Cast and Crew: Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Morris Ankrum, Charles Bronson
What It’s About: Just after the American Civil War, American veterans and outlaws are drifting down to Mexico to work as mercenaries in the struggle between the French led by Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) and the Mexican people, led by President Juarez. Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) is one of them, a former Confederate officer. Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) is another, a wild man and outlaw from out West looking for new opportunities. The two men strike up an uneasy partnership and are hired by Emperor Maximilian to help the Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) escort Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz. The convoy faces constant attacks by the Juaristias, and the mission is more than it seems…
Why Watch it Today?: Today is Cinco De Mayo, when a small force of Mexican soldiers defeated a larger and more professional French force at Puebla de Los Angeles during the French invasion of Mexico in 1862. Although the Mexicans won that battle, they lost the war, and it wasn’t until four years later that the French regime was defeated and Emperor Maximilian was executed.
One might argue that a film that features Americans showing up French lancers fighting Juaristas before changing sides and showing up Mexican peasants fighting the French would be out of tune with this holiday, but think about what the holiday has become in most of the United States: a marketing ploy and an excuse for people who don’t know what the holiday means to drink too much. Despite its typical 1950s “American cowboys=the best force ever devised” bullpoopy, the film is worth watching for Lancaster’s over-the-top performance, Cesar Romero’s delightful turn as a Marquis who is not as dumb as he seems, and thrilling action sequences directed by Robert Aldrich.
Fans of Spaghetti Westerns owe themselves a viewing, as Vera Cruz sets up many of the elements that those films would utilize, including European elitists, anti-heroes forced to work together for a cache of gold while constantly scheming to take it for themselves, Mexican revolutionaries and peasants, and the gimmicky trick shooting.