The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez
Forced to run from the Texas Rangers after a heated misunderstanding leads to the death of a lawman, Mexican American farmer Gregorio Cortez sets off in desperate flight, evading a massive manhunt on horseback for days. Producer-star Edward James Olmos, seeking to shed new light on a historical incident that had been enshrined in a corrido (folk song), enlisted director Robert M. Young, a longtime practitioner of socially engaged realism, to helm this trailblazing independent film, a landmark of Chicano cinema. Shifting its perspective between the pursuers and the pursued, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a thrilling chase film and a nuanced procedural that peels away the layers of prejudice and myth surrounding Cortez, uncovering the true story of an ordinary man persecuted by the law and transfigured by legend.
Previously unavailable on and disc format, the Criterion Collection presents Robert M. Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez on Blu-ray on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Based on the included notes it sounds like the restoration was a rather laborious undertaking, beginning with the scanning thirty-six reels’ worth of the 16mm original camera negative (which totaled about 16 hours’ of material) in high-definition and then reconstructing and conforming this material to match the finished film, using Edward James Olmos’ personal 35mm print of the film, a 16mm television negative, and the 35mm magnetic tracks as reference. The material that matched the finished film was then rescanned in 2K from the same 16mm original negative. This new restoration is presented on this disc with a 1080p/24hz encode.
It sounds like an intense amount of work but the final results show all of that work was well worth it. It looks like the materials have held up remarkably well over the years, the only truly notable flaw being some very slight discolourations or stains in the right edge of the frame, but outside of that (and a few minor specs) there’s nothing major that stands out.
It’s also encoded beautifully. It’s a very grainy film, shot on 16mm, and the grain is rendered sharply but naturally, never looking like noise or showing any artifacts. Colours look stunning, nice oranges and reds aiding some the sunrise sequences, while black levels are nice and deep without crushing out the details. It’s a great looking image overall, probably looking better than it ever has.
The ultra-low budget led to an electronic score that hasn’t aged well (a shame since the rest of the film holds up) and it comes off a little distorted, but other than that the rest of the film’s audio, presented here in lossless PCM 1.0 mono, is in remarkable shape. Dialogue and sound effects are sharp with excellent fidelity and clarity showing off some modest range, and quality is excellent, with no major signs of damage present. Considering the fairly rough nature of the production and how the film had fell into obscurity it was a pleasant surprise to find the audio in such good shape.
(There are no subtitles for the Spanish speaking portion of the films. This is intentional, as text notes available from the main menu explain, and is how the film was initially released.)
Criterion gives the film a decent if not jam-packed special edition, throwing on a handful of features, starting with a couple of new interviews recorded by Criterion: one with star and co-producer Edward James Olmos, and another with Chon A. Noriega, author of Shot in America: Televisions, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema. Noriega’s 19-minute interview goes over the importance of the legend of Gregorio Cortez along with the history behind the portrayal of Latin Americans in Hollywood films (not so flattering) and how this eventually changed in the later 70s and early 80s with films like El norte and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. In his, Olmos offers a very passionate summary on the film’s production, the importance of portraying Gregorio Cortez, his amazement in some of the help they were able to get (a Texas judge was all-in in getting them all of the information they needed, with the caveat he would play the judge in the film) and his disappointment in how the film was buried, not receiving the wide theatrical release it deserved. It’s an incredibly heartfelt 29-minute interview, Olmos incredibly proud of the film, making for a rather energetic interview. Together, though, the two interviews both offer a wonderful details about the film and the rise of Chicano cinema.
Criterion next includeS footage from a 2016 cast-and-crew panel for the film, featuring director Robert M. Young (91 at the time), producer Moctesuma Esparza, director of photography Reynaldo Villalobos, and actors Edward James Olmos, Bruce McGill, Tom Bower, Rosanna DeSoto and Pepe Serna. The 23-minute feature goes over some of the same details covered in the other interviews on the disc, but thanks to the addition of others (like Young and Villalobos) there’s more on the film’s look and Young’s and Esparza’s desire to make the film. An insert then closes the release, featuring a short essay by Charles Ramírez Berg, getting into the actual story, the ballad, and the film’s narrative structure.
Not a packed release but I enjoyed the two new interviews, which successfully convey the significance and importance of the film.
As Noriega points out in his interview the film was unbelievably hard to come across, the only home video release available previously being an old Embassy VHS release, but Criterion saves the film from obscurity with this release. The digital presentation cleanly presents the impressive new restoration while the release also provides some excellent contextualizing supplements. Well worth picking up.