Some things just make sense when they’re put together. And while John Wayne might be the poster boy for westerns, the more I see, the more I think Gary Cooper was the best there ever was for this sort of thing. And since my whole reason for watching this movie was for Burt Lancaster, Cooper’s involvement was a great surprise that only made me more interested in watching Vera Cruz.
Handily set up in the opening titles, “As the American Civil War ended, another war was just beginning. The Mexican people were struggling to rid themselves of their foreign Emperor, Maximilian. Into the fight rode a handful of Americans, ex-soldiers, adventurers, criminals, all bent on gain.” Two of those Americans are Copper as ex-confederate soldier Ben Trane, who lost his plantation in the war, and all around scum bag, Joe Erin (Lancaster).
As mercenaries in Mexico, they’re employed by Maquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero, AKA, the Joker from the old Batman TV show) to escort the French Countess Cuvarre (Denise Darcai) to the port of Vera Cruz. Along the way, they realise they’re helping ship $3million in gold for the Emperor Maximilian to supply more French troops to make his oppression of Mexico even more absolute. Once the fortune is discovered, it’s a showdown between the honest and good Trane, and the ruthless, untrustworthy Erin.
There’s the Countess and a lazy love interest shoe horned in for Cooper. Plus, their gang of mercenaries includes Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson. But all of them are overshadowed by Cooper and Lancaster. The cool, calmness of Cooper is the perfect match for the rough, primal masculinity of Lancaster. For most of Vera Cruz, I kept bouncing back and forth on whether these two characters were reluctant allies with a cold respect for each other, two poker faced schemers waiting for their chance to betray the other, or just outright enemies. They made me fully believe these different attitudes at different times, and that constant changing of dynamic kept the movie moving at cracking pace.
Vera Cruz is kind of a by the numbers western with a by the numbers plot. It even goes for that old cornball chestnut of having the good guy shoot a gun out of a bad guy’s hand at one stage. But it’s a by the numbers western that really, really works. Cooper perfected the strong, silent type who’s honour is unfaltering. Lancaster’s Jack Erin is a total prick, but you can’t help being in awe of him at times.
But I think the best thing about Vera Cruz has to be this little gem that I found in the IMDB trivia section for the movie, “Gary Cooper was taking so much medication that he was impotent for the duration of filming. He also hated working with Sara Montiel, whom he claimed smelled bad and never washed her hair.” If Gary Cooper’s droopy doodle doesn’t make you want to watch this movie, I don’t know what will.