Vera Cruz is one of Robert Aldritch’s early Westerns before a career full of psychological thrillers and war pictures would make his name. He did occasionally return to the West for films like The Last Sunset, also available from Kino Lorber on October 12).
On the surface, Vera Cruz lacks much of a punch to distinguish itself from other American Westerns of its time. A hero in white — Gary Cooper as Ben — and an antihero in black — Burt Lancaster as Joe — must bury their differences to complete a job before they inevitably face off over moral disagreements. A shootout seals the deal. What sets it apart, and made it influential on a lot of later deconstructionist depictions of the American West, is that Vera Cruz is amoral, violent (for its time), and even more politically distressing now than it was at the time.
The story is set during the mid-1860s, during the Franco-Mexican War and the height of the Second Mexican Empire. An opening scrawl explains that men like Ben found themselves adrift after the American Civil War, making their way south in search of work and purpose. He’s a Confederate, you see. The country he loved no longer seems interested in him or the skills he learned killing Yankees up north. He initially has no qualms plying his bloody trade in service of folks like Emperor Maximillian I, who, at the time, was waging battle against the native Mexican population (the Juaristas) on behalf of his French benefactors. The money’s good, and spilling blood? It’s just blood. He’s seen plenty of it before.
Ben’s “job” in question involves working with Joe and Joe’s gang of mercenaries to escort Countess Duvarre (Denise Darcel) across Mexico to Vera Cruz, where a ship awaits her. It’s pitched as an evacuation, but the true nature of their sojourn is to deliver gold bars to French couriers in a desperate bid for reinforcements. The Empire is losing against the Juaristas; it would eventually fall in 1867, with Maximillian abandoned by the French to be executed. Of course, it turns out that the Juaristas are the more noble bunch, and Ben has to decide how to cast his lot in a struggle about which he initially couldn’t care less.
Cooper is fine as Ben; he’s better in other Westerns when he’s playing characters who call for less nuance. Lancaster, of course, is outrageous as Joe, but villains usually get a little more to play with than stoic heroes. What makes Vera Cruz feel a little shocking in contemporary times is the fact that Ben is a Confederate and pretty proud of it. By the 1960s, the positive depiction of ex-Confederates as inherently heroic men looking for righteous battles had started to wane just a little bit. Here, though, the entire conflict allows Ben to reject the established government in favor of a rebel cell whose fight is moral and just. It’s the basic moral dynamics at play in most action cinema and Western cinema at a whole, of course. The depiction of ex-Confederates as potential heroes in this era was nothing new to the Western genre, either, but there’s something about Cooper’s upstanding, all-American man traveling around Mexico and living out the ideal version of his political outlook that feels much darker today, as American culture grapples with the continued creation and influence of Lost Cause narratives.
Aside from that, though, and its slightly more violent conflict for the time, Vera Cruz has the pacing and structure of most 1960s Western films. It isn’t as psychologically challenging as The Last Sunset or Alridch’s later films. In a double feature with the new Kino Lorber copy of Sunset, Sunset is the prize, hands down. This new restoration is a great bit of history — this was also the direct inspiration for ¡Three Amigos! — but no much more than that in the grand scheme of Western cinema.
This release features a new 2K master, an episode of Trailers from Hell with John Landis and an informative audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox.