Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gold, Mercenaries and Civil War

A Gary Cooper/Burt Lancaster team-up is an inherently cool thing. A band of ruthless mercenaries that include Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and a young Charles Bronson among their number is an inherently cool thing. A Western set in Mexico right after the American Civil War, when that country was itself being torn apart by civil war, is an inherently cool thing. A full-scale battle at the climax that includes a gatling gun and primitive hand grenades is an inherently cool thing. A French countess, an American outlaw and a former Confederate soldier forced to work together without being able to trust one another is an inherently cool thing.

So the movie Vera Cruz (1954) is packed to the brim with inherently cool things. Cooper is a destitute Civil War vet from Louisiana who is now selling his services as a solider to the highest bidder. Lancaster is the ruthless but charismatic outlaw with whom Cooper is forced to team up. Heading up a band of riff-raff mercenaries armed with new-fangled Winchester rifles, the two men go to work for the Emperor Maximillian, agreeing to escort a drop-dead gorgeous Countess from Mexico City to Vera Cruz.

Soon, though, they discover they are also escorting three million dollars in gold—hidden in the countess’s carriage. The Countess has a plan to steal the money for herself. Rebel soldiers plan to get the money to fund their war. Lancaster and Cooper each plan to get the money for himself.

The story is a strong one, building up a lot of tension around the near-certainty that the main characters will eventually double-cross and triple-cross and probably quadruple-cross each other. The movie looks great (it was shot in color on location in Mexico) and the action sequences that punctuate the story are exciting, especially the final battle, in which rebel forces attack the fortified town of Vera Cruz. Earlier in the film, there’s a wonderful and hilarious scene in which Cooper and Lancaster, while attending a swanky party in Mexico City, give an impromptu and unusual demonstration of their skill with the Winchesters.

But it’s the cast that really sells this movie. Guys like Borgnine and Elam are always terrific in supporting roles. Cooper is excellent as a man who still has moral lines in the sand he won’t cross despite having gone into the mercenary business. Lancaster’s performance is perfect—his character is obvious ruthless and inherently selfish, but he still has a rogue-ish charm that makes him likable. The cautious friendship he establishes with Cooper is completely believable. Much of the movie’s tension centers around Lancaster—it’s really impossible to predict in advance whether he really will double-cross his friend or redeem himself.

Another interesting aspect to the film is the counterpoint between the American mercenaries and the rebel soldiers. The Americans (except for Cooper) are all pretty despicable guys, killing for the highest bidder and willing to switch sides at the drop of a hat. The Mexican rebels, though, are men who are willing to give their lives for a cause greater than themselves.

Add all this to the image of Gary Cooper blasting away with a gatling gun and you have a really groovy movie.

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