Friday, 18 July 2008


Fred Schepisi is a good Australian director who seems to turn up on unexpected projects (FIERCE CREATURES etc) but I remember him best for the grim Australian feature THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH and this wonderful Western, BARBAROSA, which has sadly been neglected and mistreated. I don't think it got a cinema release over in England and I first caught it on television. Being a big Willie Nelson fan I recorded it on VHS and over the next few years wore the tape out watching it. Now I have it on DVD but am disappointed to find that except for the main titles it is presented in full screen - which most certainly does the film a grave disservice. BARBAROSA tells the story of a German farm boy(Gary Busey) who is on the run after having accidentally killed his brother-in-law and who is now pursued by his inlaws. He teams up with Barbarosa (Willie Nelson) who becomes his mentor for living the outlaw life and surviving of the land. Barbarosa is pursued by his own inlaws - the family of his wife - who have vowed to kill him after an incident at his wedding (we hear two versions of what happened but the film never really tells us which is the true version). His father-in-law (a wonderfully hate filled performance by Gilbert Roland) tells the huddled children of his Hacienda horror stories of Barbarosa's supposed misdeeds ("...and his beard was dripping red with fresh blood") and selects an endless stream of young men from his clan to ride out to kill the outlaw. "Will you know him?" asks Roland of his latest selection. "I will know him from the songs we sing!" answers the young man, elevating Barbarosa to mythic status. The building of the Barbarosa legend is central to the film and points inexorably to the film's climax. At one point Barbarosa crawls out of his grave to take revenge on the Mexican bandit who thinks he has killed him and symbolically the outlaw does become almost a supernatural figure to the Mexican who both sing songs about him and seek his death and it is significant that the most effective weapon used against him is a knife concealed in a crucifix (similar to the one used to dispatch the "vampiric" outlaw in THE WRATH OF GOD). Barbarosa cannot die and through his apprentice he gains immortality. A great performance by Willie Nelson as the outlaw who kills his pursuers before kissing their corpses and won't have a word said against them : "They're good people, the Zavalas". Gary Busey is always an interesting and unpredictable actor and here he is in more restrained mode than usual. Roland is terrific in what must have been one of his last performances and Isela Vega is perfect as Barbarosa's long suffering wife. Perhaps one day this excellent Western will get a DVD release that is worthy of it. It would be great to have a commentary by writer Bill Witliff and director Schepisi. Rating ***

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