The 1952 cowboy picture Vera Cruz is one of the first big Hollywood movies to be shot in Mexico, so it's only fitting that it be a story about the Mexican fight for independence from European (and particularly French) occupation. The focus of the script is two American outlaws, both with different approaches to how they do business. One is a dangerous man, a smiling gunslinger named Joe Erin, and played by young star Burt Lancaster; the other is a man of honor, Benjamin Trane, portrayed by an elder statesman of American movies, Gary Cooper. Joe has gone to Mexico to escape a bounty on his head. Benjamin has traveled south of the border in order to leave behind a painful past: he lost his livelihood fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. That conflict was about a house divided, two sides of the same coin struggling for supremacy. So, too, is the Mexican revolution a division amongst the people. And likewise there is the division between the two mercenaries who choose to fight it.
Despite being an unlikely pairing, Joe and Ben team up, heading a posse that is hired by the foreign-occupying Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) to escort a rich aristocrat (Denise Darcel) across the country to the town of Vera Cruz, where a boat will take her and a treasure chest of Mexican gold back to France where she will buy more soldiers to hold back the revolutionary army. Joe and Ben make plans to steal the gold for themselves, but then they turn around and make plans to also steal it from each other. Joe romances the rich woman, while Ben makes eyes at a sexy Mexican bandit (Sarita Montiel). She also just so happens to be working for the Mexican army, who want the gold themselves. And, of course, Maximilian's lancers have a pretty good notion that all of these double- and triple-crosses are underway, and they set up their own ruse to keep their hands on the Emperor's coinage.
Vera Cruz is directed by Robert Aldrich, who also helmed The Dirty Dozen, another famous film about a band of rough customers facing impossible odds. The screenplay by Roland Kibbee (Valdez is Coming) and James R. Webb (Cape Fear) may feature a healthy cast of characters--Joe's original team includes such recognizable character actors as Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam; the Emperor's right-hand man is played by Cesar Romero--but the focus here stays tight on the main stars. The odds build against them as the movie progresses, ending in a giant battle between the Mexican and the European forces that claims a lot of lives. It's a gut punch of a finish, especially after the turbine engine plotting that gets us to this particular port of call. Vera Cruz generates speed as it goes, the chase growing more dangerous, the action more exciting. The resolution brings to bear all the compromises and consequences in a way that is both bleak and surprising.
It's hard to see how it could go any other way, though. When there are two central but opposing forces, there will have to be some kind of reckoning between them. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are perfectly cast as the hero and the anti-hero, and their disparate acting styles mesh surprisingly well. Cooper is stoic, mannered, and every bit the Hollywood hero; Lancaster is feral, unpredictable, and physical. He's not quite as twitchy and method as some of his contemporaries, but he's definitely more willing to engage in behavior otherwise unbecoming of a leading man than Cooper. As the other complications build up, so too do we see how nasty Joe really is and the full depth of the inherent good that defines Ben. The latter can't pretend to be the villain any more than the former can play at being the hero.
The movie itself embodies all of these things as well. Vera Cruz is full of the humor and the bravado and the clear-cut morality of classic westerns, but it also prefigures the darker themes and violence of the horse operas to come. Heavy is the head that wears the white hat, and what Cooper walks away from at the end of Vera Cruz may be more than a pock-marked battlefield and a chest of gold, it could be seen as a metaphor for the whole Western genre.
Vera Cruz was shot in Superscope, a 35mm film process that was meant to compete with Cinemascope but from what I've read never quite did the job. The 2.00:1 image is indeed wide, but don't expect the kind of miraculous high-def restoration we have seen on other older films. That said, the 1080p transfer, AVC encoded, is pretty good for a film that has been around for more than half a century and was done in a less-than-perfect manner to begin with. The overall image quality is strong, with no noticeable enhancement, suggesting that the folks behind this MGM/Fox disc have made the best of what they had and they haven't tried to overcompensate. There is a persistent grain that looks fine in most scenes, but gets too heavy in others, and the inconsistent picture tends to go soft and fuzzy with imperfect colors that don't always stay solid. For the most part, it's just fine, and the flaws are easy to look past. It's my first time seeing Vera Cruz, but I'm guessing this is the best it's been for home viewing, and honestly, that's not half bad.
The original English soundtrack is mixed here in English Mono DTS-HD, and tends to be clear and evenly balanced. Some of the louder scenes strain the speakers and there is occasional low dialogue that strains your ears, but it's a clean track, free of glitches.
Both Spanish and French mono tracks are also offered, as well as subtitles in both languages and English closed captioning.
None at all.
Recommended. Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz is a rollicking cowboy adventure, but it's also an intriguing morality play, exploring the shades of gray that connect the black hats to the white hats and dickering around with genre expectations. Gary Cooper is the Old Hollywood good guy, and Burt Lancaster is the new Hollywood not-as-good-but-not-all-bad guy, and the two compete for Mexican gold on a cross-country caravan to outrun the Mexican revolutionaries in 1866. It's a lot of fun, but with plenty to ponder, and it looks pretty good on Blu-Ray.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.