A blu ray film review of Vera Cruz.
Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine went for cigarettes during filming, they saddled up in full costume, side arms and all, and upon riding to the nearest town the pair were waylaid by a truck full of armed Federales who mistook them for bandits and held them at gunpoint.
For a film made in 1954, this film has a fast cutting rate, in about 94 mintes of action the movie contains about 1130 edits and transitions, this equates to an average shot length of just under 5 seconds. One of the first Hollywood productions to be made on location in Mexico, film making legislation in Mexico meant that a local director had to be involved on the film set in some capacity, though in this case he wasn't used.
Vera Cruz is sometimes referred to as the first spaghetti western due to it's influence on Italian directors such as Sergio Leone who went on to make the genre popular with his Fistful Of Dollars trilogy. Burt Lancaster was on record as saying that Gary Cooper objected to anything in the script that implied his character was anything other than good, indeed some scenes ended up being re-written due to Cooper's objections.
Gary Cooper was hurt when struck by fragments from a bridge that was blown up, the special effects team used too many explosives.
Vera Cruz was the first film shot in Superscope. SuperScope productions were shot 1.37:1, and exploited for early wide-screen by doing a field enlargement at the matrix stage during the creation of dye transfer prints. The image was cropped, losing quite a bit of the top and bottom, and then optically squeezed, with black side panels added at the sides, yielding an uncompressed image at 2:1. Superscope was the fore-runner to the Super 35 film format that is in use for movies shot today.
Two daredevil mercenaries, Benjamin Trane and Joe Erin, travel to Mexico in search of adventure – and cold hard cash – during the 1866 revolution. They get more than they bargained for when the wealthy and beautiful Countess Duvarre hires them to escort her (and a fortune in gold!) to Emperor Maximilians fighting forces in Vera Cruz. The trail is fraught with danger, betrayal and murder…..and when Ben is caught up in the revolutionaries fervour, he and Joe find themselves at odds with the Mexican army – and each other!
Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster play off each other superbly, both of them have some nice lines of dialogue, for example;
Benjamin Trane: [looking to buy a horse] How much?
Joe Erin: $100… gold!
Benjamin Trane: That's mighty hard.
Joe Erin: So's walkin'!
The part shortly after the above line of dialogue has government troops arrive on the scene, at this point Burt is already on his horse and riding off, one of the troops shoots at Mr Cooper, he makes his getaway real quick, the reason he shot at him is then revealed by Burt, it's a funny line and is just one of many witty dialogue exchanges between the pair that makes this film so entertaining.
About halfway through the film there is a very good action scene where the Mexican rebels ambush the convoy as they want the gold for their cause, for a film shot in 1954 this is a very tightly paced action sequence, the end of the scene has an epic quality about it as we see Maximilian's troops and our mercenaries for hire escape across the large open plains of Mexico.
There is another exciting action scene to end the film as the rebels attack Maximilian's forces, this also leads to the conclusion of the film and a duel between Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. I won't reveal who wins but it's a classic way to end a film western.
The music score is by Hugo Friedhofer, he did uncredited stock music on many films (Gone With The Wind is one example) but also did the orchestral arrangements on movies like The Adventures Of Robin Hood and Casablanca, his score for Vera Cruz is good, it's not something you will hum or even remember after the film has ended but its still a good score.
I thought Sara Montiel who plays Nina in the film played her part well, she had some good scenes with Gary Cooper and an exciting scene when she takes charge of one of the wagons when escaping the rebel forces. I thought George Macready had a very good cameo as Emperor Maximilian, the scene where he shows his marksmanship is excellent.
The film never outstays it's welcome, its just 94 minutes long, they could have padded things out but took the right decision to make a trim, shorter film that moves at a good pace.
The direction by Robert Aldrich is assured and competent, Aldrich would go on to make such well known classics like Kiss Me Deadly, The Flight Of The Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen, i think he is an underrated director who never really got the credit he deserved, of course now we can revisit all these older films and he is now getting some much deserved praise.
I didn't particularly buy into Denise Darcel's performance as Countess Marie Duvarre, at times she was okay but i felt she was one of the weaker members of the cast.
I would have liked to have seen an audio commentary from film historians or some extra content, all you get on this disc is the original theatrical trailer, it would have been nice to get some deleted scenes or behind the scenes footage, i imagine such footage would probably have been destroyed long ago and that's why it is not available.
The filmstock used in the making of this film did not have any anti-halation backing, this prevents any light from being reflected back through the emulsion from the rear surface of the base, or from anything behind the film, and causing a halo-like effect around bright points or edges in the image, thus there are many instances in the film where you get what some refer to as the "force field" effect, this results in halos seen around objects and people, this is NOT edge enhancement, its an issue which affects some older films.
I saw some onscreen flicker around the 51 minute mark, it lasts a short while only.
It should be noted that this is a grainy film, detail is not always strong, what you get on this disc does represent the way the movie was shot, it cannot look any better than this, bear that in mind should you decide to watch the movie, indeed i will now give you a direct quote from film restoration expert Mr Robert A. Harris, these words can also be seen at Home Theater Forum.
"The field enlargement of the early Eastman (and occasional three-strip) stocks was generally not a happy occasion. Eastman single strand printer functions, ie. fades and dissolves, along with title sections and dupes, are as problematic as normal, and this is what the film looks like, and looked like at release. Dupes will have problems with grain, contrast and resolution, as the early duplicating stocks were less than stellar."
I am happy enough with this release knowing i am getting the film on blu ray without any studio techhead adding artificial "enhancements" and my score below reflects the transfer quality and not the actual image quality, this is not a film you will use for demo purposes to show off your home cinema but it is a classic western that has been faithfully transferred to blu ray.
I was not that impressed with the sound quality of this release, it's a 2 channel mix and sound originates from your left and right front speakers, i thought speech was a little harsh at times, you could almost tell they had re-recorded some of the dialogue in the studio after the film was shot, i felt gunfire sounded quite poor and all the guns sounded the same, even some of the explosions sounded weak, the music score does fare slightly better, there is obviously no surround sound in this film and absolutely no front channel effects panning either, not that i expected there to be any, the mix is what it is and i accept it although i do wonder if they could go back to some of the original elements and improve upon it.
I know it is unfair to compare movies to one another but i watched Rio Bravo not that long ago and it hails from 1956, just five years after this film was made, that film was mono but sounded better, the gunfire had some bass to it, dialogue sounded better, i suppose my whole point of mentioning it is that i was disappointed with the sound quality of this release.
Vera Cruz has a strong cast led by Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster and even if you cannot put a name to some of the other cast members i am sure you will recognize Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Cesar Romero and Charles Bronson, all of them are welcome additions to a fine movie. Mr Lancaster's character is mean and tough and he has no reservations about striking a woman or shooting someone in the back, clearly he is the anti-hero of the film with Mr Cooper playing the hero, both actors bounce off each other so well that the film is elevated above what it might have been if the casting had been wrong, today's filmmakers could learn a lesson by watching these classic films especially when it comes to dialogue that is so often overlooked in favour of action setpieces or CGI eye candy. Having said all that i do believe you can enjoy this film and also enjoy something like Transformers or Bad Boys 2, being a film fan means enjoying all types of cinema and not just being a so called film snob and turning your nose up at the "switch your brain off and sit back and relax" type of movies.
MGM are spending time on making new transfers for blu ray, they are not just re-using old masters and using digital tools trickery, they are making an effort, i appreciate that and wish other studio's like Universal would do the same, i love classic films and although Vera Cruz is often overlooked, i do believe it is a well made movie that should be seen at least once by all fans of the cinema. This release is actually very cheap to buy so if you love movie westerns or want to see how films used to be made then go rent or buy this.
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