Hollywood’s most macho liberals pack this action western with cheating, double crosses, rampant greed, uncouth heroes and decadent sneering villains… and that’s not counting the wall-to-wall revolutionary carnage. Toothy Burt Lancaster and philosophical Gary Cooper double-deal with cannon-fodder Juaristas and Cesar Romero’s decadent Frenchman, to steal a fortune in gold. Francois Truffaut called it ‘the first cynical western.’ Robert Aldrich’s direction emphasizes wince-inducing violence. The ‘dirty dozen’- like supporting freebooters include Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam and Archie Savage. This eye-opening blockbuster strongly influenced Sergio Leone’s Italo westerns made ten years later.
KL Studio Classics
1954 / Color / 1:2.0 widescreen (Superscope) / 94 min. / Street Date October 12, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Denise Darcel, Morris Ankrum, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson), Ernest Borgnine. Jack Elam, Henry Brandon, Archie Savage, Jack Lambert.
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Production Designer: Alfred Ybarra
Film Editor: Alan Crosland Jr.
Original Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb from a story by Borden Chase
Produced by Harold Hecht, James Hill, Burt Lancaster
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Did anybody in 1954 look at this movie from a political perspective? It sneers at traditional wild west heroism and the cynicism is ladled on like gravy. International politics boils down to outright thievery, brute force, and murder. A European nation’s elite forces are no less barbaric than outright pirates, in this case post-Civil War Americans that have drifted South in search of plunder. A ten-year-old Blu-ray exists of this classic ‘Mexican adventurism’ western, but Kino Lorber brings us a newly remastered HD scan and a new commentary.
The rip-roaring, slightly sadistic adventure thriller Vera Cruz provided the prime template for the Italian westerns of the 1960s. It features outsized performances by big stars and a full gallery of up ‘n coming tough guy talent. After doing fine work on the Hecht-Lancaster company’s Apache, director Robert Aldrich got to show what he could do with a big-budget action film. Earlier epics like MGM’s Viva Villa! presented Mexico as a primitive, violent playground where life is cheap. The screenplay for Vera Cruz exaggerates that fantasy, introducing the iconic image of American gunslingers abroad, facing down hundreds of armed Mexicans. Our adventurers offer their sharpshooting mayhem for sale to the highest bidder. Did nobody in 1954 interpret that as a slam at U.S. foreign policy?
“And Some Came Alone…”
The film places western characters in an international setting. At the conclusion of our own War Between the States, defeated and dispossessed Southern gentleman Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) drifts south looking for a way to earn, connive or steal big money in Mexico’s own civil war. Ben joins up with a pack of freebooters led by the charismatic, cheerfully duplicitous Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) hoping to enlist as killers for the corrupt Emperor Maximillian (George Macready). Impressing the French with a demonstration of Yankee firepower — in the actual Halls of Montezuma — they hire on to escort the Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to the Caribbean port of Vera Cruz, the aim being to repel the Juarista rebels led by Colonel Fielding General Ramírez (Morris Ankrum). Also guarding the Countess is a platoon of French Lancers under the leadership of the grinning Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero). Things get dicey when our mercenaries learn that Duvarre’s coach contains hundreds of pounds of stolen gold. A triple-cross develops between the adventurers and their dishonest French employers. But also in the gold caravan is the sexy spy Nina (Sarita Montiel). Her mission appears to be to convince Ben Trane to re-route the gold to the idealistic Juaristas.
In some ways Vera Cruz plays like an ’80s- style ‘buddy’ picture, one soaked in an attitude of greedy cynicism. Ben Trane and Joe Erin repeatedly upstage one another with stylish double-crosses. Joe’s psychotic joy for killing equals that of ‘heroes’ in later Sergio Leone westerns. Some of the slaughter boils down to kids’ playground disputes, but with six-guns. Joe cruelly baits the luckless Charlie (Jack Lambert) and then guns him down with a sneaky, showoff circus trick shot:
“Anyone else string with Charlie?”
Several such encounters are slimier and funnier than any of Clint Eastwood’s casual killings. One slaying shows only Lancaster’s satisfied face as he rams a lance through the neck of an unlucky French opponent. The shot is so gruesome by implication, it almost hurts to watch. One wonders how Aldrich got this kind of savagery past the Production Code office, not to mention the half-heard dialogue bit where Lancaster clearly says, “Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch!”
Burt Lancaster became a favorite of ‘fifties kids when he stopped playing dour film noir losers and turned to daredevil swashbucklers and athletic wonder men, as in Jim Thorpe — All American. His crude and greedy Joe Erin is fall-down funny, and a little disturbing at the same time. There’s more than a hint of parody in the way Lancaster grins at the camera, as had his The Crimson Pirate. At one point Joe even says “I always wanted to be a sailor.” Gary Cooper is slightly less effective perhaps because the actor insists on playing Ben Trane as a solid good guy, contradicting the character in the script. Ben Trane is written as Joe Erin’s treacherous equal. His third-act redemption is sketchy to the point that it seems an afterthought, or perhaps a concession to the star’s demands.
Screenwriters Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb play Lancaster and Cooper’s personae off one another, as a buddy-film Odd Couple. One’s a slob and the other yearns to rebuild his fine Dixie estate lost in the war. The writers also score big with a mega- culture clash at Maximillian’s royal court reception. Dressed in high fashions of the day, the European nobility are repulsed by the filthy and uncouth freebooters from the North. Joe Erin makes a spectacle of talking with his mouth full of turkey, and wipes his greasy fingers on the starched lapel of Captain Danette (Henry Brandon), the commander of Maximillian’s court lancers. The cultured Joe Trane sidesteps a fight by telling a story — which ends with another insult, calling the stiff Danette a ‘little tin soldier.’ Never was a western hate grudge this well introduced.
Only once or twice does the macho posturing stumble. Joe and Ben are riveted by the entrance of Denise Darcel’s Countess Duvarre, who is supposed to be such an incredible beauty that she stops the show. She’s actually less attractive than almost every young woman at the reception, which makes Joe and Ben’s broad ‘Popeye vs Bluto’ reaction fall flat.
In Warners’ earlier historical epic Juarez, Brian Aherne’s Emperor Maximillian is a royal fool, a sentimentalist duped into believing that Mexico’s peasants asked for a Hapsburg emperor. The moment we see the sneering George Macready we know that Vera Cruz’s Maximillian is a pedigreed crook, a decadent cutthroat. The Emperor indulges Joe and Ben’s demonstration of Yankee sharpshooting firepower; he humors the mercenaries because they’ll safeguard that treasure he’s smuggling back to Europe. Macready’s Max matches Joe Erin grin for grin, and then reminds Cesar Romero’s Marquis to kill the Yankee scum as soon as their usefulness has ended. All of the nobles are deceitful Thieves. The Marquis and the Countess each have separate schemes afoot to steal the gold. The treacherous Countess Duvarre has already made arrangements with a sea captain.
The balance of the film is a series of battles between Juaristas and Lancers, and double-crosses on a scale that dwarfs Ben and Joe’s personal oneupsmanship game. General Ramírez’s’ pithy-but-vacant ‘noble underdog’ speeches tickle Confederate loser Ben Trane’s itch for lost causes. Will the amorous promises of Juarista spy Nina turn Ben’s head? Is she really working for Ramírez, or is she also acting on her own, just like everybody else?
Genuine tough-guy Robert Aldrich was a respected Hollywood name even before he began directing. As an assistant director he had wrangled film sets for some of the biggest liberal and leftist directors, yet he came through the blacklist years unscathed. From almost the beginning a subversive streak ran through Aldrich’s film projects. His World for Ransom transformed a generic Oriental intrigue TV show into one of the first features about nuclear blackmail. Burt Lancaster must have heard that Aldrich ran a tight ship, and it’s possible that he was looking for a glorified assistant — the actor-producer liked to override directors and run the show. Yet Aldrich was not the type to be physically intimidated. Their teamwork on Apache and Vera Cruz was mutually rewarding.
Had Red-baiters wanted to pounce Vera Cruz might have given them plenty of ammo. In 1954, few knew or cared what the CIA was doing in Central America for ‘U.S. interests.’ But foreign imports were being closely scrutinized for undesirable communist subversion. The domestic release of H.G. Clouzot’s 1953 The Wages of Fear sustained a half-hour of censor cuts to remove anti-U.S. content.
Some conservatives had slammed the ‘questionable’ content of Stanley Kramer’s 1952 High Noon, but what HUAC opportunist would dare slander friendly witness Gary Cooper? Not only is Vera Cruz an escapist fantasy, its outlaws do not represent official American policy. Yet America’s moral icon Gary Cooper participates in the unsavory deed of holding innocent children as hostages. Outgunned by General Ramírez’ troops, Lancaster’s Joe Erin acknowledges that his gang can’t fight its way out,
“But they can stop an awful lot of little kids from growin’ up, amigo.”
It is apparently no idle bluff — the American ‘adventurers’ behave with a ruthlessness usually reserved for depictions of Nazis. Compared to the milquetoast content of most western adventures, that in general assume a moral stance, Vera Cruz carries a hint of the appalling universal nihilism presented in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian.
The French are presented as greedy murderous parasites, but neither does the film fully endorse the Juarista rebels — they’re suicidal zealots that follow an impractical code of honor. Joe and Erin are impressed by the rebels’ commitment, but not General Ramírez’s feeble declaration “Wars are not won by killing children.” In the context of Vera Cruz’s ruthless pragmatism, that’s obvious nonsense: in 1953 wars were being fought in Malaya, Palestine, Indonesia, Korea, Central Africa, and among several Arabian countries; news from the conflicts always included outrage over the slaughter of innocent noncombatants. The freebooters’ hostage-taking has a racist angle as well — the American looters can play deadly games with the lives of little children — as long as they’re non-white.
Yet Vera Cruz presents itself as escapist entertainment, indulging our delight at seeing how cynically outrageous things can get. Cooper’s Ben Trane eventually recovers the moral center by siding with the Juaristas against the double-crossing Lancaster… but only in theory. Trane keeps saying that his intentions are as mercenary as Lancaster’s, but it is Joe Erin who does all of the backstabbing. Joe murders several of his own gang, including his most loyal follower Ballard, a black ex-soldier still in Union uniform. The screenplay doesn’t give Ballard a major role to play but he does shield Nina from gang rape by his freebooter colleagues, led by Pittsburgh (Charles Bronson). In 1954, the presence of Ballard was surely considered a nod to the budding Civil Rights movement, a process closely watched by Hollywood liberals.
Excited Western fans enjoying their popcorn undoubtedly saw nothing ironic or troubling. We cheer for Burt and Gary because they play dirty. If anything, the reaffirmation of Gary Cooper’s iconic ‘goodness’ goes against the overall celebration of greedy mayhem. The film’s violence offended New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who five years earlier had condemned James Cagney’s White Heat as directly promoting juvenile delinquency.
Does the abrupt finale indicate some kind of odd editorial compromise? As the end music rises, parallel cuts between survivors Coop and Sarita Montiel suggest that they’re converging for a fade-out clinch. But instead of a final shot where they come together, we see Ben Trane walking alone. This editorial non-sequitur prompts me to propose a theory that risks being very wrong: perhaps Aldrich filmed a different ending in which Nina rejects Ben Trane, and Hecht-Lancaster opted to reject it.
Fans find Vera Cruz’s stellar cast of established and future stars irresistible. Unknown in the States, Sarita Montiel was already a major musical comedy star in the Spanish-speaking world. The film introduced her to American audiences, but launching a star from scratch required a concerted publicity effort like the campaign that accompanied Italy’s Sophia Loren. Sam Fuller ‘introduced’ Sarita again two years later in his Run of the Arrow. Her American career was short-lived but she became an even bigger star in Spanish movies as a singer and comedienne.
Workhorse actors George Macready and Cesar Romero personify elitist French villainy, the kind of bad guys eagerly booed and hissed by matinee audiences. Denise Darcel was another foreign import who didn’t click, although she earlier made several good Hollywood films including William Wellman’s superior Westward the Women.
This was one of Ernest Borgnine’s last bad-guy roles before stardom arrived with his Oscar-winning Marty (also for Hecht-Lancaster). The attention for Borgnine’s great work in From Here to Eternity may have arrived when he had already signed on to play the moronic second string baddies in this show and Johnny Guitar. Charles ‘Buchinsky’ Bronson shows less star potential but certainly has the right look. He’d work steadily for fifteen years before achieving major star status in Europe. Robert Aldrich would rehire gang members Jack Elam, Jack Lambert, James Seay and James McCallion for his very next film, the classic Kiss Me Deadly.
Henry Brandon is remembered as John Wayne’s nemesis in The Searchers, War Chief Scar. He had a very long career as impressive villains yet never climbed in stature. A good candidate for rediscovery in Hollywood’s present social justice/color equity makeover is the relatively obscure African-American performer Archie Savage. The talented Savage was also a classical dancer and choreographer. He can be seen in Cabin in the Sky; he won a featured dancing part in South Pacific and then left for Europe in search of better opportunities. Savage acted in a Spaghetti western and become one of the movies’ first black astronauts in Anonio Margheriti’s Assignment Outer Space, and choreographed dance numbers for Euro-thrillers like Sodom and Gomorrah and The Wild, Wild Planet.
Vera Cruz was one of Hollywood’s biggest pictures to be fully produced in Mexico. When re-editing a DVD documentary for The Magnificent Seven this writer learned a lot about shooting in Mexico. Budd Boetticher’s 1951 Bullfighter and the Lady won a lot of Mexican friends with its wholly respectful view of of the country, but the Vera Cruz production company infuriated the Mexican film industry. It presents Mexicans as childlike peasants, whose main function is to die by the hundreds at the hands of ‘superior’ gringos. Lancaster’s rude treatment of the beloved star Sarita Montiel wasn’t appreciated either; the gang-rape scene continues Hollywood’s view of Mexico as an informal brothel. Compounding the lack of respect shown Ms. Montiel is the nickname given her character Nina: ‘Papayas.’ She rides on a bouncing wagon wearing a peasant blouse to make certain nobody misses the joke.
As reported by individuals such as assistant director Robert Relyea, the production reportedly broke so many rules and got in so much trouble that the Mexican film industry enacted new regulations to protect the industry and Mexican prestige in general. Six years later, John Sturges found that residual ill will from Vera Cruz, forced his movie to put up with a lot of micro-management harassment. The Magnificent Seven production was closely supervised — John Sturges’ impoverished Mexican farmers were always dressed in clean, neat clothing.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Vera Cruz is a brand new 2K master. The picture is very steady. I compared it to the old 2011 MGM Blu-ray for color, contrast, grain and framing. Both have pleasing color and both are sometimes rather grainy. The new 2021 disc has harsher contrast. Dark areas have less detail and some scenes look a tad softer. But random bits of dirt here and there are now gone — the image is much cleaner.
Kino’s new scan presumably uses newer technology and better coloring software. But it appears that the same printing elements were scanned, as some of the same audiovisual flaws appear. A real improvement would need to start in the film vault and require the making of new duping film elements for the scanner.
I’ve seen every Vera Cruz home video release beginning with VHS tapes and the old MGM laserdisc from 1992 or so. That disc had terrible distorted audio, but it was also the last time this show carried its original Superscope logo up front. It would be nice to see that restored at some date. ←
According to Carr and Hayes’s reference book Widescreen Movies this was the very first release in the Superscope format. The film was shot on flat 35mm knowing that a widescreen piece from the middle of the frame would be optically reformatted for anamorphic projection. Technicolor printing helped hide the increased granularity. A few shots look a little tight in the 1:2.0 Superscope framing, like the image of the bridge with the line of Juaristas above. An improved version of the same idea became the Super-35 format still used today (it was favored by James Cameron before he went digital). I remember old flat TV prints and VHS tapes of Vera Cruz that ruined compositions by opening up the whole film frame, revealing empty skies above the actors and empty floors below.
The first MGM DVD greatly improved the audio but couldn’t get rid of a problem right at the top of the movie, where it can’t help but be noticed. In the first measure of the Hugo Friedhofer score, a marked ‘wow’ spoiled the track. This new disc still has no Superscope logo and retains the same audio wow. Not only that, Kino’s new screen menu uses this same music cue, with the wow intact. Does MGM have more optical track copies vaulted to fix this? We hope this one flawed optical track is not all that exists.
The disc carries a selection of original trailers plus a Trailers from Hell trailer for Vera Cruz with a commentary by director John Landis. The main extra is an enthusiastic full feature commentary by the noted director and western aficionado Alex Cox, who has written about westerns quite a bit. He augments a great deal of production information with his own theories about the movie’s influence on the later Italo westerns. Cox also notes that an iconic scene from Vera Cruz was appropriated for the Álex de Iglesia picture Perdita Durango. He concludes by lauding the text card at the end of the movie that generously praises the Mexican film industry… perhaps that gesture was made so that Hecht-Lancaster could show their faces again in Mexico City?
Collectors take note — the old MGM Blu-ray of Vera Cruz carries subtitles in Spanish and French as well as English.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Filmmaker Alex Cox; Trailers from Hell with comment by John Landis, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson