Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sara Montiel, George Macready, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, James McCallion, Morris Ankrum, James Seay, Henry Brandon, Archie Savage, Charles Bronson (Charles Buchinsky), Charles Horvath
Written by: James R. Webb, Roland Kibbee, based on a story by Borden Chase
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 94
Date: 12/25/1954

Vera Cruz (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Gold Trail

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Prior to his directorial career, Robert Aldrich worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin, and just about everyone else in-between. He emerged almost fully-formed in the 1950s, making the back-to-back movies Apache, Vera Cruz (both 1954), Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Knife (both 1955). He seemed to throw the film world off balance with this mix. They were hits in different parts of the world; some of them were classified as low-budget "B" movies, yet Vera Cruz was a full-color, widescreen Western with two of the day's top stars, and one of Aldrich's most popular successes.

In his original review Francois Truffaut called Vera Cruz "a painstakingly constructed mechanism of weights and balances like a Swiss watchworks." (Actually he said that it is more than just this, but we'll start there.) The screenplay, from a story by Borden Chase, is miraculously doubled and circular. Hardly an event occurs that doesn't later come back to connect to something else. Most events are somehow mirrored or duplicated or completed at a later point. And yet, despite this precision planning, the movie still charges ahead with a kind of reckless energy; Peter Bogdanovich even described Aldrich's work as angry. Aldrich is forever drawn to the violent and to the absurd, such as the emperor practicing with the new Winchester repeating rifle, aiming at targets just above his servants' heads.

Gary Cooper stars -- just a couple of years after winning an Oscar for his big hit High Noon -- as Benjamin Trane, a "colonel" from New Orleans, recovering from the Civil War. Looking for a fresh horse, he meets the snaky Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), who tries to double-cross Trane. Trane gets his revenge and comes to earn Erin's respect. Both men are headed south, looking for mercenary work (a not uncommon practice post Civil War). They hook up with Emperor Maximilian (George Macready), who hires the boys -- plus Erin's men (including Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam) -- to escort the pretty Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz. Their real mission, it turns out, is to escort a fortune in gold hidden in the countess' coach.

Erin tries to make time with the countess, while Trane finds himself saddled with a Mexican spitfire, pickpocket and rebel sympathizer Nina (Sarita Montiel). Meanwhile, Erin is forever talking about his mentor "Ace Hannah" (whom we never meet), who said not to trust anyone; Erin constantly crosses Trane's behavior with Ace's teachings, either approving or disapproving. Lancaster in particular wears a satisfied sneer any time something perverse pleases him (which is often). For his part, Cooper remains a mostly stoic good guy, though Aldrich was starting to deconstruct this legend, just as Anthony Mann was doing with Jimmy Stewart at the same time.

It's amazing that Aldrich found time to be simultaneously playful, thoughtful, and angry as well as compact and economical, cramming all this stuff into a fast-moving, action-packed 94 minutes. Fox released the 2011 Blu-Ray. The only extra is a trailer. In 2021, Kino Lorber released a fresh, new Blu-ray, and the film's unexpectedly bold colors really pop now. New bonuses include a commentary track by filmmaker (and Spaghetti Western expert) Alex Cox, an episode of "Trailers from Hell" with John Landis, and a trailer for this and several other Kino Lorber releases, mainly Westerns by Aldrich or starring Cooper or Lancaster.

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