Thursday, August 21, 2008

Vera Cruz: too much spaghetti can be a bad thing

Grinning Burt lancaster and Gary Cooper man a machine gun in Vera Cruz.

Let's get this straight. I'm not a big fan of spaghetti westerns. I don't much like Eastwood or Bronson, their ultra-violence and their bleak outlooks. A little Ennio Morricone goes a long way for me. My late father's all-time favorite film was the Spaghetti Western masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West directed by Sergio Leone. Personally I find it a bit of a trial to get through, though I do highly recommend a video on Youtube which cuts together most of the best footage with Arcade Fire's haunting "My Body is Cage." So when the chance to watch films by Robert Aldrich, whose cynical, violent westerns of the 1950s were a pre-cursor of the spaghetti style, (Morricone worked as an assistant to Aldrich) let's just say, I left it in my tivo queue for a long time.

On the surface Vera Cruz starring Gary Cooper in bold technicolor is a piece of 50s cinemascope travelogue bombast. It's got spectacle, spectacle and more spectacle. My two year old loved it because their are horses charging in almost every single scene. This is before CGI people, so there must have been a lot of flies following that filmcrew around out in the Mexican dessert. Yet for every sweeping vista of Mayan pyramids, there is an act of brutality that undercuts the proceedings and leaves the viewer with a purposefully bad taste.

Look just a bit deeper and Vera Cruz is an attack on the status quo. The "hero" Ben Trane (Cooper) starts off by shooting his lame horse, reveals he's a former confederate soldier, refuses to fight for the revolutionaries because they won't pay enough and instead throws his lot in with a dubious bunch of thugs led by black-clad gunslinger Joe Erin (Lancaster). Right off we have a hero who was unapologetically on the wrong side of the civil war, doesn't care about the fight for Mexican independence and who has at least as much passion for the oppulent mansions of Emporer Maximillians court as he does for his love interest in the film. This just doesn't quite sit right and the Cooper fan waits for him to reveal himself to be more like what we expect. At least he's not as sadistic as Erin, who grins maniacally into the camera every time he guns someone down, which is quite a lot actually. The inevitable does come and Cooper turns out to be a good guy after all. It's such a sudden last minute reversal that you wonder if coop didn't have something in his contract that required him to always be a hero, and that clause kicked in at the last minute. I usually love the movies where Cooper plays with his image as unassailable western hero, but Vera Cruz just doesn't do it for me.


AbbyNormal said...

Okay - I can't sit through the whole thing myself, but the opening of "Once Upon a Time in the West" is brilliant and makes me love it. Just for the opening. I defy you to sit through that and not think it is great. Just .. don't forget to turn it off right after the train station scene is over :-)

kda0121 said...

We'll debate the Clint Eastwood spaghetti period another time. As to Vera Cruz, it is not one of Coop's better films. He resorted to quite a few westerns in the 50s and didn't always make great choices. Burt Lancaster's production company, Hecht Lancaster produced Vera Cruz and brought in Coop to ensure box office success. With all it's widescreen, technicolor splendor, Vera Cruz raked in the dough at the box office. BTW, you mentioned the director's name as Bruce Aldrich. I think you mean Robert Aldrich.

kda0121 said...

Okay, I'm back. Since you don't like spaghetti westerns, you probably won't write about them for a while, so I'm here I am with my two lira. I am not a huge fan of them either. But I do like Clint Eastwood and his three movies for Sergio Leone were really the birth of spaghetti westerns. At least in terms of having an American star in them. Of the trio of movies Clint made for Leone, by far the best is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It has action, scope, double-crossing, comedy, (via a delicious performance by Eli Wallach), Snidely Whiplash sneering, (via Lee Van Cleef) and Clint at his squinty-eyed, whisper talking, cigar chomping best, outdrawing and outsmarting them all.

Sergio Leone's direction is as bombastic as Ennio Morricone's score. Extreme close-ups, vicious cross-cutting, multiple 360 shots and high amp sound so you can hear every snap crackle and pop.

Maybe what I've said doesn't sound like a glowing recommendation, but all in all, The Good, etc. etc. is just a fun movie to watch.

Jennythenipper said...

I have watched Once Upon a Time in the West many times. And yet, I don't think I've ever sat down to watch it start to finish. It's one of those things that was always around. I probably should rewatch it soon, Abby.

kda, ha! I have this weird habit of replacing random people's first names with "Bruce." There is this guy at work I called Bruce for the first year I worked here, finally he broke down and told me his name was "Chuck." I still call him "Bruce" every once in a while as a joke.

You'd think I could remember "Robert." It is my kid's name!

I don't reckon I've watched The Good the Bad and the Ugly. I will keep an eye out for it.

kda0121 said...

I was at WalMart yesterday and saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the $5 bin. It's worth that, just for a look.

Once Upon a Time in the West has some good scenes in it, but boy it drags. I think Leone was starting to take himself too seriously as this point. It was fun to see Henry Fonda as the evilest of bad guys, but that only goes so far. And that harmonica playing dubbed for Charles Bronson gets to be too much to bear.

The Good, etc. has nearly the same running time as Once Upon, but it moves so much faster. (Even the titles run long!)