Australian director Fred Schiepisi had a hit with his movie The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith in 1978 and got an opportunity to try his luck in the United States. In 1980 he made Barbarosa which was released 1981 or 1982 depending on how you define “release” since, after a brief showing in a few theaters it was sent to the drive-ins — there were still a few of those around then. Fortunately for Schiepisi, most folks thought he got a bad deal and he was given a few more projects. Pretty soon he had some good movies to his credit, but Barbarosa never got a fair shake. Roger Ebert mentioned it as a great unknown movie and it had a bit of underground recognition but it wasn’t until its release on videotape that Barbarosa began to receive the recognition that it deserved.
The stars are Willie Nelson and Gary Busey and they, both of them, turn in fine performances. The story is about a legendary outlaw, Barbarosa, played by Nelson who operates in northern Mexico and into Texas. Gary Busey plays Karl, whose German immigrant family has moved to Texas. Karl kills his brother-in-law and goes on the run. He is in the desert, without food or water, when he runs into Barbarosa who is introduced in a fine shot that travels up his boots and leather chaps to his sombreroed head silhouetted against the sun. An eagle screams as the camera reaches his face, invisible for a moment against the backlight — oh yeah, this is the way to introduce a legend!
Barbarosa takes Karl under his wing and teaches him the outlaw trade. He steals anything — “Cattle, horses…Anything except sheep. You couldn’t give me one of those wooly bastards.” But the reality is, he lives in caves and eats armadilloes while looking for something to steal. Meanwhile, the brothers of the man Karl killed track him down. Karl disarms them and sends them home but they are unable to countermand their father’s order to seek revenge and come back after Karl. Another outlaw kills them both.
Barbarosa is captured by that same outlaw and shot. Karl is given the task of burying him. But Barbarosa is still alive. Karl fills in an empty grave and he and Barbarosa escape to listen to people singing songs about the famous man, how he was killed and came back from the grave, aided by a gringo child. Barbarosa translates for Karl as they listen. “All you men of courage, grease up your guns and your knives…” Then Barbarosa breaks off, “This part is about how they kill Barbarosa.” He doesn’t want to hear more. He understands very well that his legend will end in his death, that it is the only possible end.
Karl discovers that Barbarosa has a relationship with a Mexican family called Zavala. He was engaged to a young woman of the family but there was some kind of brawl, Zavalas were killed, Barbarosa was maimed, and now the family and the outlaw are locked in a deadly relationship. Periodically, the Zavalas send out young men to hunt the outlaw and Barbarosa kills them. Periodically, Barbarosa sneaks into the Zavala ranch to visit the woman he loves and give her the gold he has stolen. The patriarch of the Zavala clan (played by Gilbert Roland) uses Barbarosa as a goad to make the family live up to an ideal — they must be great because their enemy is the legendary Barbarosa.
On one of Barbarosa’s visits to the Zavalas, Karl meets with Barbarosa’s daughter and the two are becoming romantically involved when Barbarosa bursts in to defend her honor and castigate Karl. The two escape the Zavala ranch in a hail of gunfire and, later, Karl discovers that Barbarosa isn’t all that upset with him.
Karl goes back to his family and tries to make peace with the father of the man he killed, whose other sons died trying to find Karl. It is no use and there are more deaths. The family disintegrates entirely. One day Barbarosa rides in to the ranch where Karl is now living alone. Karl abandons the place and accompanies Barbarosa back into outlawry.
One of the Zavalas finally manages to give Barbarosa a mortal wound. He runs away to tell the family. Karl attends the dying outlaw who tells him that it was a pretty good thing he had with the Zavalas, “A man couldn’t ask for better.” Karl tries to head off Barbarosa’s killer but he manages to evade Karl and return to the Zavala ranch. A great celebration to honor the killer is underway when a man rides in, firing his weapons. “Barbarosa!” chants the crowd and we are allowed to see that it is Karl, become the new manifestation of the legend.
There are so many great things about this movie — the theme, first of all, of myths and men who become heroes because they couldn’t ask for better; of families and the need to belong somewhere; then the representation of the terrible lonely frontier and how easilly people and their arrangements could fall apart there; then there is some fine photography; and also the wonderful dialogue that sounds too true to be really authentic but is funny and piercing and excellent.
Barbarosa made it onto Turner Classic Movies recently so I suppose that, somewhere, there is a good wide-screen DVD. I sure hope so.