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Robert Aldrich may have inspired the entire Italian western movement of the 1960s with this rip-roaring, cynical and slightly sadistic adventure with a subversive political dimension. Vera Cruz boasts great performances from big stars, a gallery of up 'n coming tough guy talent and frenzied direction from a big talent making his first big-budget production. The first movie filmed in the interesting format Superscope Vera Cruz introduces the first modern images of American gunslingers facing down hundreds of armed Mexicans, exporting their sharpshooting mayhem for sale to the highest bidder.
The "western" setting is actually international, as the story covers the ruthless and mercenary exploits of a band of American criminals looking for riches in Mexico. At the conclusion of the Civil War, dispossessed and defeated Southerner Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) drifts south 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 the Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to the Caribbean 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 '80s- style 'buddy' picture, Vera Cruz is astonishingly precocious in its cynicism. 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?, and Lancaster's psychotic joy for killing equals the amorality of the mayhem in the later Sergio Leone westerns. His baiting of the luckless Charlie (Jack Lambert), only to gun him down with a sneaky, showoff circus trick shot ("Anyone else string with Charlie?") is slimier and funnier 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 well as the half-heard dialogue bit 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 actor insists on playing the solid good guy, totally at odds with the character in the script. Ben Trane is written as Jo Erin's treacherous equal. 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 medium shot was filmed after the fact. 1
Sarita Montiel is 'introduced' to American audiences, an advent that didn't take, as Sam Fuller introduced her again two years later in his Run of the Arrow. She's not much in her short-lived American career but is terrific in her Mexican and Spanish movies as a singer and comedienne, well 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 Borgnine's last bit roles before the big-time. 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 playing more moronic second string baddies in this show and Johnny Guitar. Charles Bronson shows a lot less potential but certainly has the right look. Jack Elam and Jack Lambert 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 all the Mexicans with dialogue are played by Anglos, Sarita Montiel is Spanish, Cesar Romero's sublime villain is actually a Frenchman, and everyone's favorite military monster-fighter Morris Ankrum is the Juarista General Ramirez. Ankrum is okay, but we keep expecting him to announce that Kronos is coming.
Working on a DVD docu for The Magnificent Seven, Savant learned a lot of facts about shooting in Mexico: the Mag 7 company had to put up with a lot of grief stemming from 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 Mexican horsemanship, they pay for it. By all accounts Vera Cruz was considered an insult because it advanced the already firm 'Pancho Villa' Mexican stereotype: semi-childlike but treacherous peasants whose main function is to die by the hundreds at the hands of über-mensch gringos. 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.
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. This is in strong contrast to his deification in William Dieterle's earlier epic Juarez. One can't help thinking that the director was expressing his own radical outrage when the moral icon Cooper participates 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 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, a line that should go down as one of the key non-sequiturs of the 20th century.3
Vera Cruz's tension (and thrills) indulge our delight at seeing how cynically outrageous things can get. The moral center returns to Cooper's Ben Trane when he eventually sides with the Juaristas against the double-crossing 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 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.
Foreign Intervention and the American Western.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray of Vera Cruz is a fine rendering of one of the most popular westerns out there -- the action and comedy are virtually non-stop. In color, stability and resolution it far outclasses previous DVDs. It does look somewhat grainy, a quality traceable to the fact that the film was shot on early Eastmancolor stock. Original Technicolor prints literally blurred out the film's photographic texture. The framing is actually a little less stringent than the original 2:1 Superscope aspect ratio, which is no crime as original release prints tended to be too tight in some shots. The only thing missing is the original Superscope logo, which MGM hacked off after making the first laserdisc release.
An audio remix about ten years ago cleaned up what had been a distorted soundtrack, but no audio elements exist to correct a flaw right at the top of the film. Right in the first bar of the Hugo Friedhofer score, a marked "wow" hits the track. MGM has no alternate sound elements to refer to, a lack that many trace to the wholesale destruction of an entire vault of audio elements and alternate versions for UA films. This happened back in 1989 or so when the studio was purchased by Pathé, and is a black mark in studio history.
This is one of MGM/Fox's new budget Blu-rays with no main menu page. The movie starts, and if you don't stop it, restarts from the beginning. But it does have an extra in a nicely remastered transfer of the original trailer, which contains text logos to match the film's posters, as opposed to the dripping-red main titles on the film itself.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vera Cruz Blu-ray rates:
1. There's lots of weird editing in Vera Cruz even by Aldrich's standard. Kiss Me Deadly is full of strange discontinuities and spatial 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?
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 logical conclusion is that Americans don't care too much about the fate of little non-white children.
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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T'was Ever Thus.