VERA CRUZ - Blu-ray review

Vera Cruz is one of the better Westerns that no one remembers . . . .

James Plath's picture

"Vera Cruz" is one of the better Westerns that no one remembers--maybe because it was released between two all-time classics, "High Noon" (1953) and "The Searchers" (1956). But this 1954 Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster adventure is well-plotted and full of decent lines, with all-location filming in Mexico providing the authenticity. Some of it's studio-shot (at Estudios Churubusco Azteco in Mexico City), but the bulk was filmed in Cuernevaca and countryside locations near Mexico City. Like the Monument Valley Rock formations that rise up behind John Ford's cowboys and soldiers as a dramatic contrast, the pyramids of Teotihuacan provide a striking backdrop for director Robert Aldrich's horsemen. So does Chapultepec Castle, the only one in North America used by a sovereign--Emperor Maximilian I, who briefly presided over the Second Mexican Empire.

That's the time period for this Western, which features more treachery than slam-bang action. Shortly after the Civil War, Benjamin Trane (Cooper) rides south to Mexico looking for work as a mercenary. If this quiet Louisianan who fought for the Confederacy seems like an unlikely gun-for-hire, we learn that he's wanting to get money to restore his plantation for the people back there who are counting on him. "Vera Cruz" gets off to a spirited start when he runs into an outlaw with a price on his head--Lancaster as Joe Erin)--who sells him a stolen horse, making him an instant fugitive . . . and the two of them uneasy partners. That uneasy partnership is both the focus and theme of "Vera Cruz," and it extends well beyond the two who rode together. Joe lives his life by the sage advice ("Trust no one") of a man he admired, and then, as if to prove him right, killed. Everyone in this film seems capable of turning on someone, given the right circumstances. It's what makes "Vera Cruz" predictably unpredictable.

Cooper and Lancaster make for a nice pairing of complementary opposites, with Cooper playing a variation of his strong-and-silent image and Lancaster a more menacing and less jocular version of the rogue he played in "The Crimson Pirate." They were at two different points in their careers when they made this film. The aging Cooper would only make 10 films after this before passing, and had won a Best Actor Oscar the previous year for "High Noon." Lancaster, meanwhile, was still on the rise. The same year he made this film he also starred in "Apache" and "His Majesty O'Keefe," and six years later would earn his own Best Actor Oscar for "Elmer Gantry." Both men nail their parts and have good chemistry together--not quite as good as Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," but darned close. Lancaster is especially charismatic, with a big toothy smile that's disarming and a quick draw to match his volatile temper.

Not all of the supporting cast are as convincing as these two, but some of the best character actors turn up. For 1954, the female characters are surprisingly vital--especially Nina (Sara Montiel), a vivacious pickpocket who may be a simple peasant, or she might be a revolutionary. Cesar Romero plays the Mexican Marquis Henri de Labordere, who offers Joe and Ben and their men (among them Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, and Charles Bronson) a job escorting his Countess (Denise Darcel) to the port of Vera Cruz, where she will sail for Paris. But it turns out that Maximilian and the Marquis have more in mind than that, and are using the men for what they think will be a suicide mission. They know the Juarez rebels will be bent on stopping the caravan, and not because of the Countess, but because of the $3 million in gold that Maximilian is sending to Europe to pay for more soldiers to squash the revolution.

There's a slight sag in the second act, where it gets a little too talky when it probably should be kicking into full action mode, but this is the 1950s, when adult Westerns spent time on characterization and plot development rather than following a straight line between the opening and final scenes. Even contemporary audiences ought to be able to appreciate that, and will probably be grateful for the 35mm SuperScope Technicolor.

I score Westerns by the number of memorable scenes and lines, and there are plenty in "Vera Cruz," from the sharpshooting display at Maximilian's palace to a battle scene that includes a Gatling gun and crude grenades. You kind of see where the film is headed, but there have been so many turnarounds and double-crosses along the way that even the final scene makes you wonder what's going to go down. And isn't that the essence of the Old West?

"Vera Cruz" was presented in 2.00:1 aspect ratio in theaters, and that's what we get on this Blu-ray. I wish that I could report that the film looks as pristine as "The Searchers" in 1080p, but a number of shots have a ton of grain and resultant noise. There are also white flecks that obviously derive from dirt on the master. But "Vera Cruz" has enough interesting shots (wide-angle lenses and overhead cameras, with artful framing throughout) to make you look past the grain and the noise. Plus, they're only predominant on certain exterior sequences. Kudos to Fox for going with a high bit-rate (36 MBPS) AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc in order to make the best of an obviously flawed master.

The original soundtrack was English mono, and Fox went with an English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio for the featured soundtrack, and it's relatively free of distortion. Occasionally the dialogue seems a little flat, but that's mono for you. Additional audio options are in Dolby Digital French and Spanish mono, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom Line:
This was no B Western when it was made, and "Vera Cruz" still holds up as an interesting genre entry—one which, because of it's realism, deadpan humor and emphasis on men behaving badly, anticipates Spaghetti Westerns. Director Aldrich would go on to make "The Dirty Dozen," and you have to think that "Vera Cruz" gave him the chance to play with the idea of a bunch of misfits coming together for a single mission.


Film Value