Presented with startling realism, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a thrilling yet often painful examination of real-life events and how law and justice are not always the same thing. Directed by Robert M. Young, star Edward James Olmos delivers a passionate performance bringing the historical events to life. The Criterion Collection brings the film to Blu-ray with a beautiful transfer from a new 2K scan, an excellent audio mix, and a fine assortment of quality bonus features. Highly Recommended.
The ideals of Justice and the Law are supposed to be intertwined and inseparable, yet there are countless examples throughout history where they are fractured. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez retells the true story surrounding an incident in 1901 where a Mexican tenant farmer is pursued throughout Texas and tried several times for the murder of a country sheriff stemming from a miss-translation on the part of a deputy who didn't have a full grasp of Spanish. Directed by Robert M. Young and starring Edward James Olmos as Cortez, the film is an intense foray into near cinema verite realism as the audience is taken on a journey to uncover the truth surrounding the infamous events that lead to a sweeping manhunt and an impassioned trial.
The call has gone out. The Texas Rangers lead by Sheriff Fly (James Gammon) has assembled to track down Gregorio Cortez (Edward James Olmos) who stands accused of killing a county sheriff. A newspaperman by the name of Blakely (Bruce McGill) rides with the posse to get the full scoop ahead of other papers. As Cortez outwits and outmaneuvers the Rangers, Blakely has time to interview men like Boone Choate (Tom Bower), Captain Rogers (Brion James), and Mike Trimmell (Alan Vint) and uncover the conflicting accounts that lead to the deaths of Sheriff Morris (Timothy Scott), Sheriff Glover, and Gregorio's brother Romaldo (Pepe Serna).
What makes a film like The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez so important is its searing indictment about the accuracy of evidence gathering and law enforcement. As we've repeatedly seen, there can be no room for error. This pendulum swings both ways. Make one mistake and a guilty individual could go free -- or an innocent person convicted of a crime they didn't commit. In this case, the simple misunderstanding of linguistic nuance leads to unnecessary deaths and the needless pursuit and incarceration of a simple tenant farmer.
Edward James Olmos pulled together one of his best performances for this film. As there are no Spanish subtitles for the film, if you don't understand the language you must rely on the intense emotions and physical presence Olmos brings to the character. One of the finest moments of this film is also one of the kindest and most sincere where Olmos' Cortez meets a drifter played by William Sanderson camped for the night. After days of running, Cortez is exhausted and hungry. Not able to communicate with one another, the scene becomes a peaceful exchange of food and water between men. Cortez unable to verbally give thanks instead gives the man his knife -- probably the most valuable possession he had at that moment. He wasn't met with derision or looked down upon for being Mexican, the drifter simply saw a man who needed help and he could offer it. It's a hell of a moment.
From Gregorio's escape to his pursuit by the Texas Rangers to his capture and trial, director Robert M. Young brings the film to life with vivid detail. Much of the film plays out in such a close tight-framed manner that it feels like you're watching news footage of embedded reporters in a war zone. There is a gritty realism to the framing and filming that gives the film an exciting and intense thrust. As the film moves forward it casts its eye over each of the major players and their involvement in the incidents that transpired. This isn't done to simply cast blame in a cold clinical good versus bad archetype but in an attempt to understand the truth of the matter. It's a bold and effective way to stage key events in such a way that feels authentic without bias with the realization that none of it needed to have played out the way it did.
To put it simply, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a simple and effectively told film that shouldn't be missed. It's a hell of a visceral viewing experience with terrific performances from a very talented cast with a sharp visual style. The film isn't an easy watch, but it's well worth it if only to appreciate the incredible talent on screen and behind the camera.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection brings The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez to Blu-ray in a single disc Blu-ray set. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard clear case with the spine number 940 and comes with a booklet containing photos from the film and an essay by Charles Ramirez Berg. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Struck from a new 2K restoration, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez enjoys a robust and beautifully film-like 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. Film grain is intact and depending on the scene in question can vary in intensity. Apparently, a lot of natural lighting was used during filming -- or a great effort was made to replicate that look -- and as a result grain can appear a bit thick in places, but never overly distracting -- instead offering a brutal authenticity to the image making it appear like a newsreel that is happening at the moment. Details are strong and clear with good facial feature renderings while clothing and the rugged landscape enjoy plenty of presence. Colors skew to favor the natural yellow and brown tones of the scenery without impacting natural primaries. Blue skies are often striking while the presence of red blood is impactful against crisp whites. Black levels are deep and inky without any crush issues and contrast offers up good balance without blooms. The only slight damage to report is a vertical stain mark that runs along the right side of the screen from time to time. It's faded and not a distraction but it's still worth reporting.
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez offers up a strong and effective LPCM mono audio mix. Even through one channel, there is terrific element spacing allowing the dialogue, the score by W. Michael Lewis and Olmos, and the sound effects to occupy the soundscape and give a terrific sense of atmosphere. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any issues or interference. Scoring is robust and it's electronic origins may seem out of place at first but ultimately fits nicely within the film. Sound effects have a restrained imaging presence but there is just enough directionality to give them a natural feeling without everything sounding too congested or cramped up.
While the bonus feature package for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez may not be numerous, they are up to the traditional Criterion Collection standards for quality. Each of these interviews and the cast and crew panel are great accentuating pieces for the film and put the production and the story's legacy into an appropriate context.
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a hell of a piece of filmmaking. It takes a true life story that became the heart of folklore and legend and then grounded it with an examination of the meaning behind Truth, Justice, and Law. It's also an impeccable western so it already earned a soft spot in my heart, but it's Edward James Olmos and the impressive direction of Robert M. Young and the rest of the terrific cast that brings the film and the story to life. It's an important film with a theme that resonates all these years later. The Criterion Collection brings The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez to Blu-ray in terrific order with a rugged but beautiful transfer, a fantastic and clean audio mix with some great bonus feature content that's well worth viewing. Highly Recommended.