Karl (Gary Busey) is on the run, making his way on horseback through the Texan wilderness after accidentally killing his brother-in-law in a fight. This has led his father-in-law (George Voskovec) to send his remaining sons to hunt Karl down, despite the farm boy's protestations, and now he is bathing his scratches after forcing a path through thorns. Suddenly he realises he is not alone, and looking around he sees a figure on horseback behind him: this is Barbarosa (Willie Nelson), also a man on the run, but he has been an outlaw since he was young and now he is middle-aged. Neither of them know it, but they will soon be firm friends...
The list of country and western stars who have tried to break into movies may not be enormously substantial, but when such artists do give acting a go, the results can be fairly interesting. Johnny Cash offered us the western A Gunfight, marking out the best way this kind of performer can find material to suit them, though Dolly Parton could easily have filled the role of a cowgirl and it's a shame she never did. Willie Nelson, however, only enjoyed one starring role of note, despite possibly being in more films than any country singer since Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, and that was Barbarosa.
It was far from a success in its day, which can be attributed to the fact that westerns were going way out of style in this period, but those who did see it were impressed. Another reason this did not catch on with the public could also have been that as a plot it comes across as exceedingly self-contained, so if you were not an aficionado of the genre then you might well find this hard to get into, and uninvolving in a way that more expansive works were not. However, if you were familiar with the touchstones - I hesitate to call them clichés - that William D. Wittliff drew upon for his script, then there was something satisfying about this.
Indeed, the film looks a lot like director Fred Schepisi had not so much been watching a lot of Sam Peckinpah movies for this tale of vendettas needlessly taking over people's lives, but a lot of spaghetti westerns instead, as that dusty, sweaty appearance could have come straight out of a European film in this style. Its look is one of its best aspects, with the sprawling Texan deserts and many Mexican faces among the cast lending an authenticity to what could have been an indulgent, Silverado type of mythmaking, and myth exploiting for that matter. That's not to say this does not have the feel of a legend, as after all the title character has become the talk of the folks who live in the area thanks to his apparent invincibility.
It grows close to a running joke that Barbarosa escapes death as many times as he does, with one memorable scene having him shot dead by a bandit keen to add a more famous notch on his belt than the usual nobodies he guns down for sport and spite. Karl is in the process of burying him when Barbarosa's eyes open and he announces that it's just a flesh wound, promptly climbs out of his premature grave and hides until night falls, then the bandit wakes up to find himself buried in the sand up to his neck - another tale to be told around the campfire by awed storytellers. But for all the amusement the filmmakers have with building up a legend, the seriousness of both Karl and Barbarosa's vendettas is not glossed over, and the ultimate tragedy of wasting your life getting your own back when you should have been enjoying your time is deeply felt. Not quite as good as it could have been, then, but Busey and Nelson make a fine double act. Music by Bruce Smeaton.