The Film: Vera Cruz
The Premise: Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) is a compassionate ex-Confederate soldier looking to lend his gun prowess to whichever side will have him in the Franco-Mexican War.
Upon arriving in Mexico he has the fortunate misfortune to cross paths with Joe (Burt Lancaster), a scrupulous and completely amoral gunslinger with a gang of surly lowlifes, including Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson as Pittsburgh (who loves playing harmonica almost as much as he loves rapin’ Mexicans). Joe and Ben Trane join forces, figuring they’re worth more $ as a unit. They’re offered employment with the Mexican rebels, but the Marquis Henri de Labordere (the Joker himself, Cesar Romero), representing Emperor Maximilian, offers them more money. The men are assigned the task of escorting Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz, but Joe and Ben Trane soon deduce that they’re really escorting $3 million in gold, hidden in Duvarre’s carriage. They also learn Duvarre plans to steal the gold. Let the alliances and double-crosses begin!
Is It Good: Yes. Vera Cruz was a bit ahead of its time tonally, more sexual and violent and dark than most of its contemporaries (the 50’s). Pretty much every aspect of this film hits. It’s shot with a very modern, kinetic flow by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen). Aldrich is known for his muscular approach, so it’s not surprising the gun fights and other violence plays well, but he also shows here that he’s got a real eye. The scene where Joe and Ben Trane first encounter the rebels, who reveal themselves (as the camera does a slow 360 pan) to have our heroes completely surround, is one of those instantly iconic moments. It’s so simple and effortless. Really gives you that “they just don’t do shit like this anymore” feeling.
The film also has a lot of great character moments, like when Pittsburgh is playing his harmonica with a Mexican band at a party, then when the song ends and the band gets ready to take a break, Pittsburgh threatens them with a gun, forcing them to keeping playing, “I ain’t never played with a real band before.” Gold. You could do a double feature with this and Once Upon A Time In The West, with harmonica playing Bronson as your theme.
The real selling point of Vera Cruz is the relationship between Joe and Ben Trane. I’ve never been much of a Gary Cooper fan. I like him as rubes (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and noble dullards (High Noon), but I generally feel like he’s struggling with most material. Vera Cruz is not an exception. Fortunately the material is rich enough that merely saying the lines competently is enough to get Cooper a B+. Burt Lancaster fucking kills it as Joe though. 50% of his performance as Joe is smiling, and what he does with that smile – from the first time we see it, to the last – lets you know everything about Joe. And what a smile it is. Lancaster should’ve done tooth paste adds. Joe is a very complex character; we get the impression that he’s never met someone like Ben Trane before, someone he can actually look up to. Yet Joe so values his misanthropic philosophy (trust no one, ever), that he seems to self-destructively want Trane to double-cross him. If Trane doesn’t, that means he’s weak, and then how can Joe look up to him?
Is It Worth A Look: This is a must see for Western fans, but unlike the previously mentioned Once Upon A Time, which is so dense with Western mythos that non-Western fans may not enjoy themselves, Vera Cruz has broader appeal. It’s not quite Butch & Sundance, but it is moving in that direction. The modern film it reminds me of is Three Kings, which you don’t need to be a war movie fan to enjoy. The film is available on Netflix Instant Watch, so you’re out very little giving it a whirl. You’ll thank me later.
Random Anecdote: The first film released in the “Superscope.” Shot at a conventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the film was cropped to 2:1 in post production and then given a Cinemascope compatible (2x) squeeze and blown up to normal frame height.
Also, Clark Gable warned Gary Cooper not to work with Burt Lancaster, saying, “That young guy will blow you off the screen.” And he did. Though I think Lancaster’s energy infused Cooper’s performance too, giving Cooper one of his best roles. So there’s that.