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.
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