Sun 26 Jun 2016
VERA CRUZ. United Artists, 1954. Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Morris Ankrum, Charles Buchinsky. Director: Robert Aldrich.
Films in which American or European mercenaries show up in Mexico at a time of revolutionary change and hire out their guns to one side or the other, or both simultaneously, can be considered a proper subgenre of the Western. Alternatively, they have all the hallmarks of adventure films: an exotic locale, a daring protagonist on a quest fraught with danger, a love interest that develops out of said journey, and, of course, some form of priceless object or treasure that the protagonist hopes to acquire.
As fans of the Western genre know all too well, there are many – perhaps too many – Spaghetti Westerns, most of them made between 1965 and 1975, that fall into the “mercenaries in Mexico adventure film” subgenre. Released in 1954, the Robert Aldrich directed film Vera Cruz may rightfully considered a pioneer work in the aforementioned subgenre to which I just alluded.
Both gritty and lavish, Vera Cruz takes some effort and patience to fully appreciate. Upon first glance, the rather cynical story isn’t particularly complex, but it’s got a lot going on underneath the surface that merits attention. Indeed, Francois Truffaut himself was both a critic and admirer of the film’s narrative structure in which motifs and sequences, such as Mexican revolutionaries surrounding the mercenaries and one partner rescuing another, are repeated throughout the film.
In the wake of the American Civil War, former Confederate colonel and Louisiana plantation owner Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) ventures south to Mexico in search of profit. He’s willing to hire himself out to the highest bidder in the Franco-Mexican War in which Emperor Maximilian I (George Macready) is facing down a Juarista nationalist peasant revolt led General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum). Trane ends up joining forces with Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a cynical, borderline nihilist gunfighter eager to double cross anyone who gets between him and his money.
The plot follows the exploits of the two men as they guide a convoy filled with gold from Maximilian’s lavish palace to Vera Cruz. Along for the journey are a French princess (Denise Darcel) and a Maximilian loyalist (Cesar Romaro). Each is not exactly whom they seem to be, leading to a series of plots and double crosses, some of which do get a bit wearing on the viewer.
What the film lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle. There is something just so, well, cinematic about the movie. Indeed, the final battle sequence in which the mercenaries, along with their newfound Juarista allies, invade a government outpost is exceedingly well staged and photographed. The same goes for the final dramatic showdown between the two mercenaries. In a movie like this, there can only be one man left standing. One last matter for Western fans: look for Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam in supporting roles. They are great as expected.