It’s often the case that movies have a message that has gotten foggy over time. Vera Cruz was such a movie – with plenty to say about the politics in 1954.
A director with a message –
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson / DVD Savant
Vera Cruz shows Robert Aldrich at his subversive best. It played right in the Eisenhower years of CIA ‘adventurism’ in Central America, and the director has a field day showing interloping imperialist Maximillian as a slightly depraved schemer in contrast to his deification in William Dieterle’s Juarez. One can’t help thinking that the director was expressing his own radical outrage when he has moral icon Cooper participate in such unsavory deeds as holding innocent children as hostages. Outgunned by Colonel Fielding’s, I mean, General Ramirez’ troops, Lancaster acknowledges that his gang can’t fight its way out, “But they can stop an awful lot of little kids from growin’ up, amigo.” Ramirez backs down because it’s clear that Lancaster’s action is no bluff; In one fell swoop Aldrich shows his American ‘adventurers’ behaving with a ruthlessness usually reserved for depictions of Nazis. Since the French are presented as greedy murderous parasites, Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb’s script points audience sympathy to the conventionally virtuous Juaristas. “Wars are not won by killing children,” Ankrum intones nobly, but we are already expected to know better.
Vera Cruz’s tension (and thrills) indulge our delight at seeing how cynically outrageous things can get. The moral center weakly returns to Cooper’s Ben Trane when he eventually sides with the Juaristas against the doublecrossing Lancaster, but this development smacks of insincerity. Trane keeps claiming his intentions are just as mercenary as Lancaster’s, but it is Jo Erin who does all of the backstabbing, murdering several of his own gang. Lancaster’s most loyal follower Ballard, a black ex-soldier still in Union uniform, is his most sympathetic victim. The shaky triumph of Gary Cooper’s iconic ‘goodness’ defeats what seems to be Aldrich’s aim: To totally sully audience expectations of American Heroism and conclude with a cynical apocalypse. In reality, the cynicism appalled sensitive critics like Bosley Crowther while thrilling Western fans, who undoubtedly saw nothing ironic or troubling about the picture!
I’m posting updates to my Vera Cruz page – slowly – as able. Right now I’m working on the wonderful Cast. Bios for Lancaster and Cooper are in MFW Cowboy Hall of Fame … and everybody else’s too. Below is the wonderful Cesar Romero … Onward !
Romero’s acting credits are so extensive I have refrained from listing them here. However, I’ll investigate his list of Westerns and post those later. Romero could indeed act, but unfortunately found himself ‘typecast’ – usually played the debonair mustachioed Spanish / Mexican / Latino even though he was an American by birth. Playing as the Joker in the TV Batman series must surely have been a ‘breathe of fresh air’ for him and he surely tackled that role with joyful enthusiasm and his usual consummate professionalism. His screen charisma is undeniable and his famous grin (“old crocodile teeth” as Lancaster referred to him) is equal to Lancaster’s. Hail Cesar !
Wikipedia: an American film and television actor who was active in film, radio, and television for almost sixty years. His wide range of screen roles included Latin lovers, historical figures in costume dramas, characters in light domestic comedies, and as the Joker in the Batman TV series.
In October 1942, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and served in the Pacific Theater. He reported aboard the Coast Guard-manned assault transport USS Cavalier in November, 1943. According to a press release from the period he saw action during the invasions of Tinian and Saipan. The same article mentioned that he preferred to be a regular part of the crew and was eventually promoted to the rate of Chief Boatswain’s Mate.
‘Projection’ they call it. Some actors have it. Most never will. It’s the ability to take a simple line of dialogue and make it sing; have impact; the knack of making a whisper into a shout. All the great Shakespearean actors have it: Olivier, Burton, Dench, Jacobi, O’Toole …
YET … out of the unwashed West emerged several notable thespians who entered the stage via a different door: Hollywood.
“The general consensus seems to be that I don’t act at all.”
Gary Cooper Western Filmography
The Virginian 1929 / Fighting Caravans 1931 / The Plainsman 1936 /
The Cowboy and the Lady 1938 / Northwest Mounted Police 1940 /
The Westerner 1940 / Along Came Jones 1945 / Distant Drums 1951 /
Springfield Rifle 1952 / High Noon 1952 / Garden of Evil 1954 / Vera Cruz 1954 / Man of the West 1958 / Alias Jesse James 1959 /
They Came To Cordura 1959 / The Hanging Tree 1959
In High Noon even Grace Kelly – a pacifist Quaker and sworn gun hater – eventually pulls a gun and kills somebody. God forbid that any of us should ever have to do such a thing … and in a perfect world guns wouldn’t exist.
Unfortunately, this is surely not a perfect world. Do Westerns glorify and encourage gun usage?
In my youth I handled and used guns extensively. Today I own no guns and haven’t shot one in many years … and have no intention of doing so.