The 1960’s have often been identified as the decade that did in the western genre. Too many TV shows, shifting styles and tones, and a general cynicism in the viewing audience turned old-fashioned westerns into violent, nasty and bloody stories. The process continued well into the 1970s with the concept of revisionist westerns. Let’s be honest though, the trend started before the 60s, notably with 1954’s Vera Cruz.
After his Louisiana plantation was destroyed during the Civil War, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) rides south into Mexico. He’s looking for work as a gunhand, willing to take just about any job he can as a mercenary. On the trail, he meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), an American gunman with quite a track record. Joe is at the head of a gang of American gunfighters, bandits and outlaws, all looking for work. They find it in French emperor Maximilian who’s looking for help. Along with a company of French lancers, Ben and Joe must help transport a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to the coastal town of Vera Cruz. There’s more to the convoy though which Trane and Erin quickly find out. Betrayals, back-stabbing and double-crosses await in abundance on the trail.
I can’t imagine what audiences thought when they saw this 1954 western from director Robert Aldrich. It’s unlike any western released to that point and for several more years to boot! Violent, cynical and other than Cooper’s Ben Trane, not even a remotely sympathetic character in sight! Everyone is out for themselves, and $ is the end-all, be-all no matter who gets in the way. Case in point? Lancaster’s Joe Erin uses children as a hostage in an early scene, and it doesn’t seem like it’d take too much for him to call a bluff. Characters willing to go to those depths wouldn’t be common in westerns until spaghetti westerns exploded in popularity about a decade later. 10 years! We’re still 3 years from Leave it to Beaver even premiering on TV!
‘Cruz’ is influential in any number of ways, but my favorite influence is the casting of its two leads, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Trane is a true Southern gentleman, but a desperate one in search of cash and a new beginning. Erin is a killer, a gunslinger, and not above doing anything to get that money. Their chemistry is flawless, Cooper’s understated charm and Lancaster’s showier style, especially when he flashes that toothy smile when you know he’s up to no good. The relationship — unlikely and untrusting — is the inspiration for countless future westerns, especially The Wild Bunch and For a Few Dollars More. Not often thought of as their best performances, but clearly two parts the duo had some fun bringing to life.
Aldrich specialized in guy’s guys movies — The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix — and he brings a cool supporting cast together here, including several budding stars. Erin’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and several other familiar faces. Also look for Archie Savage as Ballad, a black soldier who served with the Union. Along with Darcel, Sara Montiel is a potential love interest as Nina, a Mexican girl working with the revolutionaries. Rounding out the powers that be on both the Mexican and French side are Cesar Romero (a French Marquis), Henry Brandon (a French lancer), Morris Ankrum (revolutionary leader), and George Macready (Maximilian).
Filmed on location in Mexico, ‘Cruz’ is the better for it. You feel like you’re part of the revolution itself with the worn-down ruins, the dusty streets, and the mountains in the background. Filming even took place at Teotihuacan, at its time one of the largest cities in the world and a beautiful backdrop, even if it is only for a scene. The final battle is the same location as the finale in The Wrath of God (one of my favorites too). The locations go a long way toward the realism, adding a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s also a cool triple- or quadruple-feature with The Treasure of Pancho Villa, Bandido, The Wonderful Country and others.
A western that is ahead of time and incredibly entertaining. There is plenty of action, and even having seen it before, the story keeps you guessing until the end with betrayals and double-crosses galore. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are excellent together, a pairing of two of Hollywood’s all-time greats living up to expectations.
The historical setting is also familiar among westerns, with the French involvement in Mexico also in Major Dundee, The Undefeated, Two Mules for Sister Sara, El Condor and Adios, Sabata. An interesting time in history that isn’t necessarily well-known.
Vera Cruz (1954): *** 1/2 /****