Barbarosa (1982) was the first feature to be made in America by any of the key figures of the Australian film “renaissance” of the 1970s. It sits alongside the initial American films of Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford and even Peter Weir – Mrs. Soffel (1984), Tender Mercies (1983), and Witness (1985), respectively – as an attempt to grapple with the peculiarities of the American landscape, character, community and its relation to specific conceptions of individualism. It came at the end of a frustrating period in Schepisi’s early American career that was littered with false-starts, partially developed projects, and films that were taken out of his hands – such as Raggedy Man (Jack Fisk, 1981), a film that shares its screenwriter with Barbarosa – just prior to production. It was also a period in which Schepisi started to come to terms with the pragmatics of international filmmaking, a set of lessons and experiences that have marked his subsequent, tenacious career as both a jobbing director – he has taken over a number of projects such as Mr. Baseball (1992) and Fierce Creatures (1997) – and a filmmaker whose work displays an intermittently consistent thematic and visual style.
Some critics have discussed Barbarosa as a natural continuation of Schepisi’s Australian films’ preoccupation with desolate and inhospitable landscapes, the theme of the family and what maintains it, and the figure of the outsider and how they relate to particular conceptions and formations of community, but it is also something of a departure, a cleaner and more simplified attempt to tell a mythic story and to explore what sustains it. It is true that some connections can productively be made to his preceding film, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), but Barbarosa is a work more deeply shrouded in myth and cloaked in the elemental functions and components of its genre: the Western. Although some commentators have linked these two films through this genre, Schepisi has been more skeptical about trying to retrofit Jimmie Blacksmith to this most American of forms (though one of its most internationally influential and adapted). He has even been a little resistant to seeing much connection between Barbarosa and the history of the genre, and definitively downplayed any significant intertextual relationship to the classical (he has expressed an antipathy towards the work of John Ford, for instance (1)) or post-classical Western. It is this apparent lack of “baggage” that may have attracted the film’s producers to Schepisi and his long-term Australian collaborators – cinematographer Ian Baker and composer Bruce Smeaton – in the first place – the conventional and stripped-back nature of the proposed film requiring a fresh set of eyes. This quality is also reflected in the comments of several critics of the time who express surprise that an Australian might have breathed new life back into a moribund genre: “Schepisi’s Barbarosa is so thoroughly entertaining and good-hearted that it comes as something of a shock to realise that it’s not only the best Western in years, it’s virtually the only Western in years. The Western hasn’t just declined and fallen, it’s almost disappeared.” (2) In fact, despite some notable exceptions (3), the film’s critical reception in America was mostly very accepting and positive, a response that was less characteristic of its harsher Australian reception (4).
Barbarosa is also a film profoundly marked by the impact and contribution of its producer-screenwriter (William D. Wittliff) and producer-stars (Willie Nelson and the combative Gary Busey). It is one of a series of projects that Schepisi came to after much of the pre-production had been completed and the “package” – he certainly would have known he was in America once such terms were bandied about – mostly finalised. In some ways it is the kind of “expected” film – despite outmoded claims about the Americanness of its genre – that Schepisi may have been trying to avoid as his first US production: “I hadn’t intended, though, to do another picture in the country, in the outback, and I did not want to do another picture with basically men. I wanted to be in a studio full of women.” (5) The film arrives at a curious moment – a very brief one – when Nelson was something of a film star and regional filmmaking could find some purchase in Hollywood. Barbarosa is very much a Texas film. Schepisi was insistent on filming in relatively remote locations in Southern Texas and both actors were closely associated with the Lone Star state (the stars’ relationship was forged when Busey played in Nelson’s band). It was also this geographic connection that proved problematic when the film was finally released: the studio largely dumping it in the Southern states before attempting to garner critical support in places like New York where its subtler qualities may have been more readily recognised.
But Barbarosa is also a film that is somewhat out of time. Wittliff initially wrote his screenplay – concerning a mythic, almost supernatural figure (Barbarosa) who becomes an outcast from the Mexican family he marries into and gradually decimates – in the early 1970s, and its self-conscious approach to the mythology of the West seems to more readily belong to the cinema of this earlier era (a moment when an ordinary looking, middle-aged figure like Nelson could have had a more sustained film career). But it is also fascinating in terms of the various personalities involved and their response to this “collaborative” process. Schepisi has been complimentary about the performances of both Nelson and Busey, but holds very contrastive views of their professionalism and approach to the process of collaboration. Nelson is obviously placed at the centre of the film, his unemotive style central to its underlying feeling of resignation, weariness and repetition. This aspect of Nelson’s character and performance is apparent from his very first appearance: standing unmoved as his dogged pursuer fires a bullet that creases his cheek. Nelson’s “outlaw” and outsider status as a legend of country music, as well as his iconic form, are also central to any understanding of the film – there is a mythic quality to the storytelling here that can be usefully compared to his seminal 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger. But unlike the one or two other Nelson star vehicles of this time, his distinctive croon is found nowhere on the soundtrack. Busey was a much different and more troubling proposition. Schepisi has contrasted the stoicism and congeniality of Nelson with the uncooperativeness of his co-star: “Gary Busey is a very instinctive actor who arrives at the point of performance by creating aggravation in everybody” (6). Although this made the shoot quite difficult at times – and Schepisi has suggested that it undermined the filming process – it does help clearly differentiate the two characters and clearly divides them off from the communal focus of much of the rest of the film.
The critical fate of Barbarosa is a curious one. Opinion seems split between those critics who see the film as an interesting and illuminating variation on the Western and those who view it as overly self-conscious sign of its decline (or complete collapse if you take Andrew Sarris’ word for it) (7). It was also, surprisingly, a late staging ground for the contrastive views and approaches of Sarris and Pauline Kael (8). Although hardly a significant object of contention – they never refer to each other’s take on the film – their views are, nevertheless, markedly divergent. Kael regards the film as the best Western she has seen in years – a view she shares with Janet Maslin (9) – and praises numerous elements such as Schepisi’s direction and the use of widescreen (she had also been a great supporter of Jimmie Blacksmith), Nelson’s iconic presence (she bizarrely called him “probably the most acceptable noble American in modern movies”(10)), the lyrical music of Bruce Smeaton, and Wittliff’s wordy and self-consciously mythic (but not otherwise self-conscious) script. In contrast, Sarris damns the film’s datedness, its “disconcerting blend of tall-tale anthropology and poker-faced absurdism”, and its qualities as a “mummified” and arid demystification of “the conventions of the [Western] genre” (11). He is also scathing about Schepisi’s talents in general, lambasting him “a ridiculously overrated director” (12). Sarris’ approach can tell us something about the fate of Schepisi’s film: released in the wake of the massive critical and commercial failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), as well as the financial bankruptcy of its original distributor, it struggled to find an audience in America and elsewhere in the world (it had very short releases in only a few Australian cities, for example). But it is also a film that has maintained a small cult reputation and a place within the intermittent and sputtering history of the Western in the post-classical era. Although I can certainly understand some of Sarris’ criticisms – Barbarosa is hardly a full-blooded Western or one that develops particularly sophisticated ideas about the place of mythic figures in communal life or American (or Mexican) society – he does not grant Schepisi’s film enough credit for its very real qualities and pleasures.
The film’s focus on the relation between its human figures and the landscape, and these figures themselves as landscapes in their own right (for a beautifully composed widescreen Western it is peculiarly preoccupied with a close-up view of its protagonists, particularly the craggy vistas offered by Nelson’s visage), is one of its most remarkable qualities. Although it has been noted that the film reaffirms Schepisi’s concern with landscape as a hostile, alienating environment populated by outsider figures, the character of Barbarosa actually merges into and fuses with this environment and provides a necessary counterpoint for the communities who only gingerly venture out into it (mostly in attempts to kill the title character and his young protégé). In this regard, Barbarosa becomes a more organic, “indigenous”, ghostlike figure – inseparable from this environment – than he might first appear. This gives him a curious and even contradictory position in relation to the conventional structure of the genre (and its placement of indigenous characters).
The film’s locations, mostly the somewhat remote Big Ben National Park in Southern Texas, are both iconoclastic – the filmmakers’ deliberately sought out places seldom used in the movies – and easily readable as emblematic, elemental Western locations (Busey falls into the Rio Grande at one point and the film parlays the common movement of outsider figures across the border between Mexico and the United States). But Schepisi is not a self-consciously cine-literate filmmaker, so his use of locations, actors and situations (such as the combination of weary veteran and fresh-faced protégé) has a cleanness that is both refreshing and a little naïve. This is particularly problematic in those moments that rely upon ethnic stereotyping or narrative developments that belong to the most clichéd realms of the genre. Whereas Sergio Leone would cloak these elements within a self-consciously baroque style and a heightened quotational form, Schepisi plays them significantly straighter. Even the use of such veteran actors as Gilbert Roland – whose career dates back to the early 1920s – holds little resonance beyond what they bring to the screen (quite a lot, at it happens, in Roland’s case). As in a film like the much more cynical and historically revisionist Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman, 1976), Schepisi’s characters become fully aware of and trapped within the iconic and mythic roles they are required to play. Although the film does insist upon the flesh-and blood qualities of these mythic figures – there is an absurdity and self-consciousness, at times, that finds a parallel in the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – and their expressive use of colloquial language, it also pushes them to a point of abstraction. It is this self-conscious recognition of the Western genre, and the need of communities to tell stories about themselves that rely upon the symbiotic relation of the inside and outside, the American and the Mexican, the immigrant and the indigenous, life and death, linearity and repetition, good and bad, that draws Kael to Schepisi’s film. It is precisely these qualities of “obviousness” and revisionism that pall for Sarris.
Barbarosa is surprisingly overt in representing and narrating such elements. At one point Barbarosa and Karl (Busey) stumble upon a small settlement where a local musician is transforming their recent exploits into the mythic form of a ballad. The nascent form he takes in the initial telling of this legend disappoints Karl and Barbarosa is wearied by the necessary coda that sings of his inevitable and necessary death. This sequence bears comparison with similar moments in the various films telling the stories of Jesse James or Billy the Kid and their almost immediate transformation into the stuff of legend. But whereas this common trope normally relies upon a consciousness of the mythology of the West and its importance to the formation of modern American identity and society – it is a means of narrativising these conflicts and contradictions, and placing them in the past – Barbarosa corrals it within a more fundamental, universal and archaic framework (it is also more focused upon the Mexican experience than is common). In films like I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949), The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray, 1957), The Left Handed Gun (Arthur Penn, 1958) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007), the transformation of the criminal act into legend is seen as symptomatic of the emergence of modern popular culture and its attendant industrial machinery, a process that occurs virtually simultaneously with the events and characters it acts to represent (these films often feature a ballad singer, writer or journalist who immediately condenses and mythologises events). Although Barbarosa becomes a story that is presented through the cinema, the legend it contains is largely restricted to the experience and existence of a small, close-knit family community, one that dramatises the incestuous relationship between the Mexican locals and the American. It also suggests the necessary and symbiotic connection between the small community and the larger-than-life antagonists that threaten its existence. Although this theme would suggest an epic scope, Barbarosa is a small, intimate work that functions best in its moments of quiet, detail and small observation. As Terrence Rafferty eloquently argues: “Barbarosa is full of wandering, of sudden departures and unexpected returns, movements that seem as capricious as the light on the desert – but all within a fixed frame, a sharply limited physical and psychological geography; the film is all repetitions, variations, echoes.” (13)
After Barbarosa, Schepisi moved on to make a series of films that further explored the relation of outsiders to a particular community or environment. These films covered the terrains of fantasy (Iceman, 1984), post-war disillusionment, British privilege and the class system (Plenty, 1985), retellings of classic narratives (Roxanne, 1987), and the prejudices of contemporary Australian society and its media (Evil Angels, 1988). Although several of these films develop a significantly more complex portrait of community, morality and the ethics and costs of individualism, Barbarosa remains an important step in Schepisi’s career. Although an obviously less ambitious work than the cool and distanced Plenty or the passionate and partisan Evil Angels, it is one of the director’s most complete, articulate and resonant works. Each of its elements – such as Smeaton’s expressive score containing an idiosyncratic combination of conventional and ethno-musicological cues – combine to create a wonderfully integrated and symbolically rich classical post-classical Western.
- Schepisi interviewed in Sue Mathews, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors About the Australian Film Revival, Penguin, Australia, 1984, p. 57.
- Vincent Canby, “Can an Australian Revive the Western?”, Examiner 11 September 1982. This article first appeared in the New York Times.
- See Andrew Sarris’ damning review of the film in the Village Voice 3 August 1982. At one point he claims “Barbarosa is thus becalmed in the vast wasteland between John Ford and Monty Python”.
- Although well-reviewed by such writers as Stuart Cunningham (Filmnews) and Barrie Pattison (Cinema Papers), the film received a hostile or disenchanted reception from such mainstream critics as Neil Jillett, John Hindle, Ivan Hutchinson and Keith Connolly (who was a little more measured in his response). See Jillett, “Handsome, Boring Western”, The Age 30 September 1982; Hindle, “Schepisi in the Shadows”, National Times 26 September 1982; Hutchinson, “The Legend Just Roams Along”, The Sun 23 September 1982; Connolly, “The Western Went Thataway?”, The Herald 23 September 1982.
- Schepisi in Mathews, p. 49.
- Schepisi in Mathews, p. 52.
- Andrew Sarris, “Death of the Gunfighters”, Film Comment vol. 18, no. 2, March-April 1982, pp. 40-42. Sarris’ article even includes the following subheading: “Fred Schepisi Writes ‘The End’ to the Western”.
- Pauline Kael, “Texans”, Taking it All in: Film Writings 1980-1983, Arrow Books, London, 1987.
- Janet Maslin, “Film: Barbarosa, Australian-Directed Western”, New York Times 23 September 1982.
- Kael, p. 371.
- Sarris, “Death of the Gunfighters”, p. 41.
- Sarris, “Death of the Gunfighters”, p. 41.
- Terrence Rafferty, “Barbarosa”, Film Quarterly vol. 36, no. 2, Winter 1982-83, p. 53.