Starring: Willie Nelson, Gary Busey, Gilbert Roland and Isela Vega
Written by: William D. Wittliff
Directed by: Fred Schepisi
Running Time: 1hr 30mins
An Excerpt from an Episode of SNEAK PREVIEWS
Roger Ebert: My Dog Of the week this week doesn’t go… the award doesn’t go to a movie Gene, it goes to a Hollywood studio. I’m giving Universal Pictures “The Dog of the Week Award” because of their decision to withdraw a movie named BARBAROSA from release before it ever had a chance to really prove itself. The movie was directed by Fred Schepisi, the Australian filmmaker who made a brilliant film called THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH, and the movie stars Gary Busey… remember him from THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY… He won an Oscar nomination… and Willie Nelson, the country outlaw, a legendary western outlaw, so there’s one of my favorite directors, two of my favorite actors and what’s more, Gene, I’ve read about this movie in a review by you, you gave it a good review in the Chicago Tribune.
Gene Siskel: Yeah, I thought it was terrific, but you know, I had to drive 50 miles to Michigan City, IN, to see this in an indoor theater. They had thrown it away in just a half a dozen drive-ins.
Roger Ebert: Well, anyway, I was at the Cannes Film Festival when it played here… When I asked for a chance to see the movie so we could review it on Sneak Previews, Universal’s response was that the movie had been pulled out of release and put on the shelf and said the movie wasn’t making it. I say give this movie a chance. Could it possibly be that somebody at Universal, an executive, didn’t want to see the movie succeed once they reached an executive decision that it wasn’t going to make it? I think that’s really too bad and I say if Universal wants me to withdraw my “Dog of the Week Award, “show me this movie.
Gene Siskel: OK, well, I hope they do and I think… i think you’d really enjoy it. It’s terrific.
BARBAROSA is a film I discovered while rewatching an old episode of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s movie review show SNEAK PREVIEWS on YouTube. During their dog of the week segment, Ebert decided that instead of choosing a movie as the week’s worst, he would choose a studio. It turns out that he wanted to watch a film that Siskel had given a good review to but couldn’t get access. Universal Studios, for some reason, had decided not to give it a proper indoor theatrical release and dumped it mostly into drive-ins instead. They then pulled it from release before really giving it any chance to find an audience, making it very difficult for Ebert to see. Let’s put it right out there. It always confuses me when I hear of a studio not giving a film that they invested good money into a chance. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened either and it probably won’t be the last. Why they would do this, I will never understand. Who knows, maybe the public will like the film. The critics seem to like Barbarosa. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin wrote, “The best western in a long while is BARBAROSA, a film that uses one American legend, Willie Nelson, to create another.” Kevin Thomas from The Los Angeles Times also wrote, “A glorious, mostly lighthearted adventure celebrating the mythical freedom and excitement of the outlaw life in the Old West.” This doesn’t seem like the kind of film that should be hidden from an audience. Upon watching it, my opinion is that the studio was irresponsible and if they had let more people know about the film while also giving it a proper release, they might have had a small hit on their hands. BARBAROSA is a film that delivers three great performances and is, and this is the important part, a lot of fun.
Gary Busey, who had recently been given an Academy Award nomination for his role in THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (Another reason to give the film a push), plays Karl, a man on the run. He’s accidentally killed his sister’s husband and now the whole family wants him dead. Meanwhile, the title character, Barbarosa, is also on the run from his family after, on his wedding night, he supposedly killed two members of his wife’s family and shot off his new father-in-law’s leg. Both men wish they could return home in peace but are instead doomed to run from those they love. They are in very similar situations but have very different ways of looking at life and after they meet up, they begin to travel together while bickering back and forth and learning a little about themselves.
Director Fred Schepisi is one of my favorite filmmakers. This makes me wonder how buried the movie must have been for me to have never heard of it. BARBAROSA was only his third film and he would go on to direct such amazing movies as ROXANNE, A CRY IN THE DARK and SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. Here he does a great job creating a unique tone to the western genre while also giving the viewer some interesting characters to relate to. Along with writer William D. Wittliff (LONESOME DOVE), they explore the idea of man as a myth. Barbarosa is a character who has become famous throughout the land. People whisper his name, sing songs about his adventures and tell stories about his past, all of which set him up as the kind of man to be feared. His father-in-law, Don Braulio, has made it his life’s mission to send out family members to kill him. The movie explores how we perceive a person who has reached a mythical status versus who he really is inside. Barbarosa is not the man that he is portrayed to be in these stories and songs. They tell more about the man that Don Braulio wants people to think Barbarosa is and the film becomes a journey for the audience to discover the truth behind the myth.
The film is well made, featuring some beautiful cinematography that shows off its amazing locations and a wonderful score that sets a perfect tone for much of the story. But as well constructed as the film is, it really comes down to the great performances that make this film so enjoyable. Willie Nelson is best known as a legendary country western singer. Who doesn’t know the lyrics to ON THE ROAD AGAIN? With Barbarosa, I guess it could be said that it takes a legend to play one. Nelson seems a natural fit for the character, a stubborn man who travels the land, robbing people for a purpose. He may do some bad things, but he is not the evil man portrayed in the legends. Nelson plays him with some real heart. He is a man with morals. At one point, he tells Karl, “I don’t kill for amusement. Man or Rabbit.” The character refuses to hear or say a bad word against the family who is out to kill him and only shoots back when he has no choice in order to save his own life. Add to that the fact that his heart still belongs to a woman from the family that is out to kill him and that he only steals to gain enough money so that the two can get away to live in peace and the viewer will see how he acts out of need instead of being malicious. He may be doing the wrong thing, but there is no real malice in his heart.
Busey plays Karl, a man who is very different from Barbarosa but strives to be just like him. He, like Barbarosa, is on the run from his own family, with whom he also doesn’t wish any harm, but when confronted by them, instead of pulling his weapon as Babrosa would, he tries to get them to go back home before they get hurt. Busey adds a real innocence to Karl as he is more sympathetic to the people they meet. When the two men come upon an old couple walking through the desert, Barbarosa wants to rob them, whereas Karl feels guilty about taking what he perceives to be all of their money. Nelson and Busey play off each other in a very real way that is sometimes funny and sometimes touching. Their relationship makes up the heart of the film and it never feels fake and is always a lot of fun to watch.
The film is also filled with an interesting cast of supporting players, with the best performance coming from Gilbert Roland, who plays Don Braulio. With only one leg, thanks to Barbarosa, Braulio is a bitter man bent on revenge. He is desperate to see his enemy dead, even at the expense of the family members he sends out to seek his vengeance. Roland plays Braulio as cold and heartless. Whether it’s his intense stare as he tells the tale of Barbarosa to a group of kids or the hatred he displays as he speaks to those he sends out to kill his enemy, Braulio comes off as a man that we know is in the wrong but can still somehow feel sorry for.
BARBAROSA is the perfect example of an Underexposed Cinematic Treasure. A movie that, if more people had been aware of, might have gained more attention at the box office. But, because of how the studios handled its release, it has gone mostly unwatched. It’s a film that should be given a chance and if you do, trust me, you will not be disappointed.
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