VERA CRUZ/1954/BURT LANCASTER
1954/Director: Robert Aldrich/ Writers: Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb
Cast: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sara Montiel, George Macready, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson (as Charles Buchinsky)
I love a good Western and some of my favorites types of Westerns have to be what I call the Mexican Westerns. These sorts of Westerns become popular during the sixties and typically featured mercenary types from America who travel into Mexico for purposes that usually revolve around nothing more than money and gold. The backdrop is one of the many periods of revolution in Mexico during the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. Typically there is some sort of transformation in the motives of the mercenaries towards the end of the film away from gold and wealth to some sort of cause, or to something the men once believed in before life made them cynical and ruthless. The best examples are films like The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven and The Professionals. One could also include the handful of legendary and influential Westerns by Sergio Leone and many other Spaghetti or Italian-Westrns as well some lone cowboy films – as opposed to a band of mercenaries –like Two Mules for Sister Sara with Clint Eastwood and Valdez is Coming with Burt Lancaster. While 1954’s Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charolette, The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix) film Vera Cruz is not as violent or cynical as Sam Peckinpah’s classic of slow motion blood spatter it can still regarded as a transitional Western and the first of the Mexican Westerns of the sixties. The action takes place during the period of Mexican revolt against the French during the brief and troubled reign of Emperor Maximillian. Seems Austrian born Maxillian was none to keen on heading off to Mexico to manage the situation there but its hard to say no to repeated requests by Napoleon III. And he had good reasons for reservations since his short reign was marked by constant revolt by the rebels led by Benito Jaurez (the Jauristas) and his eventual overthrow and execution by firing squad. Most of these films do not try to historical dramas and use the backdrop of Meixico’s civil unrest for the conflicts between the gringo fortune seekers and whoever stands in the way of their loot and booty.
The film stars Hollywood legends Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster – who made the film under his production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster – in what is almost a, as some reviewers note – a buddy film. I would go along with this to a degree but it drifts away from the buddy film formula towards the end. Typically a buddy film has the two buddies at odds with each other during the first half of the film and then it has them bond or come together towards the end. The buddy situation in Vera Cruz is a little more of the opposite storyline I feel. Cooper plays Ben Trane, a former Confederate Colonel who lost everything he had after the Civil War. By everything I mean, of course, his convictions and beliefs as well as his southern mansion and place in society. Trane drifts south of border in hopes of selling his ‘skills’ to the highest bidder in the conflict there between Mexico and France. Along the way he runs into the black clad outlaw Joe Erin whose character is played by Lancaster with not only his patented charm and comedy but also with an uncommon streak of sadism and cruelty. His flashing wide smile is usually followed with some cowpoke being killed or a woman getting slapped around. Cooper wanted his character Ben Trane’s character toned down in the scoundrel department from the way his was originally written and Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht did all they good to oblige the star. This even included giving Cooper star billing over Lancaster. Though it was Lancaster’s production company he had no issues with being cast under Cooper. Erin’s character is distinctly bad and untrustworthy from the beginning to the end, while Ben Trane never seems to be all that bad though he is as greedy and self-serving as Joe Erin. Trane’s sudden complete turnaround at the very end of the film is not unexpected but is still a little inconsistent with his earlier motives and actions. Erin’s ruthlessness was a little too much for the critics of 1954 and are little out there even by today’s standards, which is way the film stands apart from some of the other Westerns of the period which were still mostly patterned after the old ‘white hat vs. black hat’ films of the 30’s and 50’s. In one scene in order to escape capture by the Juaristas Erin has some of his men take some children into a mission and threatens to kill them unless he and his men are set free. Cesar Romero’s character, the Marquis Henri de Labordere, makes a questioned comment to Ben Trane about what a great bluff it was, but both men seem a little relieved the rebel leader decided not to test Joe Erin.
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It is also during this sequence that Erin and Trane show that their loyalties go to the highest bidders and the men select to go into the employment of the Emperor Maximillian (George Macready) instead of the Jauristas rebels, led by General Ramirez, who only offer fighting for a just cause as payment. It is not long before double crosses abound and one never knows who is up to what but it clear what the motives are: about four million on gold hidden in the bottom of the coach of the Countess Maria Duvarre (Denise Darcel) the two mercenaries are hired to escort to the port city of Vera Cruz. The other female lead that gets into the mix along the way is Nina – affectionately called ‘Papayas’ for a coupe obvious reasons – played by Sara (Sarita) Montiel. Montiel seemed to not get on Gary Cooper’s better said he made remarks about her smell and unkempt hair though their characters share some sparks on the screen. Also in the cast are Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Jack Elam. One story has it that one day Borgnine and Bronson rode into town for cigarettes on their horses in full costume and were stopped by Fedarales who mistook them for bandits and held them at gunpoint until the matter was cleared up. The film was the first motion picture shot in Superscope, an early and unsuccessful competitor to Cinemascope, and filmed in grand Technicolor. I have actually read bad criticisms about the way the film looks but it looks just fine. To be hoest some of cinematographer great Ernest Laszlo’s fine shots seemed muddled and grainy and it does, as I have read, seem to be a matter of the then new post-production – rather than photographic process – Superscope process. But over all there are more fine moments than grainy ones. I also read harsh reviews of the films violence, stereotyping of Mexicans and misogyny but as far as The Uranium Café goes those are all recommendations. The Mexican government seemed very upset with the way the Mexican characters were presented in the film and future Hollywood productions shot in Mexico had a list of rules to abide by. Actually I do not see what the problems are since the American fortune seekers and the European colonizers are portrayed in the worst light and the Jauristas are noble and honest peasants who are fighting for a just cause. One complaint seemed to be that the clothes the peasants wore looked too dirty. 1960’s The Magnificent Seven had the peasants wearing sparkling white rebel pajamas the way poor, peasant Mexican rebels actually did I guess.
The look of the film and some of the story motifs would certainly appear again in the anti-hero Westerns of the sixties but for a time Vera Cruz would be the odd puppy in the still safe Westerns of the fifties. There is even a Gatlin Gun sequence though not as well done and brutal as the one The Wild Bunch. The inevitable show down between Ben Trane and Joe Erin was a little rushed and anti-climatic I felt. And as in the case of many films of the time, horror, Westerns, crime dramas etc., after the climatic scene the film typically ended a bit too quickly. Compare the ending here to the slightly more drawn out conclusions of The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the drama continues long past the last action scene. But it is not that big a deal and the film is a good western epic if you like that sort of thing. Lancaster would go on to play in a few more Mexican Western epics like The Professionals and Valdez is Coming. He was always one of my favorite actors and it is fun to watch him be so bad in this one.