Vera Cruz (1954)
The Giants Battle In The Biggest Spectacle Of Them All!
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Denise Darcel
Synopsis: During the Mexican Rebellion of 1866, an unsavory group of American adventurers are hired by the forces of Emporer Maximilian to escort a countess to Vera Cruz.
Burt Lancaster (Sorry, Wrong Number, Sweet Smell of Success) brims with muscular vitality, his brilliant white teeth gleaming from behind his dirty face, in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz. He plays Joe Erin, a criminal soldier of fortune in a Mexico suffering under the rule of Emperor Maximillian (George Macready — Paths of Glory, Where Love Has Gone) who forms an alliance of mutual mistrust with former confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper — Along Came Jones, High Noon) as they escort the Emperor’s love interest (Denise Darcel) across the border into the States. The two men soon learn that the carriage in which the Countess is travelling has a false bottom filled with $3 million worth of gold bars, and agree to split the spoils once back in the States.
Although Cooper was only twelve years older than Lancaster, their appearance together feels like a meeting of different generations, and the fit is an uneasy one. They just don’t work together. Apparently Clark Gable warned Cooper that Lancaster would blow him off the screen, and he was right. The sheer force of Lancaster’s personality forces the taciturn Cooper into the shadows, creating an imbalance where one shouldn’t exist. The film also suffers from some insipid female leads: Denise Darcel is entirely forgettable as the duplicitous Countess, while Spanish actress Sara Montiel — whom Cooper complained of smelling bad and never washing her hair — can do nothing with the part of a peasant girl with whom Trane falls in love (even though she was 27 years Cooper’s junior).
It’s easy to see the influence Vera Cruz had on Sergio Leone and his fellow directors of Spaghetti Westerns. The uneasy alliance between hero and anti-hero was a constant theme in Leone’s and the genre as a whole. Aldrich films his characters from low angles, so that they loom over us like giants. He frames them by a clear blue sky, and doesn’t shy away from showing the dirty sweat on their faces. You get the impression these guys would smell a little ripe if you got too close. The supporting cast is filled out by a young Charles Bronson, who was still then known as Buchinsky, Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine as some of Erin’s sidekicks, and an ever-grinning Cesar Romero as Maximillian’s right-hand man. It’s a good cast, and it deserves a film a couple of ranks higher than this one.
(Reviewed 18th October 2014)