MGM // 1954 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 2nd, 2011
The giants battle in the biggest spectacle of them all!
"Ben Trane. I don't trust him. He likes people, and you can never count on a man like that."
Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper, High Noon) and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster, The Sweet Smell of Success) are American gunslingers looking to make a few bucks fighting for the Mexican army during the Mexican Revolution of 1866. Neither man has any strong feelings about what the side they're fighting for represents; they're just looking to make a few bucks. However, Benjamin's buried decency and Joe's not-so-buried savagery will eventually create a conflict that the friendship between the two men may not be able to recover from.
For decades, the Hollywood western was an endless wellspring of simple morality plays: good vs. evil, white hats vs. black hats, selflessness vs. greed and so on. However, the western began shifting into revisionist territory in the '60s and '70s, as the as the genre became dominated by violent antiheroes and the black & white morality was tossed aside for shades of gray. While there have always been exceptions to the overall trend, many have argued that the era of the "cynical western" begins with Robert Aldrich's 1954 feature Vera Cruz.
Aldrich was a director who frequently managed to get away with movies a little bit edgier than what was generally accepted at the time -- recall the grim horror of Kiss Me Deadly and the then-startling violence of The Dirty Dozen -- and Vera Cruz is another of his controversial genre pieces. While the attitudes and level of violence presented in the film are not much different from what audiences would see in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, this film preceded that one by ten years. There are several moments of bloodshed that are startling by 1954 standards, and the hired-gun mentality of the main characters was strikingly different from the sort of heroics audiences of the era were used to. This is a film in which the good guys threaten to kill a group of children if their ransom demands aren't met.
Vera Cruz may be one of the earliest cynical westerns, but it's also a precursor to the "buddy movie" genre that would become so popular in the 1980s. Though the differences between Joe and Benjamin will eventually drive them into conflict, for the vast majority of the film they remain surprisingly chummy. Joe is attracted to Benjamin's plain-spoken honesty, while Benjamin seems fascinated by Joe's ruthless charm. Their giddy, greed-fueled camaraderie is a whole lot of fun to watch, and one is reminded as much of Lethal Weapon as For a Few Dollars More.
It's said that Clark Gable warned Gary Cooper against working with Burt Lancaster, claiming that the ambitious young actor would steal every scene from the stately movie star. That's precisely what happened, as Lancaster's antihero (with his alarming, toothy grin) immediately attracts our attention every time he appears onscreen. Lancaster essays his character's lust for violence with gleeful energy; one of the early indicators of what a powerful force he could be onscreen. Meanwhile, Cooper seems more than a little uncomfortable in his role, unsuccessfully attempting to bring his unique brand of unshakeable dignity to a character who makes a whole lot of moral compromises. Even so, the weaker quality of Cooper's performance almost works in the context of the film, as it only enhances the impression Lancaster makes in his colorful role.
There are many who have argued that Vera Cruz is actually a rather mediocre movie despite its groundbreaking qualities, but I'd have to disagree. The tale is tightly-plotted and well-directed by Aldrich, who does a nice job of slowly escalating the tension over the course of Vera Cruz's slim 94 minutes. The busy action scenes are presented with refreshing clarity, Hugo Friedhofer's score brings some interesting south-of-the-border shades to the more traditional western movie bustle and the dialogue boasts a handful of entertainingly clever exchanges. The supporting cast is solid across the board, with Cesar Romero (Batman) and George MacReady (Paths of Glory) making strong impressions and future stars like Ernest Borgnine (Marty) and Charles Bronson (Once Upon a Time in the West) bringing a lot to their bit roles.
Vera Cruz arrives on Blu-ray sporting a functional 1080p/1.99:1 transfer. It may initially seem as if this is yet another catalogue release MGM has put too little work into restoring, but the fact of the matter is that the film has never looked great. This is largely due to the fact that it was shot on Superscope, and the image was criticized as being too blurry and blotchy when it was initially released. Built-in problems aside, the film looks decent enough, boasting deep blacks, rich colors and occasional moments of striking detail. There's a good deal of grain, but it never seems as if the film has been tampered with in any unfortunate way. Audio is acceptable as well, though there are a few moments in which Friedhofer's score feels a little short-changed. Most of the dialogue is clean and the action scenes are well-defined if less than rousing. The only extra on the disc is a trailer.
Though fans of traditional Gary Cooper westerns may find Vera Cruz off-putting, this subversive slice of cinema history is well worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.00:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated