Vera Cruz (Blu-ray)
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 94 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: SDH. Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: June 7, 2011
Review Date: June 9, 2011
Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz is something of a schizophrenic western. It’s got some great stars and quite a few rugged action scenes, but there is also some excess baggage on board and between the action scenes come some turgid passages that don’t pass muster. The film was a big hit in its day, and it plays quite well now, but it’s a shame the romantic subplots that seem inappropriate and unwelcome couldn’t have been pared away to make for a more robust pure action picture. And, if there was absolute insistence from the front office that the co-male leads must have romantic encounters, it’s a pity they couldn’t have found much better actresses to fill the bill. The ladies in this picture are unquestionably the weak links in an otherwise sturdy western adventure yarn.
After fighting on the losing side of the Civil War, Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) heads south to Mexico to try to rebuild his fortune by volunteering his services to the highest bidder in the civil war going on there between the forces of the Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) and the Juaristas who want to reclaim their native land from the European-appointed ruler. Trane is initially cheated and then gains the upper hand on roguish con man Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) and his men who have decided to aid the forces of Maximilian on the promise of a bigger payday. In their roles as armed mercenaries protecting Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel), Joe and Ben stumble on $3 million in gold being transported to the port city of Vera Cruz to be shipped back to Spain in order to finance additional forces to support Maximilian, and their plan is to hoodwink the Mexican guards and take the gold for themselves. But Ben falls for undercover operative Nina (Sarita Montiel), a Juarista who insists the gold must stay in Mexico, thus beginning a game of comeuppance between Ben, Joe, the Countess, Nina, and Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) who’s very suspicious of the overly accommodating Americans.
Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb’s screenplay doesn’t always make clear the fluctuating allegiances as the movie progresses, perhaps deliberately to obscure the motivations of various characters who seem to have evolving morals over the issue of the proper ownership of the gold. Robert Aldrich keeps things moving fairly evenly though some of the slow patches while the stars talk do bring things to a grinding halt. When there’s action afoot, however, Aldrich delivers the goods in two quite beautifully staged and shot action sequences: an ambush in a village and the climactic battle at Vera Cruz. He also uses a 360 degree pan around a courtyard revealing previously hidden Juaristas that gets the action scenes off to a jaw-dropping start. But whose idea was it to insert these unconvincing romances into what’s basically a male-dominated action picture? They halt the flow of action every time they appear, and with both ladies (Denise Darcel, Sarita Montiel) possessing a very stiff and unsteady mastery of spoken English, their scenes with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper respectively couldn’t be more artificial and uncompelling.
Gary Cooper plays his usual stalwart gentleman in his customary low key style which makes his pairing with the combustible, mercurial Burt Lancaster quite a contrast. Lancaster gives a very physical, charismatic performance even if he does overdo that grin too much, but with such a colorful scoundrel to play, he almost always draws focus in a scene even when he's not supposed to be the center of attention. Two of Lancaster’s henchmen went on to big careers of their own even though in this film they’re more whipping boys than anything else: Ernest Borgnine and Charles Buchinsky (soon to change his last name to Bronson). George Macready plays Maximilian in his usual icy style while Cesar Romero makes a suavely treacherous “ally” for the mercenaries. Henry Brandon offers a pleasingly haughty Captain Danette whose ego gets punctured on more than one occasion. As mentioned previously, Denise Darcel and Sarita Montiel (who gets an “introducing” screen credit here) offer limited dramatic functions to the film but certainly can compete with confidence to the beautiful and lush Mexican landscapes bountifully exploited by the filmmakers.
The film was the first one presented in Superscope, and its 2.00:1 screen aspect ratio is offered in 1080p using the AVC codec. Unfortunately, Superscope is not shown to advantage here as all the long shots and most of the medium shots are blurry and indistinct. While close-ups are usually better delineated, even they can sometimes take on a somewhat soft countenance. Color fidelity is not the best though the reds come through with fiery distinction, and flesh tones are on the whole respectably represented. Black levels are also acceptable without being exemplary. There is also a fair amount of dust and dirt that comes and goes. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The DTS-HA Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix places the nicely recorded dialogue together with the sound effects and Hugo Friedhofer’s variable score into a predictable audio track for its era. Fidelity is pleasing overall with a decent amount of low end to the mix, and there is no presence of overbearing hiss, crackle, or flutter to intrude on the viewing and listening experience.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs for 3 minutes. Incidentally, the color in the trailer is much more vibrant and eye-popping than in the film transfer itself.
3/5 (not an average)
Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz is a pleasing and entertaining western without quite reaching the status of a classic. Appealing performances by its two male leads bolster a variable cast in a film that seems a little longer than its 94-minute running time might indicate. Video quality does not measure up to the best western vault titles coming from MGM in the past few months, and with a lack of extensive bonus material, it makes a firm recommendation difficult apart from fans of the movie or those looking to upgrade from the previous DVD edition.