Barbarosa (1982): Schepisi Solid Western, Starring Willie Nelson and Gary Busey

Over the past three decades, Aussie Fred Schepisi has been one of the most gifted directors working today. Yet relatively speaking few people have seen his work, in or out of the U.S., and fewer recognize his name. This may be a function of the unconventional and challenging movies he has made, beginning with “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” and continuing with “Iceman,” “Plenty,” “A Cry in the Dark.”

In 1982, he directed his first American feature, “Barbarosa,” a solidly vibrant Western co-starring the then popular country singer Willie Nelson and Gary Busey, fresh off from receiving a Best Actor Oscar nod for “The Buddy Holy Story.”

A buddy-buddy tale, with serio-comedic touches, it features Nelson as the legendary outlaw, and Busey as Karl, his country-bumpkin buddy.

Karl Westover, a pre-Civil War Texas farm boy who accidentally kills his brother-in-law, must flee to Mexico. During his flight, he meets the outlaw Barbarosa, shows him how to find water, make a fire, and catch an armadillo for supper.

Karl arrives in a small pueblo, where he enjoys his first good meal and courts a girl, when Barbarosa bursts in and robs at gunpoint. Filling his sombrero with loot, Barbarosa instructs Karl to gather the rest.  Karl and Barbarosa then ride together for the winter, with Karl learning about  the life of an outlaw adventurer.

The screenplay was written by William D. Wittliff, who later gained acclaim for his adaptation of “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry (also author of “The Last Picture Show” and “Brokeback Mountain”).

The acting of Nelson as the free-spirited outlaw, who shows strong screen presence even when he doesn’t talk, was superb.

However, despite artistic merits, skillful direction by Schepisi, and critical support from mainstream reviewers, “Barbarosa” was a commercial failure, earning less than $2 million at the box-office.

Credits

Running time: 90 Minutes
Directed By: Fred Schepisi
Released; February 19, 1982.
DVD: March 18, 2003