In 1982 Universal Pictures quietly dumped the Willie Nelson-Gary Busey Western Barbarosa into a few drive-ins. After low turn-out, they pulled it from distribution. There may have been more critics to see it than paying customers, and it was a strong notice from Gene Siskel condemning the studio’s treatment of the film that led it back into theaters six months later. The damage was done however, and Barbarosa sunk from view despite accruing a string of rave reviews (from Pauline Kael, Janet Maslin, and Dave Kehr, among others). A new DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing gives viewers another chance to see this engagingly shambolic revenge film, the first American feature directed by Aussie Fred Schepisi (Roxanne).
Barbarosa was the first script that photographer, publisher, and poker player William D. Wittliff (who later adapted Lonesome Dove and The Perfect Storm) ever wrote, and per Texas Monthly, “he had never seen a screenplay when he sat down in the early seventies to start writing a movie based on a story his grandfather had told him years before. He didn’t use an outline; he simply wrote down whatever came to him next. Within a month he had a screenplay.” He had been shopping it around for years to no avail, though he had sold others, including one for the TV movie Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978), starring Johnny Cash. Willie Nelson had seen Thaddeus and liked it, and it got him on the team of writers for Honeysuckle Rose (which Jerry Schatzberg directed in 1980). So when Barbarosa finally passed Nelson’s desk it didn’t take two pages before he said, “I want to be this guy.” Barbarosa went into production in September of 1980, with Nelson and Gary Busey as co-producers.
“This guy” is the legend imparted by Wittliff’s grandfather, an infamous rogue named Barbarosa (Nelson), a thief who falls in love with and marries a Mexican girl, Josephina Zavala (Isela Vega). The Zavala family rejects their union and turns on Barbarosa to drive him away, and in retaliation he shoots off the leg of the Zavala patriarch Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland). And so for decades the Zavala family sends their sons into the Texas wilderness to find and kill Barbarosa, who only seems to grow more elusive. The thief gains a running partner in Karl (Gary Busey), a goofy corn-fed kid on the run from his own unfortunate family feud. But Barbarosa and Karl are not vengeful men, instead revering and loving their implacable opponents. They both dearly wish the could return to their homesteads, but instead are locked in battle against them. As indicated by the PG rating, they try to avoid violence, and the movie proceeds on the avoidance of conflict, a series of comic-pacifist vignettes. They cannot put off their foes forever, though, and Barbarosa’s legacy will be determined by the outcome.
Though Nelson is not a magnetic screen performer, his vaporousness is appropriate for a character more myth than man. Plus Gary Busey provides all the earthiness you could ask for – he gets great mileage out of his buck teeth and off-kilter waddle. The digressiveness of the film is one of its strengths, and for most of its running time is a pleasant hangout film of Nelson and Busey ribbing each other in the wilds of Texas. But then their respective blood feuds slowly constrict around them, ending their idylls. The Scorpion DVD/BD provides an extensive interview with Schepisi, who laments that Wittliff’s original script was not entirely retained – many sections relating to Barbarosa’s myth were cut out. But there is one pivotal scene that is remains, when Don Braulio gathers his clan around him to tell the tale of Barbarosa, as if reading from scripture. He recounts Barbarosa’s Judas act, marrying Josephina without his consent, and a litany of other crimes, in front of the next generation of Zavalas, who lap up his speech in sweaty close-ups. Don Braulio is perpetrating one myth, while Barbarosa sustains another by staying alive and pulling off extraordinary heists, as if he were a ghost. One harrowing robbery has the great thief nearly buried alive before sneaking away with bags of gold. For the Zavalas he is the devil, while for the rest of the local villagers he is something of a folk hero, one they sing songs about with awe.The real Barbarosa is neither, of course, but he successfully uses that fear to stun his robbery victims. He is aiming to raise enough money to spirit Josephine away from the Zavalas, to a place where neither of them have to work again.
Fred Schepisi and his DP Ian Baker alternate wide shots and inserts, conveying both the grandeur and the banality of life on the range. The opening credits fade in and out over a time lapse shot of a sunrise over Big Bend National Park in Texas, a picture postcard image. But the film begins with a montage of pricker bushes, close-ups of their blades gashing poor Karl as he bops his way to nowhere in particular. There is a constant shift from micro to macro which the film sustains throughout, from the brute dialogue that surrounds Barbarosa’s life to the ballad the villagers want him to be.
It is no surprise that this odd, nonviolent Western befuddled the studio. It didn’t help matters when the production company, Marble Arch, sold the rights to this $77 million production to the Associated Film Distribution, which had an output deal with Universal. Their head of publicity said, “I know we’re going to come out looking like heavies on this, but you test the market for the film’s potential and we found Barbarosa had a lot going against it. It was a Western, and Westerns are the kiss of death. There was no interest, no buzz.”
There wasn’t any buzz until the reviews starting rolling in, and Gene Siskel praised the film but complained that he had to drive 100 miles away to a drive-in to see it. After Universal’s reluctant expansion to NYC and Los Angeles, the New York Times called it “the best Western in a long while”, Pauline Kael called it “the most spirited and satisfying Western epic in several years – it may seem a little loose at first, but it gets better as it goes along and you get the fresh, crazy hang of it”, and Dave Kehr put it on his top ten list for 1982. It was still not enough to make the film turn a profit, or create much of an audience. The fine-looking DVD and Blu-ray from Scorpion may finally give Barbarosa the audience it deserves.