I first saw this film in 1955; it was the sort of movie I lived for back then. Compared with movies such as "Three Coins in the Fountain" and "Good Morning Miss Dove', which I also saw around the same time, "Vera Cruz" was an island of refuge in a sea of ennui for an eight-year old boy.
Now that my movie horizons have broadened a little, most of those old war movies and westerns seem very one dimensional if not totally unwatchable these days.
But there are exceptions, and "Vera Cruz" is one of them. After a recent viewing I can appreciate it's panache and even touches of brilliance.
The story follows a group of American adventurers in Mexico during the Juarista revolution against the French imposed rule of Emperor Maximillian. Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) teams up with Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), and it seems they are prepared to help whichever side pays the most money.
They initially join forces with the French, but later change to the Juaristas. They have the opportunity of getting away with three million dollars in gold, but Ben Trane becomes emotionally attached to the Juarista cause, while Joe Erin only has an emotional attachment to himself and the money - a showdown is inevitable.
It would be hard to accuse the characters in this film of being one-dimensional because they are so over-the-top. They also bring a lightness of touch without which the whole thing would be pretty heavy going. With a witty script, and the perfect cast, director Robert Aldrich hit all the right notes with this film.
All the actors playing the French turned the ham knob up high. Ceasar Romero is charming, urbane and duplicitous. Henry Brandon's close-cropped captain is superbly arrogant, and has some great lines with Joe Erin. When he sees Joe greedily tearing into a whole chicken at a banquet, he comments, "Your acquaintance with etiquette amazes me monsieur, I had no idea you knew which hand to use". Of course their association was bound to end badly.
As a scheming countess, Denise Darcel femme fatales all over the place, and George Macready as Maximillian delivers yet another variation on his unique brand of cultivated evil - this time with a gnome-like beard.
But it's Burt Lancaster who steals the show. With that coiled spring grace and those clipped sentences, he exudes a sense of danger despite overdoing the famous grin in just about every scene.
Against all those fireworks, Gary Cooper wisely underplays. He gets the girl at the end -played by beautiful Spanish actress Sarita Montiel - despite looking old enough to be her father plus some.
The Jaurista cause is seen in a positive light, and the whole film was shot in Mexico, often with Aztec ruins as a spectacular backdrop. If any group is cast in a bad light it is the American adventurers who are uncouth and bad-natured almost to a man.
The action sequences are superbly staged although there is little evidence that the human body contains eight pints of blood - despite the carnage, the whole affair is quite bloodless.
"Vera Cruz" is a movie without any agenda other than to entertain, and it does that with style. Like most movies of the era, the filmmakers didn't let historical accuracy or cultural sensitivities get in the way of telling a good story.