Release Date(s)1954 (October 12, 2021)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B-
Robert Aldrich's 1953 classic Vera Cruz may not be one of the best-remembered Westerns of the Fifties, but it's unquestionably one of the most influential. It had a profound effect on the Spaghetti Westerns which followed, and The Wild Bunch borrows so much from it to almost qualify as a remake. Jean-Paul Belmondo even broke the fourth wall to reference it in Godard's A Woman Is a Woman. You may not have seen Vera Cruz, but you've likely seen multiple films which felt its impact.
The script was by Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb, based on a story by Borden Chase; despite the ostensible Western setting, it's really a war film. Vera Cruz is a tale of two expatriate American mercenaries who reluctantly team up in search of fortune in Mexico, offering their services to the highest bidder in the conflict between Emperor Maximilian's French legionnaires and the revolutionary Juaristas. Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) is former Confederate officer with no more illusions of valor, and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) is a shifty bandit leader who never had any in the first place. The entire film is a nonstop game of one-upsmanship, with every side jockeying for advantage over everyone else, and no one being worthy of trust.
Cooper may be slightly miscast in Vera Cruz since he always appears heroic even when he shouldn’t be, but Lancaster leaned into his anti-heroic part with relish. There are some memorable faces in small roles throughout the film, including Caesar Romero, Henry Brandon, George Macready, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Charles Bronson (still in his Buchinsky days). But it’s Joe Erin’s gleeful amorality which owns the film, and that fits perfectly into the preoccupations of its director.
The central genius of Robert Aldrich was his ability to tell stories which could be appreciated on different levels, sometimes in opposition to each other, yet with equal validity. Subtext can be elevated to the level of text, or it can be ignored altogether. For example, The Dirty Dozen can be viewed as an entertaining action-adventure, or as a brutal indictment of the hypocrisy inherent in warfare. Either reading is perfectly accurate. Many other Aldrich films such as The Longest Yard, Twilight's Last Gleaming, and All the Marbles operate the same way. Vera Cruz is no exception.
On one level, Vera Cruz is a rousing Western adventure, filled with action, intrigue, and double-crosses. On the other hand, it's a genuinely savage look at the impact of American interventionism. As played by Cooper, the character of Ben Trane is more heroic than the way he was originally written, but it's a particularly pale form of heroism—Trane can't serve as the moral center of the film, because it has no moral center. Opportunistic greed is the rule of the day, with the indigenous peoples serving as pawns in an imperialistic game. There's no nobility to be had when money is on the line. And while the film may be less gory than Peckinpah's take on the story, it's no less gruesome.
Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo shot Vera Cruz in 35 mm using spherical lenses. The film was the first to be released in the Superscope format, which cropped the frame to 2.0:1 and then blew that up for anamorphic release prints. It may not have been shot with that process in mind—some of the compositions seem tight, so it’s possible that Laszlo actually framed for 1.85:1. Kino describes their release as a “Brand new 2K master,” but while it does show improvements compared to the previous MGM release, it also has more signs of digital tinkering. There’s ringing from artificial sharpening in many shots, especially in those featuring optical transitions. It’s most visible in any shots with characters or buildings framed against the sky—for example, watch when Cooper rides toward the camera out of the desert during the opening titles. Those transitions likely had noise reduction applied them to even out the grain with the surrounding material, and then sharpening to offset the resulting softness. (Why some other shots have the same problem isn’t clear.) Aside from those issues, the rest of the film looks reasonably sharp, with richer colors than the MGM disc, and better contrast—though at the expense of some shadow detail, as the blacks are a bit deeper than they should be.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Things don’t start off well with some wavering on the soundtrack when Hugo Friedhofer’s score starts over the opening title card, but that defect was on the MGM disc as well. Otherwise, the track sounds fine given the vintage of the film, with few other defects and clear dialogue.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray for Vera Cruz comes with a slipcover featuring modified artwork from one of the original theatrical posters. There’s a reversible insert for the keepcase with this artwork on one side, and a straightforward presentation of a different theatrical poster on the reverse. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Alex Cox
- Trailers from Hell with John Landis (HD – 3:29)
- Trailer (HD – 3:03)
- The Plainsman Trailer (SD – 2:21)
- Man of the West Trailer (HD – 3:02)
- The Kentuckian Trailer (HD – 2:18)
- The Scalphunters Trailer (SD – 3:14)
- Valdez Is Coming Trailer (HD – 2:53)
- Apache Trailer (SD – 2:45)
- The Last Sunset Trailer (HD – 2:31)
- Ulzana's Raid Trailer (SD – 2:51)
Given the gonzo nature of many of the films that Alex Cox has directed, it’s always interesting to hear his gently soothing voice on commentary tracks. He soothes himself a bit too much here since there are gaps, but he provides useful information throughout. Cox is the author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western, and it’s his interest in that subject which has led him to examine the ways in which those films were influenced by Vera Cruz. He notes that both its styles and themes were reflected in the Italian films, especially the focus on money as the primary motivating factor for the characters. He also covers the parallels with The Wild Bunch, gives biographical information about Aldrich, and offers plenty of detail regarding the production of Vera Cruz—inevitably the subject of Lancaster’s teeth comes up, as it usually does with any discussion about the film.
In the Trailers from Hell, John Landis calls the film a glossier version of The Wild Bunch, with the entire film consisting of continuous double-crosses. He also gives full credit to Lancaster’s teeth, and is clearly not impressed by the hyperbolic copywriting in the trailer!
Vera Cruz is essential viewing for Western fans, film fans, and Robert Aldrich fans. Because of his patented multilayered approach, there’s something for everyone here. It has teeth in more ways than one.
- Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on Facebook at this link)