Friday, November 14, 2014

Western of the Day: Vera Cruz

Turner Classic Movies is a great channel.  I remember when AMC used to show classic movies but now they show the popcorn equivalent of USA and are more known for their original programming like Mad Men and The Walking Dead.  TCM has kept it old school though, celebrating stars and features from past eras with retrospectives and documentaries, unafraid to broadcast films in Black and White.  Most films are preceded and followed by on air segments discussing the film, providing tidbits on the production and reception.  Scanning through their listings I came across a flick I hadn't seen in a very long time, 1954's Vera Cruz.  Gary Cooper headlines while Burt Lancaster co-stars and produced with Robert Aldrich directing a script from Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb and Borden Chase.

Vera Cruz opens in Mexico where we learn that many a Civil War veteran travels down south to join the Franco-Mexican war as mercenaries where the locals fight against French emperor Maximilian.  Benjamin Trane (Cooper), a clean, suit clad, square tie wearing plantation owner from Louisiana runs into black clad, white toothed, over grinning Joe Erin (Lancaster).  A tense introduction and sale of a horse shows Trane's humanity and Erin's paranoia before the duo runs into the royal army and high tails it.  Trane gets himself into trouble with Erin's gang, which includes western staple Jack Elam and future stars Ernest Borgnine and Charles Buchinksy aka Bronson as dirty, rude, savage thugs.  The motley crew shuns an offer to work for the local resistance army and ends up selling themselves out to the Emperor who needs an escort for his wife, The Countess Duvarre and a wagon train to the port at Vera Cruz where she's supposedly headed back to France.  Turns out it's a set up as the wagon is loaded with $3 million bucks worth of gold intended to buy troops from Europe to keep ol' Maxy in power.  Everybody finds out about the gold of course and double and triple crosses, fending off the rebel army and uneasy alliances ensue.

I'm not sure when the first buddy picture was but Vera Cruz is firmly in the would be tradition of the genre.  One is a southern gentleman while the other is a wild west outlaw, etc.  It's a little edgier though as the two leads are friendly but more in the sense of waiting to be stabbed in the back rather than a brotherly bond.  High Noon's Gary Cooper as Benjamin Trane is standup and forthright, seemingly naive yet learned and experienced while Burt Lancaster channels his swaggering, over the top performances from The Crimson Pirate and Arrow and the Flame but with added menace as Joe Erin.  Lancaster overuses his trademark mega watt smile and physicality here and comes off a bit theatrical while Cooper relies on his quiet strength.  Erin's lack of manners cracked me up as he eats whole chickens with his hands and guzzles goblets of wine with little of the liquid actually going into his mouth. Suave guy himself Cesar Romero from Batman shows up as the Marquis Henri de Labordere, coincidentally, he would play a Marquis again in 1963's Donovan's Reef.  Jack Elam, whose career was defined by westerns starring the likes of John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and James Garner plays it mean here along with Borgnine and Buchinksy as would be child killers and rapists Donnegan and Pittsburgh.

This was one of Robert Aldrich's first feature films but his future as an action director with visual flair is firmly established as Vera Cruz contains some rough and tumble excitement; a convoy ambush, river crossing, harrowing escapes, horse jumps and lots and lots of shootouts featuring revolvers, repeating Winchester rifles and a Gatling gun.  One interesting technique that caught my eye was that actors tended to walk into frame and get close ups throughout which is said to have influenced spaghetti western director Sergio Leone.  Lancaster had already worked with Aldrich on the earlier Apache and the two would reteam twice more twenty years later on Ulzanna's Raid and Twilight's Last Gleaming.  On a viewing once upon a time, it was said that Lancaster amped up his performance to overcompensate Cooper's quiet delivery but upon seeing dailies immediately asked to reshoot scenes as he had gone way over the top.  With the studio system collapsing, Burt Lancaster was a forerunner of actors procuring their own projects and producing themselves.  Vera Cruz cost $1.7 million but made over $11 million at the box office.

Lancaster had already been nominated for an Academy Award for the superb 1953 World War II drama From Here To Eternity but still had a decade plus of leading man hits awaiting him in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry, Seven Days In May and The Swimmer to solidify his spot as a Dammaged Goods favorite.  Cooper had been acting for thirty years by the time Vera Cruz was released and headlined major hits like Sergeant York and High Noon before passing away in 1961.  Aldrich would go on to become an unsung hero of sorts in the genre of macho and raw action flicks, directing Attack, The Dirty Dozen, Emperor of the North and The Longest Yard featuring leading men Jack Palance, Lee Marvin and Burt Reynolds.  Years after Vera Cruz was released, the Mexican government was so incensed over the portrayal of its people, it forced a censor/adviser on the Mexican set production of The Magnificent Seven to make sure Mexicans were not shown in a negative light.

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