Vera Cruz: Burt Lancaster gives a scene-stealing performance opposite Gary Cooper in this colorful Mexican adventure that anticipates & influenced Spaghetti Westerns

Director Robert Aldrich teamed up Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in his highly entertaining 1954 western, Vera Cruz. Apart from being the first of the the ‘grey’ westerns, it also happens to be the chief inspiration for the ultra-violent Euro-westerns of the Sixties.

It’s too bad that Burt Lancaster never did a toothpaste ad. With his devilish, full toothed grin he could have sold millions of them. In the 1954 western, Vera Cruz, directed by Robert Aldrich, Lancaster’s grin forms the centerpiece of his performance. In the film, he played Joe Erin, an American adventurer, who, after the civil war. drifts into Mexico and gets involved with the Mexican revolution. Lancaster is dressed in all black; even his face is black, from all the sun and dirt, through which those pearly whites looks more wonderful than ever. He is one mean, dirty SOB, who wouldn’t mind crossing and double crossing anyone if it suits him, and always manages to cover up his deception by flashing those whites. The lines that he constantly repeats in the film are ” I don’t have any friends” and “Well I’ll be a dirty…..” and true to his word; he looks dirty and plays dirty and is not to be trusted in any event. This unpredictability serves the character and the film well; and It makes this the most entertaining character Lancaster had ever played, more entertaining than even the 1952 swashbuckler The Crimson Pirate that made him a star and is undoubtedly his most popular movie. In Vera Cruz, he is a swashbuckler, an ornery antihero and a charming romantic hero, who gets to romance the leading lady.

The main object of Lancaster’s Erin’s frequent double crosses is the mighty Gary Cooper, who stars in the film as Ben Trane. Trane is a former Confederate soldier, who is playfully referred to as ‘colonel‘ by Erin, because according to him everyone in the Confederate army is a Colonel. Trane is a honored, intelligent and idealistic man, who lost his possessions in the war and now is trying to have some financial gain with his abilities. Erin is cynical, amoral, brutal, intuitive and mercenary. What they have in common is their gunslinging skills. In the first meeting between Erin and Trane, which takes place on the Mexican border, Erin sells a stolen horse – the horse that he stole from the Mexican army – to Trane for a hundred dollars. And, when the army follows them and shoots down Trane (and it appears that he is dead), Erin tries to steal the rest of his money. But Trane is only playing possum. He gets up in time, knocks out Erin, takes his horse and warns him never to betray him again and leaves. Trane and Erin meet again in the town, and this time Erin saves Trane’s life. Trane was about to be assaulted by Erin’s band of cutthroats (made up of then up and coming stars like Charles Bronson and Earnest Borgnine). They had recognized that Trane is riding Erin’s horse and assumed that Trane had killed Erin. Erin arrives in the nick of time to save Trane’s neck. From then on, they form an uneasy comradeship, with Erin’s diabolical nature threatening to break it up anytime. Obviously, Erin is a born cheater, but the smart Ben is one step ahead of him in every situation. This results in one of the strangest and most hilarious buddy-buddy relationships in movies. Mexico, at the time, is dealing with it’s own civil war. The Juaristas under the leadership of Juarez is fighting to overthrow the imperial French forces that has occupied the country. Soon enough, both sides would come calling for the services of the American mercenaries.

Vera Cruz could be considered the first of the buddy westerns with two top stars in the lead, and it sort of set the template for the buddy westerns and action films that came later. The film was produced by Burt Lancaster under the banner of his own Hecht-Lancaster productions. Lancaster had one of the most unique careers for a movie star. He was a circus performer turned Broadway actor, who was discovered by talent agent\manager Harold Hecht. Lancaster arrived in Hollywood in the late 1940s when tremendous changes were taking place in Hollywood. The Anti-trust law had been enforced by the supreme Court on the film industry, thus divesting the studios of their theater chains . This cut down the power of the studios considerably. Then there was the encroachment of the new medium of television that was keeping audience captive at home and reducing the theater attendance significantly. The studio profits had dwindled and they were forced to reduce studio overhead . So, they had to let go of the stars and technicians under contract and had to cut down on their film productions. Into this vacuum came a lot of independent producers who started putting together film projects on their own, while the studios concentrated on just financing and distributing them. This enabled a lot of big movie stars – like Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, James Cagney, etc. – to become producers and design films for themselves without being bound to a studio. Lancaster, by the turn of the 1950s, had just starred in a handful of acclaimed film Noirs like The Killers and Criss Cross and was in no way a star in the league of Bogart or Cagney. But seeing the changed situation in the industry, he seized the moment and formed his own production company with Hecht as partner. And within five years of it’s formation, his production company would become the most powerful independent company in town, with Lancaster becoming one of the biggest stars. Vera Cruz is the second film that Hecht-Lancaster will make for the studio United Artists in 1954. The first was Apache, directed by Aldrich, in which Lancaster played Massai, a renegade Apache warrior- blue eyes and all. That film was a big hit and Lancaster immediately put Vera Cruz into production with Aldrich again as director. Gary Cooper had recently starred in High Noon for United Artists, for which he won an Oscar. So Lancaster was able to land Cooper as his co-star in the film. Cooper signed on, though Clark Gable had warned him that the younger, athletic Lancaster would steal the picture from him. And it is exactly what would happen. It would turn out to be one of those rare films where the towering Cooper would be outshined by an even more charismatic and virile co-star, even though Lancaster would later say that he acted in the film on too-high a note, and learned lessons from Cooper about subtlety and underplaying that served him for years. In his later years, Lancaster would give up his flashy style of acting and become an actor more like Cooper.

Apart from being a buddy western, it was also a typical McCarthy era western, where the more liberal filmmakers and actors would use the genre of western to critique the activities of senator McCarthy’s HUAC . These films deals with the betrayal or abandoning of a righteous man by his friends for their own survival due to the fear or influence of an overwhelming corrupt force. High Noon was the first of that kind, where we see the town sheriff being abandoned by the rest of the town folk in a moment of crisis. In 1954 , there was Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar which was the most severe indictment of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Both Lancaster and Aldrich were ultra liberals and we find this Anti-HUAC sentiment expressed in both Apache and Vera Cruz; Both films features stoic heroes repeatedly betrayed by their own men, even as a powerful force is closing in on them. Though Vera Cruz is a much lighter film, that’s designed more to be a grand entertaining spectacle, the filmmakers do sneak in these themes now and then. It’s mirrored in the overall cynical tone of the film, where no one could be trusted. Even Cooper’s heroic Trane, who could be considered the most moral of the film’s characters, is a guy who is in it mainly for the money.

In Vera Cruz, the main plot kicks off when Emperor Maximillian of Mexico, a puppet of the French, hires Trane, Erin and his men to escort the aristocratic Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) through hostile territory to the port of Vera Cruz. Though it looks like a routine assignment at first, It soon become obvious that there is more to the mission than meets the eye. It turns out that the Countess is transporting a gold shipment worth three million dollars to Europe. The money is for hiring soldiers for the Emperor’s armies in their fight against the revolutionaries. But the countess has her own ideas for stealing the gold and she involves Erin and Trane in her plans. To make matters more complicated, the Juaristas also gets wind of the gold and they plan to steal it to fund the revolution. They attack the convoy on their way from Mexico City , but they are unsuccessful in their mission. During this attack, Trane saves Erin’s life, when Erin is close to being killed . Erin looks more amused than grateful by Trane’s act of saving him. He recounts the story of one Ace Hanna, who killed his father and then gave him a ride home. Erin would later kill Hanna, but before he did, Hanna gave him some advice which Erin believes is relevant in this context “Never do favors that you can do without“. It’s Erin’s way of saying that Trane had committed a big mistake by saving him, because no matter what, he is going to betray Trane in the end. Lancaster is at his best in this scene; his devilish charm is at its peak as he narrates the story of Hanna. He appears to be both genuine in his appreciation of Trane’s kindness and chiding him for doing something stupid. Lancaster plays this duality very well

But there are more double crosses on the way, as Marquis Henri de Labordere (Ceaser Romero), the Imperial soldier heading the convoy, absconds with the gold, thus foiling everybody’s plans. The Juaristas, unable to steal the gold, now hires Trane and Erin to get the gold for them. They manage to locate the gold, but as expected, Erin betrays everyone and tries to steal the gold. But he is confronted by Trane, who grants him a fair draw in spite of his betrayal. In the final showdown, Erin is killed by Trane , and Trane walks away leaving the gold behind.

Vera Cruz is in no way a great film, maybe its not even a good film and it has its flaws, both from point of view of its making as well as the sensibilities – political, racial, gender – of its time . But it is eminently watchable for its full running time and, in spite of its grey shades and cynical tone, remains highly enjoyable for most of it. Seeing today, some scenes, like Charles Bronson and his cohorts trying to rape Sara Montiel – playing a Mexican pickpocket Nina who also happens to be Gary Cooper’s love interest in the film – in broad daylight and in the midst of hundreds of people, looks both unintentionally funny and cringe worthy. But the film is mainly an old-fashioned, spectacle and it is a great vehicle for its two lead superstars, who whip up enough macho brio and testosterone between them to keep things interesting throughout. As already mentioned, by the early fifties, Television had become a big threat to movie industry. To combat the menace of Television, the film studios resorted to the ‘Bigger is better‘ philosophy and decided to turn their attention to creating grand, colorful spectacles. As a big step in this direction, the movie studio Twentieth century-Fox, introduced the new widescreen CinemaScope process in their 1953 film The Robe, where the film was projected on to a much larger screen than before, thus giving the audience an experience that they will not get at home. Soon other studios will also adopt this theory by either adopting CinemaScope or inventing their own wide screen processes. The success of The Robe and the successive widescreen productions solidified the studio’s faith in this formula of spectacular productions done in widescreen format . Vera Cruz was a film made very much in this vein, by using a similar widescreen process called SuperScope. The film is grand and colorful as a Mexican fiesta. A huge three million dollar budget enabled the filmmakers to shoot in some breathtaking Mexican locations. The grandeur of the exterior is matched by the grand interiors, especially the set of the Emperor’s palace in Mexico City and the pomp and splendor of the ball sequence.

Vera Cruz was a massive success on release, grossing almost Ten million dollars. The double success of Apache and Vera Cruz – along with the blockbuster success of From Here to Eternity in 1953- put Lancaster right on top of the industry food chain, both as a star and a producer. The film also showcased the generational shift that was happening in Hollywood; with an ageing, more somber stars of the earlier generation like Cooper, Fonda, Bogart, Tracy ,… giving way to a young, flashy, ruggedly sexy and dynamic brand of stars like Lancaster, Kirk Douglas , Charlton Heston,… who would become the mainstay of American commercial cinema for the next two decades. The film also showed the shifting of power center in the industry, with the Studio Mogul giving way to the Movie Superstar; who started controlling every aspect of the film production and becoming the magnet that attracts financing for a project, and being the most financially rewarded one for being so. Lancaster earned more than two million dollars for the film, an unthinkable sum for a movie star in the early fifties.

But the film’s biggest legacy is that it inspired Sergio Leone and other Italian directors in creating the spaghetti westerns. They would adopt the film’s cynical worldview, which was rather new for westerns of the time, as well as the amoral characters of the film as a template for the spaghetti western hero who is unscrupulous in switching sides and was concerned only with his survival. They would also adopt a lot of the visual aesthetics: The rugged terrain of the American Mexican Border; Sweaty, sun-burnt faces shot in extreme close-ups etc., and amplify the violence and dark humor inherent in the film. Aldrich originally wanted to make the film far more violent and sexually explicit, but he was forced to tone down due to the censorship laws existing at the time. He would attempt to remake Vera Cruz the way he intended in the 1960’s , but that project never went into production. Lancaster and Aldrich would go on to make two more films. Their next film would come, most surprisingly, after a gap of eighteen years with Ulzana’s Raid in 1972, another superb Western, albeit a very gritty and revisionist one.

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