Sunday, March 10, 2013


Gary Cooper plays Confederate Colonel Benjamin Trane who lost everything when the North defeated the South.  Burt Lancaster is cast as an unscrupulous soldier-of-fortune named Joe Erin who would kill you for the gold in your teeth.  These polar opposites encounter each other in rugged Mexico when Ben’s horse pulls up lame.  Coop inspects two horses and runs into Joe holding a Winchester rifle.  Joe offers to sell the Colonel one of the horses for $100 in gold.  Reluctantly, Ben shells out the coins.  No sooner has he paid Joe than a troop of French cavalry appear on the horizon.  Joe leaps aboard his horse and skedaddles.  Coop lights out after Joe on horseback.  He is surprised when the leader of the cavalry slings lead his way.  The Colonel rears up his horse and returns fire.  He is such an excellent shot that  his bullet knocks the revolver out of the leader’s fist.  Joe explains moments later that the leader wanted to plug him because he is riding his horse.  Talk about a way to start a friendship!  

Before director Robert Aldrich revolutionized World War II movies with “The Dirty Dozen,” he was revolutionizing westerns with “Vera Cruz.”  This lean, mean, United Artists oater clocks in at a trim 93 minutes without squandering a single second along the way with co-star Cesar Romeo, Denise Darcel, and George Macready as Emperor Maximillian.  Burt Lancaster’s gang of mercenaries constitutes a rogue’s gallery of heavies, including Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Charles Bronson, Jack Lambert, while Henry Brandon playing an up-tight, arrogant European officer in green attire.  “Fistful of Dollars” director Sergio Leone idolized this horse opera along with John Sturges’ classic “The Magnificent Seven.”  These two excellent westerns with their south of the border setting served as prototypes for Spaghetti westerns.  Leone even got to work with Aldritch briefly before he got sacked.  Nevertheless, while this Harold Hecht production provides a milestone in the eventual rise of the Spaghetti western, it exerted an effect on all other westerns lensed in Mexico after its release.  Reportedly, Mexican abhorred this sagebrusher, and in one instance, an audience removed their seats from the floor at hurled them at the movie screen in contempt of the image that “Vera Cruz” created about Mexico.  After “Vera Cruz,” American westerns had to suffer the interference of Mexican censors on the set.  John Sturges had to contend with these censors when he produced “The Magnificent Seven.”  Despite all its notoriety, “Vera Cruz” ranks as one of the greatest studio westerns released during the 1950s, and Robert Aldritch’s finest western to boot!

“Vera Cruz” (**** OUT OF ****) opens with scenic long shots of Mexico.  A preface appears over this shots.  “As the American Civil War ended, another war was just beginning.  The Mexican people were struggled to rid themselves of their foreign emperor—Maximilian.  Into this fight rode a handful of Americans—ex-soldiers, adventurers, criminals—all bent on gain.  They drifted south in small groups.  And some came alone.”  At this point, we see Gary Cooper ride his horse into the shot.  He discovers his mount is lame and goes in search of a suitable replacement.  Eventually, the Colonel and Joe form an uneasy alliance.  Initially, they want to work for the Emperor under the supervision of Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romeo of “Batman”) with the lovely but treacherous Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel of “Tarzan and the Slave Girl”) running interference.  Joe goes after her but he doesn’t let her beauty undermine his greed.   

Meanwhile, the Colonel grows fond of a Juarista bombshell, Nina (Sara Montiel of “Casablanca, Nest of Spies”), who is as light fingered as she is sweet.  Our protagonists and their gunmen follow the Marquis to Mexico City and marvel at the Emperor's palace.  Of course, most of the hardware is wrong.  The Colonel and Joe wield 1973 Colt revolvers.  Anyway, Ben and Joe display their considerable expertise with skills with their Winchester repeating rifles.  Gimlet-eyed Joe blasts the spears off the top of the French lancers poles.  The Colonel shoots the flames out of the smudge pots used as supplemental lighting.  The imperialist Emperor Maximillian (George Macready of "Coroner Creek) and Labordere enlist them to act as an escort for Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel of "Tarzan and the Slave Girl") for her trip to Vera Cruz.   Maximilian promises to pay them the sum of $25-hundred.  Naturally, Maximillian and Labordere have no intention of paying them. 

During the journey on the first day, Ben and Joe both notice the deep wheel ruts that the carriage hauling the countess makes at a river crossing. Later, after they have put up for the evening, Ben and Joe discover a concealed compartment in the floor of the coach that yields a small fortune in gold. "Each of one of those six boxes contains a half-million dollars in gold," Countess Duvarre informs them after she finds them in the stable with the wagon. She explains that the gold will be used to hire mercenaries. It is important to notice that the anti-heroic Lancaster hero has changed out of his black shirt into a white shirt when they embark on escort duty. Symbolically, this means that Joe is showing a little goodness. Later, when he betrays Ben, and they shoot it out with predictable results, Joe is dressed in solid black from head to toe. Anyway, the three of them plot to steal the gold and share it. Meanwhile, the Juaristas are shadowing their every move. Eventually, a pretty Juarista, Nina (Sara Montiel of "Run of the Arrow"), makes friends with Ben. Ben decides that he must switch sides and convinces Joe to make the change.

Lancaster's own company, Hecht-Lancaster Productions, produced "Vera Cruz" on a $1.7 million budget. Despite uniformly negative reviews, "Vera Cruz" coined more than $11 million worldwide. The amorality of the characters, especially Lancaster's lascivious villain, along with the surfeit of violence, makes this abrasive western a prototype for Spaghetti westerns. It is amazing that some of the violence survived the Production Code Administration censors, particularly when Joe kills a helpless lancer with his own lance. Cooper and a charismatic Lancaster make a strong pair of heroes who cannot trust each other. Aldrich directed flawlessly, and this lively Technicolor horse opera bristles with both intrigue and excitement.