Vera Cruz (1954) is an interesting western: it’s a buddy movie where the buddies never really like each other. It’s a romance where nobody is in love. It’s a story about heroes who are mercenaries who are on the wrong side of a revolution for most of the film, and are always planning to betray their employers, and each other. And everyone seems to know about it all the time, and roll with it.
Our protagonists meet when one tricks the other into stealing a horse. The trickster is Joe Erin, played by Burt Lancaster as a sociopath with a smile so white, he’s got to be trying to blind you. The tricked is Ben Trane, a Southern gentleman just out of the civil war played with typical stoic decency by Gary Cooper.
The very decent Ben Trane pretty quickly gets in with Joe’s group of misfits criminals, doesn’t blink an eye when they threaten a group of children to get away from Mexican revolutionaries, and grimaces but doesn’t complain when Joe murders a pair of inconvenient men in cold blood. Ben exudes decency, so he doesn’t often have to exhibit it.
Joe, Ben, and the men are hired to escort a countess from the Mexican Emperor’s palace to Vera Cruz, where she will take a ship back to France. Of course, they know their team of roughnecks is overkill for this mission, and soon discover the countess’s wagon is filled with hidden gold, $3 million to raise an army of French mercenaries.
But the countess knows about it, and wants it for herself. The three strike up a deal… split three ways, $3 million still goes a long way. The duet between Joe and Ben becomes a trio… except that the Marquis, loyal to the emperor and the countess’s ostensible lover, knows about the betrayal.
And there are betrayals within betrayals on the long road to Vera Cruz. The film has a number of fun action sequences, including an ambush of the caravan in the town, and a pretty terrific final siege sequence when all the various players in this western heist meet up in the port town.
There’s a pair of semi-romantic situations in the film. The more wholesome is between Ben and a Mexican girl, Nina, who steals his wallet after he rescues her from Joe rapacious crew. The creepier one is between Joe and the countess, who both know the other is trying to string them along. Burt Lancaster has always had a terrific physical presence on the screen, and here his sense of charm and terror coalesce into a sometimes loathsome, sometimes lovable character.
The supporting cast is practically a who’s who of ’50s character actors. Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and even Charles Bronson show up as members of Joe’s vile little sharp-shooting crew. Cesar Romero plays the Marquis with a patrician charm.
Director Robert Aldrich, perhaps best known for The Dirty Dozen or Kiss Me Deadly, was a tough guy movie director, and this is a pretty tough film. The violence (though not the gore) would hold its own with many spaghetti westerns from 15 years later. The film was entirely shot in Mexico, so happily it has a different look than other Westerns of the era. Unfortunately, though colored by Technicolor the film format it was filmed in, Superscope, was not known for clarity. Some close ups and medium shots look terrific, but a lot of the more widely framed shots have smeary details. I do not believe this is a problem with the transfer, but rather a limitation of the original materials themselves. This release of Vera Cruz probably looks as good as it can.
As a western, Vera Cruz is a commentary on the morality of self-interest. Ben Trane comes to Mexico to make money to rebuild his life. Joe is just there because he’s a sociopathic drifter. He wears a black hat. Ben’s hat and vest are grey. He’s supposed to be the good guy, and he does noble things in the film, but it’s clear he doesn’t particularly care about much but himself. He’d lost a cause in the civil war. He’s not about to find another.
Vera Cruz comes in at a pretty lean 98 minutes, and it doesn’t waste much time on filling in backstories for its characters. Joe opens up a little, but most of the characterization comes through action, or casting. The vivid Mexican locations are fun, if let down by the often grainy and indistinct photography. It’s a decent western, buoyed by the charismatic performances of the two leads.
Vera Cruz has been released by Kino Lorber on Blu-ray. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox, and Trailers from Hell video with John Landis, and several trailers for films, including Vera Cruz.