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DVD SAVANT

VERA CRUZ


Vera Cruz
MGM Home Entertainment
1954 / Color / 1:85 (adapted SuperScope)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Denise Darcel, Morris Ankrum, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson), Ernest Borgnine. Jack Elam, Henry Brandon, Archie Savage, Jack Lambert
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo
Production Designer Alfred Ybarra
Film Editor Alan Crosland Jr.
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Writing credits Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb from a story by Borden Chase
Produced by Harold Hecht, James Hill Burt Lancaster
Directed by Robert Aldrich

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Expanded from a shorter Savant essay
Intervention and the American Western.

A rip-roaring, cynical and slighty sadistic Western adventure with a subversive political dimension, Vera Cruz boasts great performances from big stars, a gallery of up'n coming talent and frenzied direction from Robert Aldrich making his first big-budget movie. It was also the first movie in SuperScope, and by virtue of its ruthless, mercenary attitude is a major forerunner of the Italian Spaghetti Westerns which came a decade later.

Synopsis:

At the conclusion of the Civil War, dispossessed and defeated Southerner Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) drifts into Mexico along with dozens of freebooting Americans looking for a way to earn, connive or steal big money in the civil war between the French legionnaires of Maximillian (George Macready) and the revolutionary Juaristas. Also looking for trouble is the charismatic but incredibly untrustworthy Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), who leads a group of n'er-do-wells hoping to enlist as killers for the corrupt Emperor. Impressing the French with a demonstration of Yankee firepower literally in the Halls of Montezuma, they hire on to escort a Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to the Carribean port of Vera Cruz under the leadership of the grinning Marquis de Labordere (Cesar Romero). Things get dicey when a triple-cross of unfaithful allies develops between the adventurers, their French employers and the Juarista rebels. The revolutionaries have positioned a sexy spy in the caravan, Nina (Sarita Montiel), whose exact mission is unclear.

Besides being a remarkably 80's - style 'buddy' picture, Vera Cruz is astonishingly cynical for 1954. Not only do Ben Trane and Jo Erin upstage one another with more stylish double-crosses than the battling birds of Tex Avery's What's Buzzin' Buzzard?, Lancaster's psychotic joy for killing equals the amorality of the mayhem in the later Sergio Leone westerns. His baiting of the luckless Charlie, only to gun him down with a sneaky, showoff circus trick shot ("Anyone else string with Charlie?") is actually slimier and more funny than any of Clint Eastwood's casual killings. One slaying, showing only Lancaster's self-satisfied face as he rams a lance through the neck of unlucky 'little tin soldier' Henry Brandon, is so gruesome by implication, it almost hurts to watch. One wonders how Aldrich got away with this kind of savagery, as much as the dialog where Lancaster clearly says, "Well, I'll be a son of a bitch!"

Vera Cruz can boast a great cast. Lancaster is fall-down funny and a little disturbing at the same time. There's a hint of parody in the way he grins at the camera like The Crimson Pirate. At one point Lancaster even says that he 'Always wanted to be a sailor.' But he's still a sick, charming rattlesnake. Gary Cooper is slightly less effective, perhaps because the story never makes up its mind about his character. Ben Trane is written as Jo Erin's treacherous equal and his third-act redemption is sketchy to the point of being an afterthought, or perhaps a concession to the star's demands. The ending is particularly strange in that both the rising music and parallel cutting between Coop and Sarita Montiel indicate that they're heading for a fade-out clinch. But the last shot shows Ben Trane walking totally alone as if Sarita were reacting in a different dimension. Maybe she was, if her closeup was shot after the fact. 5

Sarita Montiel is 'introduced' to American audiences, an advent that didn't take, as Sam Fuller introduced her again a year later in his Run of the Arrow. She's not much in her short-lived American career but is terrific in her Mexican movies as a singer and comedienne and worth haunting Spanish-language movie channels to find. Here she's given the name 'papayas' for obvious reasons, and a peasant blouse to wear that helps explain the gag further.

Seeing Ernest Borgnine just a year before his Marty Oscar win is very gratifying. This was one of his last bit roles before the bigtime. It's interesting to note that in 1954, even after getting a lot of attention for his great work in From Here to Eternity, Borgnine was back with a cowboy hat in this and Johnny Guitar playing another moronic second string baddie. Charles Bronson shows a lot less potential but certainly has the right look. Jack Elam and Jack Lambert (the sad sack 'Charlie') both showed up again for Aldrich as Carl Evello's loathsome gunsels in Kiss Me Deadly.

This was one of Hollywood's first major pictures to be fully produced in Mexico, and except for Montiel, all the Mexicans with dialogue are played by Anglos. Cesar Romero's sublime villain is actually a Frenchman, but everyone's favorite military monster-fighter Morris Ankrum is the Juarista General Ramirez - he's okay, but we keep expecting him to announce that Kronos is coming.

Mexican Movie Realities

Working on a DVD docu for The Magnificent Seven, Savant learned a lot of facts about shooting in Mexico: The Mag Seven company had to put up with a lot of grief that was blamed on Vera Cruz's treatment of Mexicans on and off the screen. If the same familiar Mexican actors appear as the bandidos in every Western you see from Blowin' Wild to The Wild Bunch, there's a good reason, the same reason that the same 30 actors seem to show up in Hammer films, or Toho movies. It was a very small film community in Mexico, licensed by the government, and to even be in the movies at the time you practically had to be a relative or have close personal contact with some big name like Pedro Armendariz or Emilio Fernández - it's no accident that The Wild Bunch has at least four Mexican directors playing roles.

Rules also dictated that there be a Mexican director hired too, even though he'd probably do nothing more than show up for a photo op. This is not racketeering but simple protectionism against a Hollywood that likes nothing better than to move in and throw its weight around. These days, if Yankee companies want the scenery, the authenticity and the superlative horsemanship of the Mexicans, they pay for it. By all accounts Vera Cruz was considered an insult because it advanced the already firm 'Pancho Villa' stereotype: Semi-childlike but treacherous peasants whose main function is to die by the hundreds at the hands of über-mensch gringoes. And reducing their elegant superstar Sarita Montiel to a pair of papayas bouncing on the back of a buckboard didn't make us any friends!

A director with a message.

Vera Cruz shows Robert Aldrich at his subversive best. It played right in the Eisenhower years of CIA 'adventurism' in Central America, and the director has a field day showing interloping imperialist Maximillian as a slightly depraved schemer in contrast to his deification in William Dieterle's Juarez. One can't help thinking that the director was expressing his own radical outrage when he has moral icon Cooper participate in such unsavory deeds as holding innocent children as hostages.   2 Outgunned by Colonel Fielding's, I mean, General Ramirez' troops, Lancaster acknowledges that his gang can't fight its way out, "But they can stop an awful lot of little kids from growin' up, amigo." Ramirez backs down because it's clear that Lancaster's action is no bluff; In one fell swoop Aldrich shows his American 'adventurers' behaving with a ruthlessness usually reserved for depictions of Nazis. Since the French are presented as greedy murderous parasites, Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb's script points audience sympathy to the conventionally virtuous Juaristas. "Wars are not won by killing children," Ankrum intones nobly, but we are already expected to know better.3

Vera Cruz's tension (and thrills) indulge our delight at seeing how cynically outrageous things can get. The moral center weakly returns to Cooper's Ben Trane when he eventually sides with the Juaristas against the doublecrossing Lancaster, but this development smacks of insincerity. Trane keeps claiming his intentions are just as mercenary as Lancaster's, but it is Jo Erin who does all of the backstabbing, murdering several of his own gang. Lancaster's most loyal follower Ballard, a black ex-soldier still in Union uniform, is his most sympathetic victim.  4

The shaky triumph of Gary Cooper's iconic 'goodness' defeats what seems to be Aldrich's aim: To totally sully audience expectations of American Heroism and conclude with a cynical apocalypse. In reality, the cynicism appalled sensitive critics like Bosley Crowther while thrilling Western fans, who undoubtedly saw nothing ironic or troubling about the picture!


Seeing MGM's Western Legends DVD of Vera Cruz is a great relief after reading some pretty unfair rumors about it online. It's a good transfer of a 45 year-old film in which the color has held up fairly well -- the claims that 16mm was used for some shots or that 'bad Technicolor elements' were used for others are false. The image is slightly grainy, as can be expected from an element made from a 1954 negative -- SuperScope was indeed 2:1, cropped from the picture area of 35mm (kind of like Techniscope, but wasting a lot of film by pulling down all four perfs). In this case an entire Academy 35mm flat frame was exposed, as those of you who have the film on VHS or see it on TNT (not TCM) can attest: Shown flat, there's enough head and foot room on each shot to stage two more movies!

The DVD is of course not a repurposing of the 1993 laserdisc because it's 16:9. The framing is almost identical to the laser -- not cropping the picture all the way to 2:1, but almost filling the 1:78, 16:9 frame. A little more foot room is afforded than original SuperScope prints had, and it actually helps in that fewer compositions are hacked off. John Kirk of MGM has recently made real SuperScope prints for Vera Cruz for theatrical use -- where a 'scope lens would stretch the frame out, but masking left and right would be pulled in to cover the black bars on both sides.)

Savant's keeping his laserdisc. One thing it has that the DVD doesn't is an original SuperScope logo right ahead of the first shot. MGM either cut it off because they felt it misleading, now that the aspect ratio was changed, or (far more likely) they dropped it because they recognized it as the logo of a defunct stereo equipment company, and they didn't want any rights problems to come up! Savant also kept his eye peeled to see if the DVD repaired an audio flaw: Every print, every screening of the film has a burble on the first bar of music, like someone bumped the audio reproducer during a transfer. The flaw is still there, leading Savant to surmise that it's built-in to the only surviving audio element. The laser had a crunchy, near distorted soundtrack; the DVD sounds much better. The only extra is an ultra-hyped trailer, in which the title logo matches the lettering of the posters instead of the blood-dripped typeface on the movie. The really -- ugly graphic menu displays MGM's one-size-fits-all 16 chapter stops, when the picture could use several more.

A great and entertaining buddy-buddy action movie, Vera Cruz is also a precociously cynical, politically fascinating and historically important Western, easily the best of the recent crop of MGM Western Legends.



On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vera Cruz rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 1, 2001


Footnotes:

2. Note that the domestic release of 1954's La Salaire de Peur (The Wages of Fear) was shorn of all of its political content ... the original full-length version places explicit responsibility for the misery and poverty of Central America at the foot of U.S. mining corporations. U.S. 'adventurism' in real life. Also, the kind of movie Aldrich probably hated was 1939's The Real Glory, a Marines-in-the-Philippines adventure that tells the story of U.S. depradations in that country (read Mark Twain's A Pen Dipped in Acid sometime) by showing Cooper 'suppressing a fanatic uprising' against benevolent Yankee rule.
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3. I find nothing in movies as distilled as this about the truth of war until Kurtz's Apocalypse Now speech about little children being mutilated for political terror. And Vera Cruz is considered light entertainment! The only possible conclusion is that Americans don't care too much about the fate of little non-white children.
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4. The jig-dancing Ballard is played by Archie Savage, who went to Italy in the late fifties and pretty much never came back, showing up as an actor, dancer and choreographer of many dances in mostly Italian pepla. He's also one of the first black astronauts depicted in cinema, in Antonio Margheriti's Space Men (Assignment: Outer Space, 1960), sharing the honor with Julius Ongewe of First Spaceship on Venus (The Silent Star), made the same year in East Germany. Aldrich's 'use' of a black cowboy had to be an early expression of Civil Rights awareness ... and Aldrich was sufficiently cynical (realistic?) to let Savage's Ballard be gunned down by the crooked Lancaster rather than endure a typically patronizing 'noble' demise.
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5. There's lots of weird editing in Vera Cruz even by Aldrich's standard. Kiss Me Deadly is full of strange continuities and spacial relationships that are sometimes hard to justify as intentional. When the lancers chase a machete-throwing Juarista, there's a really weird jump cut in the middle of a wide shot. The soundtrack doesn't jump, so it looks as though the film originally went out that way. Also, when Jo Erin falls in the last gunfight, the continuity between his wide shot and the closer reverse of him settling to the earth is a very poor match. Did Aldrich simply not get shots that would cut smoothly, or is the disjointedness saying something?
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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