A Mexican General says to the Gary Cooper character Benjamin Trane in "Vera Cruz", "Money, is that worth risking your life for". He replies "It comes closer than anything I know". The General says "A mans got to have more than that. He needs something to believe in". Pointing to his rifle Trane replies "I got that too". These lines are emblematic of the loose morals, greed and deep cynicism that director Robert Aldrich imbues his films with. These are not sentiments that I would subscribe to, but it makes for a highly engaging movie with some very funny and original lines. It also did much to change the earlier type of chivalrous romantic western hero. Welcome to the new breed of anti hero which reached its antithesis in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.
Aldrich once famously said "I don't think violence in film breeds violence in life. Violence in life breeds violence in films". As you may imagine from this quote there is a fair amount of violence in Aldrich films. I think particularly of the floods of panto blood in his rather weak "Emperor of the North" and his dark but brilliant western "Ulzana's Raid". "Vera Cruz" is one of his gentler films, made before the popularisation of gory blood letting effects. It relies on sheer exuberance and the chemistry between a fine ensemble cast. If you want an actor who personifies exuberance, who better to employ than Burt Lancaster, he of the Cheshire cat smile, that Ewan McGregor seems to have copied to disturbing effect. If you want the taciturn archetypal western hero, then who better than Gary Cooper! For strong support is there anyone to beat the muscular Ernest Borgnine. Who was the best Latino actor around at the time, why Cesar Romero of course! If you want the very best western character actor in the business, then you pick the chameleon eyed Jack Elam. Throw in Charles Bronson for good measure and you have the perfect cast.
The story concerns a group of mercenaries who seek employment with the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, in the turbulent era following the American Civil War. Many disaffected Southern soldiers sought employment in other countries in the years after the Civil war, and Cooper plays one such character who lost his fortune during that period, whilst Lancaster plays the out and out likeable rogue Joe Erin, a character type at which he was very adept indeed. These two, together with other disreputable Americans are employed to escort a Countess to the harbour of Vera Cruz. There is of course a great deal of money involved. Betrayals and happenings along the way make the journey an eventful one. There is action aplenty as we head to the finale.
The two stars Lancaster and Cooper are both perfectly cast, although Lancaster gets some of the choicest lines. On one occasion he says of Cooper "Ben Trane, I don't trust him. He likes people, and you can never count on a man like that". The Countess says to him at one stage "One millions enough for me". He replies "It ain't for me I'm a pig". Priceless! Lancaster was to later reprise a very similar role in "The Professionals". The film is Hollywood at its brashest and biggest best. The action comes thick and fast on an epic scale. There is a very memorable shooting contest in Maximilian's palace grounds that sticks in the mind. Whilst the film could not in all honesty be called a classic of the genre, it does exactly what it says on the box, and provides great entertainment. Sadly this is not a great transfer. The film is well deserving of a high quality disc with extras, but until that time this will have to suffice.