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Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants February 4, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , trackback

Joe Erin: Too bad you never knew Ace Hanna. He ran a gambling joint back in Laredo. He shot my old man in a stud game when I was a kid. Ace felt so bad, he gave me a home.
Benjamin Trane: What’s that got to do with my saving your life?
Joe Erin: Ace used to say, ‘Don’t take any chances you don’t have to, don’t trust anybody you don’t have to trust and don’t do no favors you don’t have to do.’ Ace lived long enough to know he was right. He lived 30 seconds after I shot him.

Stop me if I’ve banged on about this before (oh, I have? Well, here it comes again…), there are some that believe that westerns made the great leap from The Great Train Robbery to A Fistful of Dollars and The Wild Bunch in one mighty bound, that we had years of singing cowboys, cavalry charges and low-rent horse operas before the genre was abruptly taken by the scruff of the neck and given a danged good shake.

As any serious western fan will tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. The path to Peckinpah and Leone was an evolution rather than a revolution, through the maturing mastery of John Ford, the so-called ‘psychological’ westerns of Anthony Mann, the films of Howard Hawks, Bud Boetticher, Nicholas Ray and many more. All these movie makers had a tremendous influence on ‘Bloody’ Sam and the western ‘nut’ from Rome, who drew on the best and then added inspiration of their own.

Standing on the shoulders of giants as it were. Indeed there were giants standing on those giants shoulders…

In 1954, Robert Aldrich, a thoughtful and dynamic young director, produced a double header of westerns, scoring impressive home runs with both; Apache and Vera Cruz. The prime common denominator in each was Burt Lancaster an actor of immense skill and charisma, then at the height of his fame as a genuine Hollywood star. Lancaster obviously detected a burgeoning talent in Aldrich, who had made only one film the previous year, when he signed up for Hecht-Lancaster Productions to the two picture deal.

Aldrich, however, was no ‘freshman’ having been in Hollywood since the early 1940s. He’d served as assistant to Wellman (The Story of G.I. Joe), Lewis Milestone (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Red Pony), Robert Rossen (Body and Soul), and Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil). By the early 1950s, Aldrich was more than ready for ‘The Chair’.

Though rarely considered as such in his homeland, quite early in his career Aldrich was judged by European film fans to be a true auteur; indeed, his work covered many genres and he seemed the easy master of each. Kiss Me Deadly is quintessential noir, Ulzana’s Raid one of the very best of westerns, The Dirty Dozen a seminal twist on the war film. A lifelong liberal and the co-worker of many HUAC blacklist victims, Aldrich himself escaped being cast out into the wilderness, save for a brief period after an argument with Harry Cohn, and few who banged heads with Cohn escaped unscathed. Aldrich became President of the Directors Guild of America. Ironically for a director seldom regarded as a true artist by American critics, Aldrich’s union activism alienated studio heads and is reckoned to have cost him work at the end of his career.

Looking at Vera Cruz today, it’s easy to see what might have impressed Leone, then still an assistant director in Cinecittà, or Peckinpah, just beginning his working life as a lowly production assistant.

Set amid the fly-blown poverty and chaos of the post American Civil War Mexican Revolution, Lancaster’s ‘Joe Erin’ starts the movie by selling ‘Benjamin Trane’ (Gary Cooper) a bag o’ bones that looks vaguely like a horse for an extortionate $100 knowing that (a) it belongs to the Emperor of Mexico’s Lancers (b) should they catch Trane, they’ll hang him like a slaughtered pig, and (c) they’re just over the hill and heading straight for them…

From then on it’s downhill all the way as far as the dirty double crossing Erin is concerned; he lies as easily as he cheats, steals and kills; he pins a Lancer to the ground, spearing him through the throat, and he laughs while he does it. You know; that Burt laugh, flashing white gnashers and all. He has terrible table manners too. Joe Erin is not a nice man.

But Lancaster’s great trick is to make you like this rat, to actually care about him. And we do, very much; here’s a character that doesn’t give fig about anybody but himself and we like him. It’s a very neat trick from a most accomplished screen actor, achieved in that knowing manner - an amoral, land-locked, ‘Captain Vallo’. Perhaps not quite as broad as The Crimson Pirate, easily in ‘Tuco’ territory.

Cooper’s Trane, on the other hand, is an ever so slighty curved ’straight arrow’. He’s decided to head down south to see what he can pick up because he’s on a mission. A former Confederate officer, he wants to restore his little piece of Louisiana to its former glory: “I made the mistake of fighting the last battle on my own property” he says bitterly. Trane knows the difference between what is right and what is wrong, but if his South is to rise again, and it’s going to take him to become a thief, to join a band of cut throats, to make it happen, then so be it. The end justifies the means, even if he’s conflicted by it.

Cooper, who, as you may have gathered from previous posts, I have immense admiration for, is at his understated best, full of the dignity of a Southern gentleman, with enough steel to suggest a man of action and an accent redolent of, but in a different class from, his sketch of the dirt poor Alvin York.

So this ‘odd couple’ - a hero and an anti-hero (before the term became common currency) - join forces; an unashamed thief, back-shooter and double-crossing dog, his band of like-minded reprobates, and a sharp shooting military man who will do most anything for money. Lots of it.

The man in Mexico with heaps of the stuff, Emperor Maximilian (an Austrian noble placed on the throne by the French) hires them, and their fast shooting Winchester repeating rifles, to take the ‘Countess Marie Duvarre’ (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz. Though he plans to pay them off with a rope, he keeps their real mission a secret. When they find that what they’re actually doing is guarding $3m in French gold, the Countess hatches a plan to split the booty three ways. But the gold is also coveted by the rebel Juaristas whose spy, ‘Nina’ (Sarita Montiel), desperately tries to persude Ben to help.

There are myriad reasons why Vera Cruz should be considered a cut above, not the least of which is that it’s a fabulous romp, tautly directed, and lushly presented in ‘SuperScope’, Aldrich and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo making the most of his filming locations; quite literally the ‘Halls of Montezuma’, with the wagon train of mounted cuirassiers, their armour flashing, flags fluttering, and Yankee mercenaries riding on past the Aztec temples, the old Gods looking down on the new, would-be ‘Conquistadors’.

Typically, Aldrich also undermines the contemporary definition of the ‘hero’; it’s not just the casual violence - the aforementioned skewering of the ‘tin soldier’ to the ground is quite breathtakingly brutal, even by today’s standards - which we might expect from Erin, but Trane? When Erin commands that children be taken hostage to escape from the rebels, Trane knows that the threat to butcher them is no bluff, and still he goes along with it. Trane is our all-American hero…isn’t he?

Politically, the film could also be read as a condemnation of American interference abroad. With the recently ended Korean War costing 1000s of American lives, interventionism was a hot potato. As the film was in production, President Eisenhower and the CIA were overseeing the overthrow of the leftist government in Guatemala, to be replaced by a much more favourable (to the U.S.) administration. Meanwhile in far-off Vietnam, the death throes of the French occupation of colonial Vietnam made front page news worldwide with the dramatic fall of Dien Bien Phu.

It isn’t hard to read Aldrich’s liberal sympathies into the finished film; Joe and Ben representing the schizophrenic nature of American foreign policy, the desire to help…and to help themselves. The French are shown as duplicitous and condescending to the Americans (plus ça change…), casually savage to the indigenous freedom fighting Mexicans, those ill-equipped rabble (secretly armed by the U.S.), who would soon end French interests by a startling military victory.

At a time when HUAC - and it was at this period when the House Committee on Un-American Activities was at its height - was more than ready to enter on to their blacklist anyone they perceived to harbour leftist views, it would have been foolhardy in the extreme, one would think, for Vera Cruz to be perceived as critical, in any way, of U.S. foreign policy. Professional suicide even.

However, the film is clothed in the armour of the American right. The story was provided by Borden Chase. Besides being the author of the screenplays for Anthony Mann’s 1950s westerns, Winchester ‘73, Bend of the River and The Far Country, Chase also got an  Academy Award nomination for Howard Hawks’ wonderous Red River. Chase was also an active member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization of politically conservative movie workers who wanted to defend the industry against supposed Communist infiltration. John Wayne was once its president, another prominent member was Gary Cooper. How could Vera Cruz be read as ‘un-American’ with those credentials?

Aldrich wouldn’t be the first, or last, director to take the story or screenplay of an avowed right wing writer and give it a good hard liberal twist of his own. John Ford is probably - you may not be surprised to read - the best other example I can think of, and that he did so (if indeed he did; though it’s impossible to believe otherwise) right under the noses of HUAC is to his, and Lancaster’s credit. Cooper, three years on from the HUAC baiting High Noon, must have least have seen that the story was essentially one of poor leftist rebels taking on their colonial masters, with capitalist Yankees not quite knowing which way to turn. Cooper too, something of an enigma in this respect, earns my admiration.

Working on Chase’s screenplay was Roland Kibee (who’d already provided The Crimson Pirate screenplay for Lancaster, and whose last job was to write Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration for Blade Runner), and James R. Webb, writer of the screenplay for Apache, and among others, Pork Chop Hill, The Big Country, How The West Was Won and the highly underestimated Cheyenne Autumn for Ford.

By the by, Eli Wallach has said that the Mexican government was so upset about the negative portrayal of Mexicans in the film that they insisted that the making of The Magnificent Seven be monitored by censors. They didn’t do a very good job; the Mexicans in Sturges film being far more naive and childlike than shown in Vera Cruz. Perhaps they were more upset that Sara Montiel, ‘introduced’ in this film and a big, big star in Mexico, had so little screen time and was perceived as having been insulted by her character being given the nickname ‘papayas’.

As a piece, Vera Cruz simply works; time has possibly diminished the impact its amorality, its violence and even its language - Lancaster mouthing the words ‘I’ll be a son of a bitch’; we don’t hear them, the Production Code preventing our ears being soiled. But to contemporary audiences who lapped this up to the tune of an $11m gross, it must have come almost as much of a slap in the kisser as Leone’s Man With No Name would a decade later. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the Eastwood’s iconic and deadly loner is a combination of both our protagonists? That Erin and his gang are a proto-‘Wild Bunch’?

All Vera Cruz lacked, perhaps, was a slightly more cynical ending and had Aldrich been totally in charge of affairs, that might have been on the cards. It may, I might suggest, be one of the reasons why he formed his own production company in quick time after this. But darker endings, more cynical days, were to come all in their own good time.

The cast is full of familiar faces; Ernest Borgnine as the heavy ‘Donnegan’ (still a year away from his breakthrough in Marty), Cesar Romero as the scheming ‘Marquis Henri de Labordere’, the quite wonderful George Macready as ‘Maximilian’, Henry Brandon as the ‘tin solider’ ‘Capt. Danette’, Jack Elam as ‘Tex’ and Charles Bronson (still listed in the cast as Charles Buchinsky) as ‘Pittsburgh’ - a character who, note, plays the harmonica throughout.

Having the film bookended with the written prologue that ends ‘…and some came alone’ and having Coop walk away from the camera, devastated and solitary (despite a cutaway shot - possibly an afterthought - showing Nina calling to him), eyes brimming with tears, should be worth the price of admission - or the DVD - alone.

The R1 anamorpically enhanced MGM disc isn’t quite as wide as the 2:1 ‘SuperScope’ it claims it is, but it’s a little wider than 1:85.1. This obviously was not sourced from original vault elements; there are reel change marks throughout. It is reasonably free of dirt and dust but the quality does vary from reel to reel - from ‘okay’ to ‘eye-popping’ and everything in-between. On the plus side, it is very film like (rough edges and all) and when those Technicolor shades pop, boy do they pop. The mono sound is also simply ‘okay’, the dialogue and Hugo Friedhofer’s score sounding a little crushed; but if all that sounds like you should maybe just rent it, don’t.

Plunk down the cash - you’ll enjoy Vera Cruz, a work of remarkable maturity from an intelligent, throughly schooled and immensely talented director, that 53 years on still has much to say, again and again.


1. John Mulholland - February 4, 2007

Nice article, very nice indeed. Thanks much for it. Vera Cruz doesn’t get the credit it deserves, not sure why. Perhaps the auteuristas aren’t able to hammer-lock it into Aldrich’s larger body?

Having just finished a doc on Cooper’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway, can assure you that he knew well the political underpinnings of Vera Cruz. Cooper’s defense of Carl Foreman during the making of High Noon, in which he put his career on the line (far more than is commonly known, especially regarding Wayne’s threatening Cooper with being blacklisted if he didn’t walk off, and his reason for having Wayne accept his AA), was something of a political epiphany for Cooper.

Thanks again for such a cogent article.

2. JohnH - February 4, 2007

John; many thanks for your very kind comments.

I’m more than intrigued - which documentary are you referring to? I’ve read the scuttlebutt on Wayne’s alleged threats, but not come across anything I could call concrete, and as for the reason Cooper had Wayne accept his Oscar - well, come on, my interest is well and truly piqued!

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