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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (Blu-ray)
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // PG // August 14, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted August 10, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Directed by Robert M. Young from the book With His Pistol In His Hand by Américo Paredes, The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez, based on a folk song written after the real life events that inspired all of this, stars Edward James Olmos in the title role. The film takes place in the early 1900s where a Mexican-American farmer named Gregorio Cortez who is incorrectly accused of horse theft. The sheriff and his men come for him but things go south quickly and Gregorio's brother (Pepe Serna) is shot dead. Gregario responds in kind, shoots the sheriff and is then on the run from the law enforcement officials who obviously come to chase him down and bring him in. All of this essentially stemming from a translation error.

Gregorio manages to evade capture for a remarkable two weeks, but eventually the law, led by Sherriff Frank Fly (James Gannon) and The Texas Rangers' Captain Rogers (Brion James), does catch up with him while a reporter named Blakely (Bruce McGill) follows the posse to see how all of this plays out. When he's brought in, a lawyer named B.R. Abernathy (Barry Corbin) becomes his defense attorney and his case is set to go to trial.

This film wears its heart plainly on its sleeve. It's clearly making a stand not only against racial injustice but also about the importance of communication and how easily simple misunderstandings can spiral out of control. This is demonstrated by the inclusion of Bruce McGill's reporter character. As he travels along and talks to both Fly and Rogers, he documents events that wind up differing quite considerably from what the film shows us to be reality. The stories that Blakely writes differ as often as his source material, and it's a clever way for director Young, who clearly wanted to invest in the film a strong social conscience, to deliver a message without beating us over the head with it.

Performances are uniformly strong in this picture. Top-billed Olmos, who also co-produced the picture, is excellent in the lead. His character has an almost mythical vibe about him, one that the film does play up here and there with some interesting camerawork and subtle nods to the importance of his mission in the film. At the same time, Olmos grounds the character, making him both believable and engaging. Supporting work from Brion James and James Gannon is also appreciated. Both of these men play their roles with the type of conviction you'd hope for given their character types. They do great work. Bruce McGill does tend to steal a few scenes in the picture. His reporter character is an important plot device that ties many of the threads and themes that the picture explores together and while maybe using a reporter in this fashion is a bit of a cliché, the filmmakers and the actor himself really make it work. There are also small roles here for some great character actors like William Sanderson, Ned Beatty, Rosanna DeSoto and Tom Bower.

The movie also benefits immensely from some impressive, and very earthy, imagery. We do get some of the sweeping widescreen shots that are typical of westerns, but so too do we get a lot of close ups, often from low angles, to visually underscore the importance of certain scenes. We see a lot of this with the titular character when he's alone with his horse, again tying back into giving him a somewhat larger than life persona in the picture. Nice lighting and very strong cinematography obviously boost the quality of any film, but it really is a nice looking picture that manages to provide impressive visuals without passing over into ‘style over substance' territory.

Production values are strong over all. This wasn't made with a massive budget but it still benefits from solid, believable costume work and an effective score from W. Michael Lewis with some help from Olmos himself.

The Blu-ray:


The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection properly framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer on a 50GB disc. With the feature using over 31GBs of space the movie has a pretty strong bit-rate and the transfer is free of any compression issues. Likewise, there's no obvious edge enhancement or noise reduction to complain about, a nice amount of natural looking film grain is present. Detail and texture are good, but the film has a soft look to it that was clearly part of the intended style that the filmmakers were going for. Still, it's easy to see in plenty of shots how much better this looks than it would have on a standard definition presentation. Colors look good, though the palette employed in the film is not the cheeriest and the movie is heavy on browns, greys and darker greens. Black levels are also fine and skin tones look good. No real complaints here, this is a nice effort on the part of Criterion.


The English language LPCM 1.0 track comes with optional subtitles provided in English only. Note that these subtitles do not translate the occasional lines that are spoken in Spanish, which is intentional. Quality of the mono track on the disc is quite strong. Dialogue is always clean and clear and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion. The sound effects are strong and the score sounds quite nice here as well, exhibiting more depth than you might expect it to.


Extras on the disc start off with an all new interview with actor and producer Edward James Olmos that runs twenty-eight minutes. Here he covers quite a bit of ground, including why he felt it was important to work on this project, the significance of the character that he plays in the movie, getting the film made without the help of a mainstream Hollywood studio and more. After that, we get a nineteen-minute interview with Chon A. Noriega, author of Shot In America: Television, The State And The Rise Of Chicano Cinema that is also exclusive to this release. Chon speaks about the importance of this film in the context of the doors that it opened up for Chicano filmmakers, the roots of the story that the film was based off of and its cultural significance, the quality of the film and the performances that it contains and how it tries, and succeeds, to do something different in the context of what people have come to expect from the western genre.

Also found on the disc is a twenty-three-minute piece that contains a cast and crew discussion that was recorded at a screening of the film in 2016. This piece features input from Olmos, director Robert M. Young, producer Moctesuma Esparza, cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos and cast members Bruce McGill, Tom Bower, Rosanna DeSoto and Pepe Serna. There are some interesting stories here about what it was like on set, getting the film made independently and how the different participants feel about the project decades after it was made.

Menus and chapter selection are also included on the disc. Inside the keepcase we find a color insert booklet that contains credits for the film and the Blu-ray release alongside an interesting and well-written essay by film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.

Final Thoughts: The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez is an excellent film. It's pointed examination of racism and its effects never feels heavy handed or takes away from the film's artistic merits or entertainment value, but the message here is a good one and the movie offers plenty of food for thought. The performances are excellent across the board, particularly from Olmos, and the direction and cinematography very strong. The Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection treats the film well, presenting it in very nice shape and with a nice array of extras. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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