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Blu-ray: Vera Cruz (1954) by Robert Aldrich

After the Civil War two American gunmen, Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) and Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), team up south of the border on a mission for Emperor Maximilian (George Macready). They are supposed to assist a troop of French lancers lead by Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) escorting countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz but soon they discover that the stagecoach she travels in contains a hidden compartment full of gold. The two Americans wish to seize this opportunity but so do the Juaristas who are in need of money to fund their fight against Maximilian.

The setting of “Vera Cruz” is the French Intervention in Mexico which took place between 1861 and 1867. The French had invaded Mexico and in 1864 Maximilian had been proclaimed emperor of Mexico backed by Napoleon III of France and Mexican conservatives. Opposed to the French invaders where the Juaristas, the followers of Benito Juarez who was president at the time of the French invasion in 1861 and who would become president again after the defeat of Maximilian in 1867. In their struggle for power both Maximilian and the Juaristas employed American mercenaries, of whom many came fresh out of the American Civil War. The protagonists in the film played by Lancaster and Cooper were such men.

Even though “Vera Cruz” is a western with plenty of action, director Robert Aldrich does take his time to develop the characters which allows for some great dialogue. In the film Gary Cooper plays the southern gentleman who has not come to Mexico to get rich but to make enough money to rebuild his plantation destroyed during the American civil war. “I guess you don't know much about a plantation, do ya? It's not just a house. It's land .. a lot of people. And right now they're in a pretty bad fix”, he tells Joe Erin. Cooper is a great choice for the role. With a legacy of films like ”Mr. Deeds goes to Town” (1936) and “High Noon” (1952) he is perfectly believable to the audience as a stand-up guy empathetic to others. Burt Lancaster’s character Joe Erin on the other hand is only in it for the money and he knows it. When the countess utters: “One million is enough for me”, Joe Erin reacts: “It ain’t for me, I’m a pig!”  Burt Lancaster plays his role as the black clad gunfighter and likeable bad guy with panache. His roguish charm is accentuated by his famous Cheshire Cat grin and he is very credible as the fastest draw in town. Burt Lancaster’s past as a circus acrobat certainly helps in this respect. Nobody twirls his gun faster than he does and the way he climbs up a balcony is on par with Douglas Fairbanks or Jackie Chan. His relationship with the aging gunfighter Ben Trane is complicated. On one hand he looks upon him as an accomplice and perhaps even a father figure replacing his mentor whom he shot as a youngster. “You’re the first friend I ever had“, Erin says to Trane. On the other hand he considers him a rival and a danger in his quest for the loot which causes him to utter: “Ben Trane. I don't trust him. He likes people, and you can never count on a man like that.” The supporting cast is great with actors like Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) and Cesar Romero. It certainly adds to the quality of the film.

In several ways “Vera Cruz” has had an influence on spaghetti westerns in general and more in particular on Sergio Leone, who in fact was an assistant-director of Aldrich on “The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962) until Aldrich reportedly fired him for taking too lengthy lunch breaks. First of all, in more traditional westerns like “My Darling Clementine” (1946), “Red River” (1948) or “Shane” (1953) there is generally a clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. In spaghetti westerns however the difference between good and bad is more vague. As a consequence viewers will find themselves rooting for protagonists that would be considered hoodlums in traditional American westerns. This is also the case in “Vera Cruz”. One cannot help taking a liking to Burt Lancaster’s character to a certain extent, even though he is completely immoral. In traditional westerns the bad guys are generally after the money and the good guys have a cause to fight for. In Italian westerns money is often a far more important driver than any cause and “Vera Cruz” is the progenitor of this. Even Ben Trane, who according to Joe Erin is the “cause expert”, answers when asked if money is worth risking one’s life for: “It comes closer than anything I know”. Next, the two main characters of “Vera Cruz” may very well have been the template for Lee van Cleef’s and Clint Eastwood’s characters in Leone’s “For A Few Dollars More” (1965), in which a younger gunfighter is partnering up with an older gentleman. Furthermore, in “Vera Cruz” everybody is trying to double-cross each other. This is another element that can be found in films like a “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good The Bad and The Ugly” (1966).  To conclude, the staging of final gunfight must have impressed Sergio Leone considering the similarity to the duels in Leone’s westerns. There’s a  shot from behind catching both duelists, followed by close ups on the hands, close ups on the faces and then the final draw followed by the uncertainty who won the fight.

The transfer of the film to blu-ray is good and has a high bit-rate but the source could need a touch-up. This did not distract me from having a very satisfying viewing experience though. Besides the trailer, which is in HD, there are no extra features. This is a great western and I certainly recommend adding this blu-ray to your collection.

Frederick von Schtupp

Rating: 8 out of 10


Movie details:

Director: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Cesar Romero, Denise Darcel, George Macready, Sarita Montiel, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Charles Bronson

Country: USA

Year of release: 1954


Edition details:

Released by: MGM

Country: USA

Year of release: 2011

Disc: Dual layered blu-ray, MPEG4 AVC, 1080p

Region code: A, B, C

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Running time: 93 mins

Language: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish

Subtitles: English for the hearing impaired, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, none

Special features: Trailer

Packaging: Standard blu-ray case