"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Vera Cruz (UA, 1954)


Overblown farrago




 
 
This is the story: Gary Cooper, a Confederate colonel just after the Civil War, has arrived in Mexico to avoid paying US taxes, saves a girl in the Garden of Evil and then meets up with Charles Bronson, who is practicing the harmonica ready for Once Upon A Time In the West. Ernest Borgnine is there too, waiting for The Wild Bunch to start.

Together with Burt Lancaster, a co-producer, they decide to escort a glamorous French countess, Denise Darcel (they actually used a French woman to play her) to Vera Cruz. Denise is also escorted by Marquis Cesar Romero (not quite so French) and a Prussian lancer (Henry Brandon, a Berliner). Guess what they have in the carriage? Yep, loads of gold.
 

"A big, noisy, badly-photographed hodge-podge of outdoor melodrama" (New York Times)

This Technicolor farrago was directed by Robert Aldrich and is considered by some people (French auteuristes, mostly) to be a good film. It’s in the top fifty of the ‘Rough Guide to Westerns’, where Paul Simpson suggests that as François Truffaut liked it, it must be good. Mon dieu! Didn’t he know that Truffaut had a thing about inferior Westerns? Vera Cruz helped, Simpson says, to give the Western a new lease of life. Believe that and you'll believe anything. Anyway, it’s little more than a pot boiler.

There are scenes at the Ruritanian court of Maximilian invaded by wild Texans that remind you of  Tom Mix saving the young monarch in My Pal the King (1932). It’s big, colorful (rather lurid color in fact) and boisterous. It’s fun in parts and full of gusto but it’s essentially a poor movie, whose wooden lines (Roland Kibbee and James R Webb from a Borden Chase story) are delivered in appropriately wooden fashion by all the cast save Gary Cooper.
 
Burt misbehaves at court with disapproving martinet Henry Brandon
 
Coop is splendid, of course, but hopelessly miscast. We never for one moment believe him as a cynical mercenary changing sides and we know full well he’s never going to steal that gold.
 
Gary Cooper: superb and better than the picture deserved
 
It was Robert Aldrich’s first Western as director. He’d been an assistant on the John Wayne B-movie A Lady Takes a Chance in 1943 and on the 1949 version of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony (the one with Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum) as well as the (very) B-Western in 1951 New Mexico. But now he was at the helm. Later he directed Lancaster again in Apache, a very mixed bag. He made two extremely good Westerns: The Ride Back, an almost unknown but very good 1957 movie with William Conrad and Anthony Quinn; and, yet again with Lancaster, the superb Ulzana’s Raid (1972), another Apache picture. He also directed the averagely-alright Kirk Douglas/Rock Hudson Western The Last Sunset (1961). But he was capable of complete junk like the ratpack trash 4 for Texas in 1963 and a movie that would definitely be a candidate for the coveted title of World's Worst Western, The Frisco Kid, a toe-curlingly bad ‘comedy’ (not) of 1979, which was, thank goodness, Aldrich’s last.
 
Robert Aldrich, a curate's egg of a Western director
 
Vera Cruz was very violent for its day. Two Mules for Sister Sara copied its Mexican slaughter and of course The Professionals and The Wild Bunch took Mexican-massacring to new heights. The credits at the end thank Mexico for its cooperation but the film was detested there and nearly caused an international incident. People threw seat cushions at the screen in the Mexican movie theater where it was shown.

Lancaster calls Romero “old crocodile teeth” in the script and accuses him of over-wide grins, which is a bit rich coming from him: he does little else but show more teeth than a smug alligator on his way home from the orthodontist.
 
Old crocodile teeth
 
Burt was a dynamo of energy on the set, directing camera angles, changing the script (which Coop disliked), fussing over make-up or costumes. As an actor he did everything possible to upstage Cooper but that was doomed of course because Coop had made underacting an art form and with one glance makes it appear to the audience as if Burt wasn’t even there. To be fair to Burt, he did realize: “There I was, acting my ass off. I looked like an idiot and Cooper was absolutely marvelous.” True, and gracious.

Gary gets the drop on Burt and the wicked countess at the end but of course he must play fair and let Burt go for his gun first so we get a quick-draw showdown (with Burt, not the countess).

Coop was famous for getting along with the female stars on any picture; in fact many were the affairs that he had with them. But he couldn’t stand Sara Montiel, the Spanish-Arab actor 27 years younger than he, whom he was supposed to fall for in the film. The love scenes were very difficult because he couldn’t bear to touch her. Apparently she never shampooed her hair, just rubbed olive oil into it.
 
Awkward: Coop being polite to Montiel
 
As a boy Coop had suffered a hip injury in an auto accident and it plagued him always. On the set of Vera Cruz he had a riding accident and injured the hip again. Together with other ailments (he suffered from stomach ulcers) it made acting difficult. Some commentators have expressed the view that the drawn faces and wry looks that were part of Coop's acting style actually had their origin in the pain and difficulty he was enduring.

The whole show has zip and rattles along but it’s overblown and over the top. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it a “big, noisy, badly-photographed hodge-podge of outdoor melodrama,” which was a lot more perceptive and accurate than François bloomin' Truffaut...

It’s the kind of Western where Coop can shoot the pistol out of the hand of a pursuing rider at full gallop with his 1880s six-gun. They have very modern Winchesters for 1865. There’s quite an impressive part as they pass huge Aztec pyramids.

The movie was commercially successful, though – it cost $3m and grossed $9m. Coop got $500,000 plus 10 per cent of the gross so cleared a cool $1.4m. That’d pay for the gas in his new custom Mercedes that he had shipped out from Stuttgart while on the set.
 
At center, the trio of gunmen Elam, Borgnine and Bronson
 
One good thing: Jack Elam ’s in it.  A micropart, admittedly, as a heavy, but still it’s Jack. And as I said above Ernest Borgnine (in only his third Western), and Charles Bronson, still Buchinsky (his very first Western) also do their bits as Elam’s fellow-thugs. Berliner Henry Brandon (Scar from The Searchers) is well cast as a martinet captain and good old Morris Ankrum is General Ramirez.
 
Bronson practicing for Once Upon a Time in the West
 
Vera Cruz has the air of an exotic, colorful adventure-romance or costume drama more than a Western. Have a look at it. Enjoy. But don’t waste your $$$ on the DVD.

 

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