At the end of the American Civil War and during the height of the Franco–Mexican War, circa 1866, Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) and Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) make their way into Mexico looking to sell their services as hired guns to the highest bidder. Ben, a world-weary Southern gentleman, fought the last battle of the South on his own plantation, and has nothing more to lose in joining Joe’s motley crew of mercenaries and criminals looking to cash in from either side of the conflict. While the two men are initially wary of each other, they soon settle into a relationship of one-upmanship and camaraderie, displaying their prowess for Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) and vying for the attentions of his charge, the Countess (Denise Darcel). That is, until learning on the way to Vera Cruz that the job they were hired to do – to escort the Countess from Mexico City to Vera Cruz through Juarista-laden territory – is just a cover for guarding a carriage loaded with gold, destined for France and intended to fund and win the French side of the conflict. It is at this point that the game becomes one of every man and woman for themselves.
Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954) belongs to a style of western that the French film critic André Bazin referred to as the “American cinema par excellence” – a style of hybrid western of classical settings, heroes and antiheroes. Of the form, Bazin observed that the western, like the cinema in general, is also constituted from the continuous movement of its mythical characters through the vast horizons and landscapes of the 19th-century American frontier. Yet, for Bazin, these recognisable elements on their own were not what constituted the western as the “American film par excellence,” but, rather, the elements that went into the construction of a profound form of mythical realism – on the scale of Greek Tragedy, with its “superhuman heroes and their feats of valor” – at the foundation of which was a simple and elemental morality tale of “social good and evil,” determining not only the “aesthetics” but also the “psychology” of the form. In fact, Bazin declared that without the “ethics of the epic tragedy,” the recognisable symbols of the western, the cowboys and landscapes, would amount to no more than a “picturesque” view.1 Bazin also observed that, by 1940, the western had reached the peak of its classical epic form, only to take a break during the war years and re-emerge as a form of “superwestern”, not immune to “outside influences – aesthetic, sociological, moral psychological, political”, which, by the 1950s, Bazin noted, also included a variant form of “novelisation.” In his view, the qualities of the novelised western still contained the elemental characters and set-ups of the classical western, but were now more personalized with a sense of “individuality of characters,” and an overall psychological or emotional sincerity at the root of the narrative. As an example, Bazin praised and singled out films such as Vera Cruz as the epitome of the novelised western: “both classic and novelistic” in form.2
An example of a superwestern and/or novelised western, Vera Cruz moves between classical heroes and individualistic antiheroes, as well as the theme of social good versus evil, in the actions of the lead characters, Joe and Ben. Joe’s violent backstory is attributable to the figure of his mentor, Ace Hannah, whose world view excluded loyalty and friendship. In spite of Joe’s proclamations to trust no-one, and belief in the principle of kill or be killed, Ben makes the mistake on more than one occasion of misreading Joe’s flashy grin and self-proclaimed malevolence as a form of uncultured charm. On one occasion, when Ben and Joe’s motley crew find themselves the subjects of a deadly bidding war between Maximilian’s right-hand man, the Marquis (Cesar Romero), and the Juarista leader General Ramírez (Morris Ankrum), whose rebels surround them in a bustling Mexican plaza, Ben appeals to Ramírez to send the children of the town indoors and out of harm’s way. Seizing the opportunity, Joe flashes a grin and joins the appeal for the children’s safety, quickly sending his crew to usher the children inside, but just as soon leverages the children’s lives for their own escape. Interestingly, Gary Cooper stipulated that his character, although flawed, should not cross a moral line.3 In perhaps one of the most visually stunning scenes of the film, the aesthetics and psychology of the novelised superwestern converge, when Ben and Joe’s crew are chased into an impasse by Ramírez and the Juarista rebels, who believe the men are in possession of the gold. Ben and Joe end up surrounded on a narrow bridge over a gorge; rather than make a last stand, Ben crosses over to Ramírez’s side, and, with a sense of pragmatism, negotiates his services and loyalty over to the Juarista cause.
In addition to antiheroes, Vera Cruz also demonstrates that the superwestern is not immune to outside influences. As Stephanie Fuller observes, the film offers a strong left-wing critique of high capitalism and the rising consumerism of the 1950s, coming as it does from a genre that traditionally promotes individualism, capitalist expansionism and American imperialism. This is apparent in the fate of Joe and his crew, who are “destroyed through their capitalist desires,” while, by joining the Juarista rebels, Ben eventually sides with a higher cause.4 Additionally, Fuller points out that Aldrich was widely known in Hollywood for his left-wing politics, associations and friends, and while he was not called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to reveal communist dealings and name friends, several of those in Vera Cruz’s production team were, including: producer Harold Hecht and screenwriter Roland Kibbee. Lancaster was also considered radical and subversive within the Hollywood community.5 Considering that the screenplay for Vera Cruz was a work in progress, with the script being edited and revised while on location in Mexico,6 it’s not difficult to imagine the politics of the time feeding into the underlying theme of betrayal within the narrative.
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Vera Cruz (1954 USA 94 mins)
Prod Co: Hecht-Lancaster Productions Prod: James Hill Scr: Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb Phot: Ernest Laszlo Ed: Alan Crosland Jr. Mus: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Ernest Borgnine
- André Bazin, “The Western: or the American Film Par Excellence” in What is Cinema?, Vol. 2: trans. Hugh Gray (Berkley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 140–8. ↩
- André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Western” in What is Cinema?, Vol. 2, ibid., pp. 149–57. ↩
- Eleanor Quin, “Vera Cruz,” TCM, 8 June 2010, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/31474|0/Vera-Cruz.html ↩
- Stephanie Fuller, “‘Filmed Entirely in Mexico’: Vera Cruz (1954) and the Politics of Mexico in American Cinema” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television 41.1 (January 2013): pp. 26–7. ↩
- ibid., p. 28. ↩
- Quin, op. cit. ↩