents a new restoration from a 2K scan, carried out by the Academy Film Archive. The film looks very impressive, with natural tones (and a slight green tint) and grain, and very well defined textures and detail. Special features are solid as you’d expect, but sadly no commentary is present. This is surprising considering Olmos was available for a new interview for the release.

  • New interview with actor and producer Edward James Olmos: Filmed in 2018, it’s a rather personal conversation as the actor talks about what this role meant to him, notably portraying a cult hero of his country. He also talks candidly about how the film went from page to TV to big screen, and in the process opened up the way the independent film industry works.
  • New interview with Chon A. Noriega, author of Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema: New 20 minute interview with the author who discusses Chicano cinema (of Mexican descent) and how Gregorio Cortez affected the Western genre specifically.
  • Cast-and-crew panel from 2016 including Olmos; director Robert M. Young; producer Moctesuma Esparza; cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos; and actors Bruce McGill, Tom Bower, Rosana DeSoto, and Pepe Serna
  • An essay by film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg: In the accompanying liner notes, which also include stills as well as details on the film’s restoration.

The Bottom Line

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a deftly pieced together tale, imbued with a genuine sense of grit and injustice, while smartly playing with perspective, stereotypes, and their impact on storytelling. It’s a showcase also for the natural talents of Edward James Olmos. Criterion has again put together a beautiful package honoring what is essential viewing for Western fans and for fans of cinema in general.

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is available via Criterion from August 14th, 2018.

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