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During the Mexican Rebellion of 1866, an unsavory group of adventurers from the US are hired by the forces of Emperor Maximiliano to escort a countess to Vera Cruz.
For more about Vera Cruz and the Vera Cruz Blu-ray release, see Vera Cruz Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 11, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sara Montiel, George Macready
Director: Robert Aldrich
» See full cast & crew
Vera Cruz Blu-ray Review
When Westerns Went Cynical
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 11, 2011
When Vera Cruz opened on Christmas Day, 1954, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it "a pretty atrocious film, loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés. There are not many ways of hurting people that are missed in this sadistic show, from kicking and slapping and slicing to running them down on horseback and pounding them with poles. As a matter of fact, the whole picture appears to be designed as a mere exhibition of how wicked and vicious men can be." I'm quoting Crowther at length because his reaction was not entirely unjustified. Vera Cruz did mark a turning point in the western genre. Early films about gunslingers and cowboys tended to be moralistic tales with easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. Honor, bravery, virtue, and duty were the big thematic touchstones. Where Vera Cruz differs is that it was one of the first westerns with a bonafide anti-hero, a bad-to-the-bone protagonist motivated by greed and self-preservation instead of goodness and sacrifice. This blazed the trail for later films like Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, violent westerns where the good guys weren't always, you know, good guys. While Crowther is mostly right when he complained Vera Cruz is filled with "standard horse opera clichés"—on the whole, it's fairly average as far as westerns go—the film is worth revisiting, if only for the dynamic pairing of its two leads, Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper.
Vera Cruz takes place during the Franco-Mexican War, and you might want to brush up on your Latin American history before watching the film, because the short, pre-credits prologue does little to set the scene. The gist of the conflict is this: When Mexican President Benito Juárez stopped sending interest payments to the country's creditors—namely, France—Napoleon III sent in an army of invading troops and, with the help of Mexicans who wanted to reinstate a monarchy, installed an Austrian, Maximillian I (played here by George Macready), as "Emporer of Mexico." Rebel Juaristas, led by General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum), opposed Maximillian, fighting once again for Mexican independence. Got it? When the South lost the U.S. Civil War in 1865, many defeated Confederates fled to Mexico, looking to make a bit of cash as mercenaries for whichever side would pay them the most.
One of these soldiers is Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), a former colonel who lost his plantation during the war. We meet him riding across the border on a limping horse, and in the western equivalent of a "meet cute," Ben coincidentally falls in with Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a maniacally grinning gunslinger who trusts no one but himself. Joe leads a rough and tumble troupe of likeminded thugs—including Jack Elam, Archie Savage, Ernest Borgnine, and a young Charles Bronson—and they're all after one thing: money. The story kicks in when Maximillian's lapdog, Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesare Romero), recruits Ben, Joe, and his motley gang to escort pretty young Countess Duvare (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz. Along the way, they're joined by Nina (Sara Montiel), a sexy senorita and skilled pickpocket who may or may not be a rebel sympathizer. Here's the kicker: Inside the countess' stagecoach, there's a secret stash of $3 million in gold coinage. Only, it doesn't stay secret for long, and everybody wants it— Joe, his men, Ben, Nina, the countess, and the rebel Juaristas.
This set-up provides plenty of impetus for double—even triple—crosses, callous violence, and no shortage of distrust between the main characters. Right from the outset, we know this is a different kind of western from the ethical epics that came before. Joe is absolutely brutal, cracking rebels in the head with the butt of his rifle, running one imperial soldier through the throat with a spear, and playing cruel power games with his men to keep them in line. (Once, he playfully steals a careless gunman's pistol, cocks it, and then throws it back at the guy.) All the while, Lancaster bears his gleaming row of Chiclet-white teeth in a contemptible grin. We know he's a heartless badass when he has two of his men hold a group of Mexican children hostage, threatening to kill them unless he gets his way. That's something you'd never expect from, say, the hero in an early John Ford western. Clearly, the rules have begun to change. Even Gary Cooper's Ben isn't completely pure at heart. He's running his own scheme to steal the gold—with Nina, who becomes his love interest—and although he's somewhat redeemed at the end, he's still primarily motivated by money. This was the beginning of the cynical western.
Aside from this sudden shift in cowboy morality, which laid the blueprints for the violent dusters of the 1960s, there's little to distinguish Vera Cruz from the countless other entertaining-but-mediocre westerns of the time. The requisite shoot-outs and battle scenes are never more than adequately staged, and the film is punctuated by several moments of what is now unintentionally funny old-fashioned misogyny, like when Joe slaps the countess around—this is supposed to be a serious scene, but you'll have trouble keeping a straight face—or when Charles Bronson tries to have his way with Nina, pawing like a dog in heat. Director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen), working off a script by Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb (How the West Was Won), bookends the film with two impressive showdowns, but all the surreptitious scheming in the middle act slackens the pace. The A-list pairing of Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper is what carries the film. Polar opposites in temper, manner, and even appearance—Lancaster is in white, Cooper in Black—the two have a typical "buddy movie" relationship for most of film, befriending one another out of mutual usefulness and each eventually coming to understand the other's worldview. Unlike most buddy films, though, which usually end with the two as best pals, Ben and Joe eventually square off in an itchy-trigger-finger duel to the death. They're both partners and enemies, a shade of the moral gray to come.
Vera Cruz Blu-ray, Video Quality
The fact is, Vera Cruz is never going to look especially sharp or clean. Shot on Superscope—a precursor to Super35 that's sometimes called the "poor man's CinemaScope"—the image is exceptionally grainy and blotchy, which inevitably leads to a lack of truly fine detail. In his 1954 review of the film, Crowther even pointed out that the "scenery might look pretty if the fuzziness of Superscope and the blobbiness of the color were not offensive to the eye." MGM's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of the film is about as good as can be expected, then, and it's admirable that the studio resisted the temptation to slather the picture with digital noise reduction in an attempt to lessen film grain. For all its source-related splotchiness, the transfer is natural, with no DNR, edge enhancement, or other forms of tweaking. And to be fair, the film looks better here than it ever has. Even if the image is never tack sharp, it benefits inherently from the high definition upgrade, with more noticeable textures and a tighter overall look. The film's dusty color palette is as rich as it needs to be, with occasional splashes of bright color, like the bright greens, reds, and yellows of Maximilian's troop's uniforms. Black levels are plenty deep enough too, and contrast is even-keeled. Burt Lancaster's white chompers, of course, gleam spectacularly. Finally, there are no compression problems or encode issues.
Vera Cruz Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The quality of the film's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track will be familiar to anyone who routinely watches mid-century westerns. That is, this mix shows its age with flattened dynamics and somewhat tinny highs, but otherwise it's perfectly acceptable and exactly what you'd expect from a film of this vintage. MGM probably could've wrangled a 5.1 mix out of the audio elements—panning gunfire and trotting horse hooves into the rear channels, etc.— but I'm more than happy with the original mix, and I suspect most western fans will be too. For what it's worth, the effects—while dated—have more than enough punch, especially gunshots, which pop off loudly. Hugo Friedhofer's score sounds wonderful too, even if it lacks a really memorable theme. Dialogue, without exception, is easy to understand. The disc also includes a variety of dub and subtitle options.
Vera Cruz Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Unfortunately, the only bonus on the disc is a theatrical trailer (1080p, 3:00).
Vera Cruz Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Westerns got a whole lot grittier in the 1960s—with more explicit violence, harsher heroes, and an undercurrent of moral ambiguity—and Vera Cruz can be seen as a precursor to this sudden shift in tone and outlook. Outside of its historical context, the film is a fairly average western, but it is entertaining, thanks largely to its memorable cast. MGM's Blu-ray does the film justice, but do be aware that the film's picture quality has always been as uneven as the morality of its main characters. Recommended for armchair cowboys only.
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