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With a tag line blaring, "The Giants Battle in the Biggest Spectacle of Them All!," Vera Cruz stormed into theaters in 1954. This groundbreaking Western was indeed a spectacle in every way - from the sweeping Mexican landscapes (filmed in Superscope no less), to the multitudinous gun battles, to the bona fide movie stars taking top billing. Starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, and directed by Robert Aldrich, Vera Cruz was such a pioneering film that it inspired a genre within a genre: the Spaghetti Western. Set in the 1860s, the story follows two mercenaries on the make in Mexico. They want gold and lots of it, and they find it - but not before getting caught in a civil war between the royal loyalists and the rebel Juaristas. The two men represent a good cowboy/bad cowboy dynamic, but in Vera Cruz even the good man can be bought for the right price. The film also added a new twist to suspect partnerships with what critics have called the "double-double cross." Such themes were prevalent in the films of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966) and other directors of the Spaghetti Western genre, one marked by copious bloodletting and a lack of recognizable heroes.
Produced by Lancaster and his partner, Harold Hecht, Vera Cruz was a massive commercial hit, grossing over $11 million. This was due in part to the savvy top billing of Gary Cooper, already an established Western icon from such films as The Virginian (1929) and High Noon (1952). Coop was devoted to the genre, and threw himself into it, at times a little too vigorously. During the filming of Vera Cruz, he was seriously injured by flying fragments from a dynamite explosion that went awry. Despite playing a flawed hero, the actor was always concerned with the righteousness of his characters. Director Aldrich remembers Cooper's objections and insistence on rewrites when he felt a moral line had been crossed. But rewrites were common on the set of Vera Cruz; in fact, the script was still being written during filming. Aldrich called the film "a total improvisation," adding that a scene would be finished and shot five minutes later and concluding, "I'm not sure that that's the right way to work." As it turned out, there would be bigger issues to worry about.
Vera Cruz was not actually filmed in Vera Cruz, due to the unpredictable weather conditions. Production was set up instead in Cuernavaca, not exactly an ideal substitute as many of the crew promptly came down with sunstroke in the sizzling Mexican desert. Nevertheless, a grand caravan of a 100-member cast and crew and 50 horses were joined by 200 extras hired in Mexico. The equipment included a dangerous 25,000 rounds of live ammunition because blanks were in short supply. Although no one was shot, there was one false arrest: actor Charles Horvath, who plays one of the baddies. Mistaken for a real-life bandit named Jaramillo, who was active in the area during filming, Horvath was apprehended by Mexican authorities in full costume while trying to buy cigarettes on a break. Once released, Horvath was returned to the supporting cast, where he was in good company. Ernest Borgnine, cast as one of Lancaster's gang, impressed producer Hecht so much he cast him the following year in the title role of Marty (1955), for which he won an Oscar. Cesar Romero, appearing as a loyalist in the film, would enjoy broad-based fame later in television as "The Joker" in the Batman TV series. And a young, pre-Death Wish (1974) Charles Bronson even has a bit part - although he was still being billed then as Charles Buchinsky.
Legendary cinematographer and frequent Aldrich collaborator, Ernest Laszlo filmed the spectacular scenery in Superscope, a new widescreen format making its debut. Aldrich was also making a debut of a kind, as Vera Cruz was his first big-budget film at $3 million - but he carried it off with grand and almost excessive style. As the profits rolled in one can only picture the beaming Burt Lancaster, spying the gold for the first time in the film and pronouncing gleefully, "Well, hell--o."
Producer: James H. Hill
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb
Art Direction: Alfred Ybarra
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Costume Design: Norma
Film Editing: Alan Crosland Jr.
Original Music: Sammy Cahn, Hugo W. Friedhofer
Principal Cast: Gary Cooper (Benjamin Trane), Burt Lancaster (Joe Erin), Denise Darcel (Countess Marie Duvarre), Cesar Romero (Marquis de Labordere), Sarita Montiel (Nina), George Macready (Emperor Maximillian), Jack Elam (Tex), Ernest Borgnine (Donnegan), Morris Ankrum (Gen. Ramirez), Charles Bronson (Pittsburgh).
C-94m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin