Vera Cruz: “rebranding” the Western

(Canscene) — Usually seeing the word  “rebranding” drives me to distraction, but it seems applicable when applied to a ground breaking Western: the 1954 film Vera Cruz starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster which appeared two years after Cooper’s High Noon.

veracruzI can’t remember hearing or reading anything about Vera Cruz except that, years later, I read Francois Truffault’s praise of the film and through TCM placed it on my PVR list.

While a skillful blending of suspense and characterization, High Noon  was a conventional Western with a shoot-out finale emphasizing the necessity for civic solidarity in the face of inconvenient but all-too-real menace. Praiseworthy but nothing really new.

Then along came Vera Cruz in which Cooper  plays a defeated Confederate officer who becomes a soldier of fortune in Mexico in order to raise money to buy back his plantation. He teams up with Burt Lancaster, a blackhearted gang leader searching for gold.

They accept an offer by Emperor Maximilian to escort a countess to the port of Vera Cruz where she will be leaving for France but soon  discover that the countess is carrying a treasure in gold, which she herself plans to hijack. Their journey  is fraught with danger from the rebel army supporting Mexican leader Benito Juarez in his bid for a self-governing Mexico.

Filmed entirely in Mexico  by director Robert Aldrich the film explodes into a terrific climax as Juarez’ guerilla army fights its way into Vera Cruz. The treatment and colour photography give Vera Cruz epic status.

For the next forty-odd years westerns matured into films where the lines between villains and folk heroes were often blurred. One recalls  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch,  Leoni’s spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven   and even “cowboy and Indian”  simplicist John Ford’s  Cheyenne Autumn.


One Response to “Vera Cruz: “rebranding” the Western”

  1. Bill Says:

    Wow! What a great review of a Western I’ve never seen but want to see, now. Thanks for the tup, Ben.

    BTW, I’m with you on “rebranding”. Re-imagining, restyling and reinventing have a similar effect upon my gag reflex.