Each Monday, I am sharing reviews of Westerns I studied to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.

Week One: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Grey Owl, and Jubal


The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

This is my second viewing of Ballad, which means more to me now than it ever did before. Not only is it the biggest reference and influence for making my Texas Red project, the story resonates to this 33 year old when it couldn’t quite do so for my early twenties self.

Robert M. Young, along with his collaborators, crafted a masterpiece that it as once thrilling, haunting, and insightful. Though this movie has a “point” to make, it does so through character and narrative in a nuanced way. It is not overbearing. It allows us as the audience to find the message.

I highly recommend watching the Olmos interview and the panel discussion on the Criterion DVD. These features further enhance the film experience. I will be watching this film many more times.

Grey Owl

Pierce Brosnan was right when he defended this film in its botched theatrical release. It isn’t perfect by any means but there are a lot of good things here.

I always hesitated to cue this up with the notion that Brosnan as a Native American would be quite cheesy. Sometimes a movie cover leads to the wrong impression. I did not know this film was about an impersonator! And I also didn’t know it was a true story.

The film is in fact cheesy at moments but not because of Brosnan, who delivers one of his best performances here. I especially like his ferocious moments, dragging a helpless victim of nature’s cold back to his cabin to save her life. This victim, the female lead and love interest in the story, may be its weakest element. Can one performance spoil a whole movie? Almost. I don’t say this to be mean to the actress; it’s a casting mistake and a big one that kills the tone of many scenes.

Nevertheless, this movie did not get the attention it deserved upon release. Attenborough was such a traditional filmmaker. During his peak years, he was perhaps overrated but now I have a feeling that his work is moving into under-appreciation, especially the less heralded pieces in it.


Delmer Daves is now on my list of Western filmmaker to focus on in my preparation. As noted in the Kent Jones Criterion essay (worth-reading), Daves made nine Westerns between 1950 and 1959.

This is a good one, a very good one. I love the simplicity of the film, especially in its first half. The set up is all psychological and emotional, all about the relationships and character dynamics. That’s the way I like to work and hope to keep tuning this approach to one day approach Daves’ level of craft.

Also, the build up is necessary for the thrilling conclusion. The way Daves shoots action (in this and 3:10 to Yuma) is quite effective. It happens very quickly, not confusing like modern action but brisk, over in a few seconds. I think of the wonderful two moments when Bronson throws Ford the gun or when Ford leaps from the corral fence onto his horse. It’s truly exhilarating.

The one aspect of the film that falls a little short is the “villain”. I like Steiger but his characterization is too much. His Southern accent doesn’t work for me and I think this movie deserved a more subtle, calculating antagonist. If he is Iago (as suggested by Kent’s essay), he is the most obvious and blustering Iago.

Though it does not pack the same power as his 3:10 to Yuma masterwork, Jubal is a Western that should be at the top of anyone’s watch list.

-Travis Mills

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