Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in "Vera Cruz" (1954)

I recently watched the 1954 western "Vera Cruz," starring Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. It's a very good movie, and somewhat ahead of its time. It's also a really fun movie to watch. The plot is really complicated, and it takes place in Mexico after the U.S. Civil War, during the Franco-Mexican War. Gary Cooper plays, well, Gary Cooper, of course. Actually he plays Ben Trane, a former Confederate soldier. (Gary Cooper from the South? Really?) In these post-Civil War westerns, why does everyone play a former Confederate? Aren't there any former Union soldiers doing anything interesting? Of course Trane was one of those nice Confederates who was just protecting his family farm, or whatever, and just happened to fight for the side supporting slavery. Lancaster plays Joe Erin, an American living in Mexico. After Trane and Erin meet, they team up to become mercenaries and make some easy money. They eventually meet Emperor Maximilian I, who hires them to escort a countess to the port of Veracruz. From that point on, there are crosses and double-crosses, as the plot thickens and leads to the inevitable showdown between Trane and Erin.

Cooper does a good job playing the sort of character he played a lot, the decent, good-hearted fellow. But it's Lancaster who steals the show as the villainous Joe Erin. Lancaster uses all of his movie star chemistry to make us like Erin, even though he's clearly a bad guy. It's a flashy performance, and for it to succeed, Burt needed a more subdued actor like Cooper to play off of. Lancaster does everything he can to draw attention to himself, from eating like a wild animal at the emperor's banquet to nearly breaking the fourth wall by turning to the camera and giving a huge grin for no reason at all as Erin finishes washing his face. Lancaster draws you into liking Erin, even though he's a contemptible man. Erin's outbursts of violence are random, as when he picks on one of his fellow outlaws as the men are dancing. He isn't violent for any specific reason; he's violent just because he can be. In a way, Erin is an early example of an anti-hero, a character type that movie audiences would see much more of in the 1960's. Because of Erin's sociopathic nature and the rather violent story, some critics have seen "Vera Cruz" as a precursor to Sergio Leone's westerns of the 1960's. Lancaster gives a great performance, and he definitely elevates the movie.

Lancaster's production company produced "Vera Cruz," which meant that, typical of the movies that Lancaster produced, the script wasn't finished when filming began, and the film went over budget. Fortunately, "Vera Cruz" was a big hit and it didn't matter. Originally, Lancaster was going to play the Ben Trane part, and he apparently wanted Cary Grant to play Joe Erin. Cary Grant in a western? As a villain? Grant said, "I don't go near horses." Lancaster then took the role of Erin and approached Cooper for Ben Trane. Clark Gable had just seen Burt in "From Here to Eternity" and advised Cooper to turn the part down, telling Cooper, "That young fella will wipe you off the screen, Gary." Cooper said yes anyway. (Gable would go on to star with Lancaster in the 1958 submarine movie, "Run Silent, Run Deep.") When shooting started, it was Lancaster who had doubts about Cooper's acting style. After the first few days of filming, Lancaster told a friend, "Coop is just throwing this away. Coop isn't doing anything. I have to compensate. I have to put energy into the scenes." But once the rushes from the first few days came back, Lancaster said, "There I was, acting my ass off. I looked like an idiot, and Coop was absolutely marvelous." Once he saw how effective Coop's silent style was, Lancaster ordered that the first three days of the film needed to be reshot. Also typical of Lancaster movies, Burt was involved in just about every aspect of the film, which annoyed director Robert Aldrich. (Burt was kind of a control freak; it’s probably just as well that he and Warren Beatty never made a movie together.) And how did the two stars get along, conservative Cooper and liberal Lancaster? Very well, despite being almost complete opposites, according to "Against Type," Gary Fishgall's biography of Burt. Lancaster would even serve as an honorary pallbearer when Cooper died of lung cancer in 1961.

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