Saturday, July 21, 2007

Film Review #112: Vera Cruz
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Sara Montiel, Cesar Romaro

It might be a throw-away line, just a comment on the riff-raff’s bad manners, spoken with characteristic understatement by former Louisiana plantation owner turned soldier-of-fortune Ben Trane (Gary Cooper). It’s 1866 – the US Civil War is over, but Mexico has its own revolution going on – and Trane has just ridden into a remote Mexican crossroads, tied up his horse and walked inside the cantina. Despite his nod and his “Howdy,” the men on the steps and those inside drinking and gambling – obviously all ex-pat American gunmen – just stare back at him. A second, more pointed “Howdy” brings another more pointedly belligerent silence.

Turning to the already nervous lone Mexican behind the bar, Trane asks, “What gets into Americans down here?”

One of the men has spotted two silver initials on the fancy saddle – “JE” for Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) – so they know whose horse Trane is riding, and assume he’s done Erin harm. This tense stand-off with Erin’s gang follows a complex opening that has established the rivalry between Trane and Erin, in which both escape government troops and Trane twice smoothly thwarts Erin’s attempts to rob and kill him. He had also refrained from killing Erin, who soon shows up to return the favor. Over a drink, the two join forces to sell their services to the highest bidder. That might be rebel Benito Juarez’s General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum) or, as the opening scroll informs us, the French-backed “foreign emperor” Maximilian (George Macready) and his agent, Marquis Henri (Cesar Romero). A third path to riches quickly emerges in the form of a $3 million gold shipment hidden in the carriage of the Countess Marie (Denise Darcel) on her way to the port city of Vera Cruz. Her treachery is offset by the daring Juarista spy, Nina (Sara Montiel, in her first role in a US film – the only principal part played by a Mexican).

At 94 minutes, Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz moves crisply and vividly from one violent stand-off to the next, amid whirlwind betrayals, ambushes, trick riding and shooting, and an attempted gang rape.

In the years since this film was released in late 1954, Cooper’s remark about “what gets into Americans” has become hugely resonant, particularly as the “down here” has expanded, with obvious parallels to clandestine Latin American adventures and Middle East interventions – try watching David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999) alongside it, for starters.

Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinema recently screened Vera Cruz, along with five other films by this director, in a program entitled “Overlooked Aldrich.” Robert Aldrich, who died in 1983, is likely better known for films like the Mike Hammer mystery, Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard. But the more minor Vera Cruz stands up as remarkably current in portraying volatile issues that now concern us, including conservative fears about our southern border and immigration, the nature and limits of American foreign intervention and profiteering, and our deep ambivalence over what distinguishes the aims and methods of “good” revolutions (like our own) from terrorism.

When Aldrich filmed Vera Cruz, the Eisenhower administration was grappling with similar questions as it tried to formulate policy for the correctly anticipated wave of Latin American revolutions. While setting this film in 1866 during Mexico’s war for independence enabled Aldrich to use the Western as a template, the film’s title allowed him to evoke a more recent Mexican upheaval that began in 1910 with the overthrow of dictator Porofirio Diaz and involved a protracted struggle among factions. The movie’s characters, after all, never reach the port of Vera Cruz. But mid-1950s audiences would recall that US Marines occupied Vera Cruz for six months in 1914 to protect US oil drilling interests in nearby Tampico, making this film an easily grasped parable. The film’s exploration of whether the Mexican rebels are “savage” or “civilized” – General Ramirez has several exchanges with Trane and Erin about this – taps into still timely powerful stereotypes. So does the script’s choice of the Black former Union officer, Ballard, to rescue Nina from the gang rape.

In Ben Trane and Joe Erin, Aldrich gave us well-delineated, three-dimensional hero and anti-hero. The film’s brilliance lies in their uneasy relationship. Despite their many antagonisms, each is deeply drawn to the other, and they work intuitively well together under fire. Though they’re both in it for the money, Trane never shares Erin’s pleasure in cruelty – his unsettling grin and emotional outbursts show up in later films by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, who both admired Vera Cruz – yet Trane weeps after killing him. Further, Trane the former slave-holder – this complex character initially most identifies with the emperor’s court, which includes a liveried Black slave at a ball – gains respect for the Juaristas only after they meet a series of tests that look an awfully lot like benchmarks.

US fire-power has advanced beyond the Winchester repeating rifle, but Trane’s now-prophetic question is still on the table.

This review appeared in the 7/19/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.