Vera Cruz: A turning point in the western genre.

Released in 1954, this richly visual independent film marked a departure from the classic westerns. It displayed a new vision of the traditional heroes of the genre by developing issues that had never been highlighted before.

vera cruz poster

In 1866, hardly a year after the Confederates were defeated by the Union, the situation continues to deteriorate in Mexico. A revolt is led by Mexican rebels eager to gain their independence from the Austrian Emperor of Mexico, Maximillian I. American criminals, as well as former soldiers of the Civil War, take part in the conflict.

Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), a former confederate soldier, flees to Mexico after the Northern Yankees succeeded in bringing the South to its knees. He finds out that there is money to be made in the conflict opposing the European colonial power to the Juaristes (Mexican rebels). He joins Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) and his gang of American mercenaries. They are hired by the highest bidder, Maximilian, to ensure that Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) reaches the seaport city of Veracruz. During the journey, they discover that the stagecoach contains three million dollars in gold. They decide to forget about the reward promised by their employer, and agree to share the treasure with the countess. They will soon realize that they are not the only ones to covet this huge amount of gold…

(Left to right) Joe Erin, Ben Trane and Countess Marie Duvarre
(Left to right) Joe Erin, Ben Trane and Countess Marie Duvarre

From a story by Borden Chase, Robert Aldrich (Apache, The Dirty Dozen) in his third movie as a director, managed to create a unique masterpiece. Vera Cruz is often considered as a turning point in the history of the Western genre. Contrary to previous conventional Hollywood productions, the characters are more concerned about their own interests than about “the greater good.”

Gary Cooper’s character embodies the Southern decline at the end of the Civil War. He is seen as a nostalgic Southerner, depressed at the idea that everything has to be rebuilt. He used to fight for the honour of his region, but now money is the only thing that matters. Joe Erin is proud to be a ruthless thief, working for no one but himself. Always in a good mood, he is also in good shape and likes using irony, in contrast with Ben Trane who is getting old and appears to be dark and pessimistic, as if his painful past had got the better of his joie de vivre.

(Left to Right) Marquis Henri de Labordere and Emperor Maximilian: the European colonists.
(Left to Right) Marquis Henri de Labordere and Emperor Maximilian: the European colonists.

What made Vera Cruz quite revolutionary was Aldrich’s non-Manichean vision of the West. He succeeded in going beyond the traditional dualism of the Western genre, as there are no “good guys” and “bad guys.” Therefore, the film may appear as less romanticized than usual westerns and more faithful to History. None of the different camps is depicted as positive. Even Mexican natives, who are supposedly the victims as they are humiliated and robbed by the Europeans and the Americans, are seen as deceitful people who always hide to trap their enemies. Besides, despite its general positive reception, the film scandalized Mexican people when it was released. Although Ben’s good side ends up reappearing, all characters struggle for their own interest, that is, money. This explains why the film is often considered as the forerunner of the spaghetti western subgenre.

The Juaristes ready to attack the convoy.
The Juaristes ready to attack the convoy.

The gap between the two protagonists is actually the key to the success of their complementarity. The duo provides the film with humour, they both are quick at repartee, and more generally their complicity often makes you smile. Cooper and Lancaster’s remarkable performance is definitely made possible by the interdependence of their respective parts. As for the rest, the film is also a total success: the magnificence of the landscapes is celebrated through sumptuous images of Mexican nature; spectacular fast-moving actions make the film captivating; the varied score, composed by Hugo Friedhofer, meshes perfectly with every scene, and provides climatic sequences, such as chases and fights, with a dramatic quality and intensity. Unlike many films of the 1950’s that would seem too slow to an audience who has grown with Tarantino’s works, Vera Cruz is notable for its fast pace.

Added to Aldrich’s modern vision, all these cinematographic elements make Vera Cruz a timeless masterpiece which, at the time, opened the way for other classics of the genre, such as The Magnificent Seven.

Vera Cruz credits:

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Produced by James Hill

Written by Roland Kibbee James R. Webb

Starring Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Charles Bronson

Music by Hugo Friedhofer

Cinematography Ernest Laszlo

Edited by Alan Crosland Jr.

Production company Hecht-Lancaster Productions

Distributed by United Artists

Release dates December 25, 1954

Running time 94 min.

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