Barbarosa (1982)

Dir: Fred Schepisi - Cast: Willie Nelson (Barbarosa), Gary Busey (Karl Westover), Gilbert Roland (Don Braulio), Isela Vega (Josephina), Danny De La Paz (Eduardo), Alma Martinez (Juanita) 

A young farmer boy, Karl Westover, is on the run after he has unintentionally killed his-brother-in-law. He teams up with a famous bandido, Barbarosa, a man of almost mythical proportions, roaming the border territory; the outlaw becomes his mentor in the art of survival while being on the run and eventually Karl will adopt the older man's identity, by growing a red beard like him, and showing up on a party held in honor to his death.

The movie was made in the beginning of a decade, the 80s, that would turn out to be very unfavorable to the western genre. Audiences seemed no longer interested in the Old West, but the genre was still popular among critics, screenwriters and directors. This would lead to a sort of amalgam westerns in which film makers tried to re-invent the old glory of the genre by putting its heroes and myths into a new jacket. Barbarosa not only combines the scenic majesty of the classic westerns by John Ford or Raoul Walsh with the ironic touches of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but also has a wink at the spaghetti western and the revisionist westerns of the previous decade.

Barbarosa was written by William D. Wittliff, best known for his screen adaptation of Larry McMurthy's Lonesome Dove. His screenplay is vivid and intelligent, presenting the literary doppelgänger motif (one man adopting the identity of another) from the movie's very start (1): both men are on the run, and what they're both running away from, is a family feud. Barbarosa married a Mexican girl against her father's will and subsequently crippled the father during a quarrel, when both men were drunk; ever since he must be on his guard for gunmen sent after him. The two life stories eventually intertwine, in dramatic fashion, when Barbarosa dies in Karl's arms, and the younger man is forced to adopt his mentor's identity, in order to keep the legend alive.  

Both Willie Nelson and Garey Busey are terrific in the lead roles, and they get good support by Gilbert Roland as Don Braulio, Nelson's Mexican father-in-law who's willing to pay a large sum of money if his son-in-law's 'cojones' are presented to him on a plate. Roland often played Mexicans (he was of Mexican descent) both in Hollywood movies and spaghetti westerns; by casting him, the American and European western traditions are nicely linked. Note also that director Schepisi is Australian; his movie about myth-making is at the same time  elegiac and optimistic: basically it's a revisionist western, with enough gritty moments to undermine the notion of outlawry as a heroic pastime, but in the end it rather embraces the myth than demystifying it. One of the taglines of the movie was: You cannot kill a ghost. It reads very much like: You can kill the outlaw, but you can't kill his spirit.

Barbarosa was very badly distributed because the Studio, ITCPictures, was in trouble after some of its most expensive productions (like the Kirk Douglas and Farah Fawcett SF-adventure Saturn 3) had flopped. ITC, originally a television company, would soon shut down its distribution arm and Barbarosa was pulled from theaters two weeks after its premiere. The movie never really recovered from it; even today it's difficult to get hold of a good copy and most fullscreen VHS and DVD releases ruin the visual qualities of a movie that must have looked glorious in theatres.  


* (1) The doppelgänger motif  (doppelgänger = double) has its origins in folk belief; in literature it has often been used in horror stories, such as Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Gray. In these stories the double symbolizes man's dark side, his negative alter ego. Modern variations usually are concerned with identity loss; good examples are (in literature) Fyodor Dostojevski’s The Double: A Petersburgh Poem and (in cinema) Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, about a lower-class criminal who is taught to impersonate a dying warlord, and slowly loses his own identity in the process.