“As the American Civil War ended, another war was just beginning. The Mexican people were struggling to rid themselves of their foreign emperor – Maximilian. Into this fight rode a handful of Americans, ex-soldiers, adventurers, criminals, all bent on gain. They drifted south in small groups. And some came alone.”
Ben Trane (Cooper) was one of those who came alone. He was a southern officer fresh from the defeat of the Confederacy. He’s come to Mexico to hire out for the Emperor in fighting the rebellion. Along the way he meets Joe Erin (Lancaster). After a series of unfortunate incidents, he meets up with Joe’s gang. Joe figures there’s more money to be made by bringing some numbers. The two soon prove themselves to the Mexican government and are hired to escort Countess Marie Duvarre (Darcel) and a wagon filled with gold to the port town of Vera Cruz. There the Countess is expected to go back to Europe and use the money to bring back more soldiers and weapons. Along the way the two men plot with the Countess to steal the money. But the Marquis Henri (Romero) is on to the plan and has laid a trap. The journey is filled with double-crosses and betrayals that will lead to conflict between the two men as their loyalties begin to widen.
Vera Cruz is a western, to be sure, but it’s nothing like the traditional westerns of the time. There isn’t much of John Ford’s “Big Sky” appearance here. The film was shot in Mexico so that the locations are very authentic. Still, the locations aren’t really what this film has to offer. The real value here is in the strong performances of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Never really friends, these characters circle each other throughout the movie. The script by Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb offers far more twists and turns than the traditional shoot-’em-up western usually delivers. The movie also offers a considerably strong female part for Denise Darcel as the conniving Countess. This was far more rare in those days and actually gives this a film noir feel, even more rare for a western. Darcel provides the perfect femme fatale here.
There’s also a lot of value in the long list of supporting performers. Cesar Romero plays the cunning Marquis who plans to give the trio enough rope to hang themselves. He’s terribly underused here but makes wonderful use of every scene in which he appears. Lancaster’s gang includes the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson. This is an often overlooked western that deserves a second look now that MGM has released it on high-definition Blu-ray.
Vera Cruz is presented in its unusual original aspect ratio of 2.00:1. It was called Superscope at the time. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of over 35 mbps. Unfortunately, this is pretty much a catalog release, and there isn’t much evidence of cleaning or restoration. The print suffers in more than a few spots from debris and other artifact issues. Even with its age-related flaws the film looks quite good at times. There is plenty of detail that shows most notably in the close-ups of the actors. Reds are particularly bright at times. They provide a rich texture and bright reproduction, particularly with fabric. Black levels are only fair with almost no real shadow definition. Fortunately, there aren’t a ton of dark images to be had here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono is just enough to deliver the dialog and the at times magnificent score. Many of the traditional western sound design trappings come through with enough punch to make this a passable audio presentation. I’m talking, of course, about horse gallops and gunfire for the most part.
Just a trailer
I’m amazed at just how lost to time this classic appears to have become. I suspect most of that is owed to the untraditional style for a western of the day. There is no doubt that director Robert Aldrich infused the film noir elements quite intentionally. This was a time when both genres were just past their peak. Perhaps the timing of the film owes much to its forgotten nature. It was a very early film for Aldrich, but it’s easy to see here how he came to direct such classics as The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard, Hustle, and The Flight Of The Phoenix. When you see his career in that light, it sure does seem like “It’s a long way to Vera Cruz”.