Film Review: Vera Cruz,
Robert Aldrich, 1954
'Ben Trane. I don't trust him. He likes people,
and you can never count on a man like that.'
Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster)
Robert Aldrich, 1954
The contemporary film critic of the New York Times, Bosely Crowther, referred to Vera Cruz as a ‘pretty atrocious film’, adding that it featured two scoundrels played by Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. Reading this we could be led to believe that this was a film ahead of its time and one recognizes numerous parts which have influenced such greats as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Charles Bronson, who appears as a harmonica player in Vera Cruz, later reprised the role in Once Upon a Time in the West when Leone indulged his playfulness by making this central character bear the name of the musical instrument.
Perhaps contemporary critics like Crowther could not stomach the almost anti patriotic portrayal of Americans as unscrupulous mercenaries and the tone of the film being unremittingly cynical in its portrayal of the motives of the characters. One really is led to ask the question ‘who is skinning whom?’ No wonder the film inspired those such as Peckinpah and Leone. Despite the poor reception in the press the film was popular with cinema goers and Vera Cruz was the fourth largest earner of the Fifties Westerns, showing that audiences were at home with the notion that the Western stars could be motivated by selfish greed and that the West was not all “Home on the Range” and ‘The Cowboy’s Ten Commandments’. The success of Vera Cruz led others to be given the opportunity to develop such themes in the Sixties, notably in the so called Spaghetti Westerns and in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but also in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven and Richard Brooks’s The Professionals.
Although Burt Lancaster overplays the bravura and panache of his character grinning excruciatingly, showing off his spotlessly white teeth, at every opportunity, he does actually get away with it, for this actually adds credence to his believable untrustworthy nature. The central characters in the film (Lancaster and Cooper) are unashamedly the white Americans. Although there are no native americans in the picture the faceless mass of foe encountered by the main characters are the Mexicans, who even stand on the elevated horizon surrounding our anti heroes as almost surrogate Indians at one point.
Vera Cruz is an odyssey type of western where the story unfolds on the journey and the characters reveal their flawed but human natures. The cinematography by Ernest Laszio is beautiful and the acting great. Contemporary complaints about its violence show how much the world has changed, although for some today the changes it instigated to the western genre altered it beyond recognition, resulting in the demise of the classic Western tradition. Nevertheless, Vera Cruz is a classic western film which anticipated other classic westerns and is well worth a viewing.
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© Chris Smallbone April 2010