It's often said that Vera Cruz didn't do well when it was first released and was dismissed by contemporary critics. In reality is was one of the most successful western from the 50s, equaling the box-office results of movies like Rio Bravo and The Searchers. Various critics had some reservations about the cynical behavior of the movie's protagonists, but its reputation of a repudiated movie seems largely due to a negative review in the New York Post by the influential Bosley Crowther, in which the movie was called 'atrocious'.
Gary Cooper is Ben Trade, a Civil War veteran traveling south to proof his luck in Mexico; he hopes to make some money, to start a new life as a farmer back home. After an incident involving a horse, he's joined by fortune hunter Joe Erin, the leader of a small gang of no-goods. The men are hired by Habsburg Emperor Maximiliam - a puppet dictator put on the throne by Napoleon III - to escort French countess Duvarre to the port of Vera Cruz. The men discover that the stagecoach is transporting $ 3 million dollars in gold (to be used in Europe to hire more troops for Maximilian) hidden in a case under the seat. While the group is being followed by the Juaristas, who think the gold belongs to the Mexican people, a battle of wits ensues, with a variety of people trying to lay their hands on the gold, including a sexy spy of the Juaristas, who's also having an eye on Cooper ...
With a storyline about American gunmen traveling south to sell their gun to the highest bidder, Vera Cruz is heralding the South-of-the-border type of Hollywood westerns of the next decade, like John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, Richard Brooks' The Professionals or Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. In recent years it has also become popular to emphasize its influence on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns - or spaghetti westerns in general; some have even called it the pivotal Hollywood movie in the development of the Italian Western, the movie that started it all.
Vera Cruz was no doubt an influential movie, but I don't think it can be called a blueprint for the Italian western (1). There's Lancaster's portrayal of a smiling, slightly sadistic anti-hero and there's also a shooting contest in spaghetti western style, but the movie lacks the intense close-ups and ritual build-ups to western duels of Leone's style of film making. The setting and storyline are closer to Corbucci's Zapata westerns than Leone's Dollar movies, but even though some have interpreted it as a comment on American foreign politics - more notably the CIA adventurism in Central America during the Eisenhower years (2) - Vera Cruz is not really a political movie. It is subversive in tackling the image of the traditional western hero, but its protagonists are opportunists, no revolutionaries; they finally end up on different sides in the conflict, but more for personal than ideological reasons.
Cooper is as dry as ever and seems a bit too old to play a man who lost some of his best years, but reckons he has still has half a life ahead of him; he also looks too old to flirt with the young and sexy Montiel. Lancaster overplays his part of the conniving, often immoral rascal, showing his white teeth at every opportunity, but alongside Cooper it all works pretty well. As said, his sophisticated villain could've been an anti-hero in a spaghetti western. Giuliano Gemma (a great Lancaster fan) clearly modeled Ringo after Joe Erin, but note that Ringo and Erin are in fact each other's opposites: the arrogant and seemingly dishonest Ringo eventually proves that he's a decent man, while the charming and seemingly honorable Erin turns out to be a ruthless killer. He rams a lance in a defenseless victim's neck and in one scene, cornered by an army of Juaristas, he even threatens to kill a group of local children if the Mexicans won't let him walk away.
Vera Cruz is a fine movie, but it's not without flaws. It has a great supporting cast, but most supporting actors have little to do; I nearly missed Charles Bronson entirely. Even with a running time of a mere 90 minutes the movie slightly drags in the middle and while it is overall entertaining, it only becomes truly spectacular in that large-scale, surprisingly violent finale, with the two heroes and their French allies facing (and mowing down) hundreds of armed Mexicans, all dressed in an angelic white. There's no doubt that Peckinpah studied this sequence before shooting the balletic finale of The Wild Bunch.
Dir: Robert Aldrich - Cast: Gary Cooper (Ben Trane), Burt Lancaster (Joe Erin), Denise Darcel (Countess Marie Duvarre), Cesar Romero (Marquis Henri de Labordere), Sara Montiel (Nina), George Macready (Emperor Maximillian), Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, James McCallion, Morris Ankrum (General Ramírez), Charles Bronson
* (1) Philip French, Westerns, aspects of a movie genre, p. 108
* (2) Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant review: Vera Cruz