Vera Cruz (1954)

Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb

I know that I took a long break on the trail there, but it still feels like it has been a very long time since we’ve been treated to a Gary Cooper western. Cooper has been one of the stars of this first third or so of the marathon, bringing his silent movie sensibilities to the rough and tumble genre in the sound era. He is stoic, quiet, earnest. His performances are not the showiest, but he inhabits the characters and makes them his own, drenched in his patented on screen persona. Meanwhile, we’ve not yet seen the great Burt Lancaster on the scene here yet. So to get a film, Vera Cruz, which pairs the two is a great joy. We’ll also see that this is a film chock full of western legends, but while Lancaster may not have dabbled in the genre as much as some of the other names in this film, he is such a superstar actor and presence in any movie, that it was a joy to watch Vera Cruz and his arrival in a cowboy hat and pistol.

After the Civil War, many soldiers found their way down to Mexico in support of the war raging there. Often these soldiers were without a cause other than money or thrills. Ben (Gary Cooper) is one such soldier, who, after his horse goes lame, meets fellow American Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), and eventually falls in with his men (Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson). The group encounters the rebellious General Ramirez, but ultimately decides the help the sitting Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) instead, helping guard and transport the Countess Marie (Denise Darcel) to the port town of Vera Cruz. Along the way, Ben and Joe discover that the real reason for the trip is not to the fashion houses of Paris, but to bring gold to the French in hopes of garnering their support. Eventually their wagon train is confronted by General Ramirez and the Juaristas and Ben and Joe must decide what is important to them.

What struck me most about this film is simply the star power. I knew going in we would see Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, but I was not expecting all the other great names that showed up throughout. Some of them had very small parts, but I think in some ways it was a sign of things to come in the next generation of western stars, which is a perfect representation of the two stars as well. Cooper at this point is aging and at the tail end of his career, and he’s passing the torch so to speak to Lancaster. That being said, Cooper still owns this movie; this is Cooper’s movie, not Lancaster’s. He is just so monumental and a telling presence on screen. Cooper’s performance reflects this too, back to his same old stoicism that fits in perfect juxtaposition to Lancaster’s permanent smile. Like, seriously, Lancaster manages to maintain a smile throughout the entire film and instead of feeling rigid and unnatural, it adds a certain element to the character that seems fitting. He comes across as an evil, conniving version of Errol Flynn, who in my mind was also always smiling in his movies.

That being said, the smile is actually quite menacing for a few reasons. This is a fun adventure movie about mercenaries, but these mercenaries are thrill seekers who like and seek out violence. So when you have a character like Ben who seems to be a little more wholesome, though he is also a gun for hire, and then a character like Joe who seems to really enjoy fighting, to the point that they hold children hostage to get out of a spot, the smile just adds to that evil. He’s enjoying himself. But at the same time, I think I left the film more on Ben’s side than Joe’s, and likely by design to position Cooper as the “hero”, but he’s really not a good man either. He may be wandering, unsure of what to make of his life after the South lost the Civil War, but he is seeking out this mercenary work. He is choosing to go after the gold instead of protecting the woman he was hired to escort to Vera Cruz. I don’t know what we’ve seen a movie this evil and full of bad characters before. In that regard, this is a pretty monumental film in the marathon, knowing that some of the films coming in the 60s relish in the evil, gratuitous violence that influenced Quentin Tarantino and his modern films.

Now it’s certainly not to the degree we will see later on. The direct violence itself is not shocking or particularly gruesome, but the premise and assumed violence set the stage for later films while also making this one more palatable. I would not usually by default take to an overly violent film about bad men, being very hit or miss on the films and style of Tarantino for instance, but I enjoyed Vera Cruz quite a bit for the actor showcase it was, which was not overshadowed. Cooper and Lancaster are truly great performers and it was marvelous to see them in a film together and work so well as a pair, working together while holding individuality entirely. I’d love to see more of not just these two in particular, but stories of similar western men who clash over their own bravado and brashness. In the end, the central story maybe felt not quite classic enough to elevate my ranking of this film above three stars, but it’s one I liked a whole awful lot for the different things it does to approach the genre, and the two outstanding central performances.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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