“No such thing as an innocent man.”
Shortly after the American Civil War, a former Confederate soldier (Gary Cooper) joins forces with a mercenary (Burt Lancaster) and his crew (including Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Charles Bronson, and Archie Savage) in Mexico, where the pair negotiate for the highest wages to help either the Juarista revolutionaries — led by General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum) and supported by a beautiful pickpocket (Sara Montiel) — or the Emperor Maximilian (George Macready), whose loyal marquis (Cesar Romero) is tasked with helping a countess (Denise Darcel) make it safely to Vera Cruz with a gold-laden carriage.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Burt Lancaster Films
- Cesar Romero Films
- Charles Bronson Films
- Ernest Borgnine Films
- Gary Cooper Films
- George Macready Films
- Robert Aldrich Films
This dark western by Robert Aldrich — based on a story by Borden Chase, and filmed on location in Mexico with cinematography by DP Ernest Laszlo — is often cited as the inspiration for later “spaghetti westerns”, given the presence of plenty of violence and double-crossing, and lack of a clear-cut “hero”. Indeed, both Cooper and Lancaster are looking out for themselves above all else, as we see clearly established in an early scene when Cooper purchases a horse from Lancaster and picks up on every trick Lancaster tries to pull:
The duo remain tenuously aligned when confronting hundreds of white-clad revolutionaries, stooping to the level of endangering young children in order to get away:
Other characters are equally morally dubious — such as Montiel’s beautiful, brazen pickpocket-stowaway:
… and Darcel’s calculating countess:
Naturally, the men fall for these women, though loyalty from any of the players is far from guaranteed. The main drama in the storyline comes from wondering who will outwit who, in order to secure the gold hidden in the carriage:
Interestingly, Bosley Crowther of the NY Times completely slammed this movie upon its release, referring to it as a “pretty atrocious film” “loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés,” with “nothing to redeem” it. However, it made a ton of money and has become a critical darling in years since. Watch for Ernest Borgnine in a key supporting role before his breakout performance in Marty (1955):
… and Charles Bronson as an especially aggressive baddie:
Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:
- Creative direction by Aldrich
- Ernest Laszlo’s Superscope cinematography
- Fine location shooting in Mexico
Yes, as an enjoyable western by a master director. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.
- Good Show
- Important Director
One thought on “Vera Cruz (1954)”
First viewing (6/1/15). A once-must, as a strong entry in director Aldrich’s career. As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):
“How come you let a little thing like the Civil War beat ya?”
‘Vera Cruz’ (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster make for an intriguing pair of on-again-off-again, cooperating opportunists at opposite ends in this early Robert Aldrich film. Set after the American civil war, the focus shifts to American ex-soldiers who head off to Mexico to ‘help’ that country with its own internal political struggle. So we find ourselves with a mixed group with individual agendas.
In its first 30 minutes or so, you may not recognize this as an Aldrich film at all; the exposition is languid and thorough. But once the main switch of the turning plot point kicks in, it’s an Aldrich film all the way, and a damn good one.
Being a kind of overlap of ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ in the changing guard, Copper and Lancaster are terrific together. Sturdy in smallish or peripheral roles: George Macready, Cesar Romeo, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Charles Bronson (here going as Buchinsky). Nice score as well and rather well photographed.