Sunday, February 01, 2009

Vera Cruz

Vera Cruz posterVera Cruz (1954) takes place at the end of the American Civil War as a motley assortment of ex-soldiers, adventurers and criminals went profit-seeking in Mexico, which was caught in the turmoil of the Franco-Mexican War. The leading men meet when Joe Erin sells Benjamin Trane a horse which is not only extortionately priced, but property of the Mexican military Lancers, and within minutes a brigade is bearing down on them to retrieve it. While fleeing the military, each man tests the wits of the other and a bond based on mutual respect, but at the same time distrust, is established. Trane and Erin are the hero and anti-hero. Trane is a former Confederate officer, a southern gentleman with a true moral compass who aims to make the money in Mexico to rebuild his devastated plantation. Erin, on the other hand, is an outlaw who robs and kills with a devilish grin, and scorns all norms of civilized behaviour. His roguish charm and razor-sharp wits make him a likeable character, but when push comes to shove, we realize that he really is a cold-hearted scoundrel.

The question of morality is raised as Erin and Trane, along with their posse of fortune-seeking Americans, are presented with employment on both sides of the war. On one hand, an ostentatiously uniformed Marquis Henri de Labordere, aide to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, guarantees them generous pay. On the other hand, a humble General Ramirez of the Juaristas offers them little money, but the honor of fighting in a war he claims is analogous to the American War of Independence. The men are uninterested in Ramirez’s offer and align themselves with the Marquis. Their mission will be to escort the carriage of Countess Marie Duvarre, the Marquis’s love interest, through Juarista territory to the port of Veracruz. However, the Marquis and the Emperor have no intention of rewarding the Americans for their service; death awaits them in Veracruz. En route, unusually deep tracks left by the carriage tip Erin off that something about their mission is amiss. Snooping around that night, he and Trane discover that the carriage has a false floor, beneath which are nestled six chests of gold coins. The Countess appears and informs them that the three million dollars in gold is intended to bring European troops to support Maximilian, but slyly tells them her plan to abscond with it at Las Palmas and that she will split it three ways if they help each other out.

From this moment on, the journey to Veracruz is rife with double-crossing schemes and shifting alliances. The characters are deeply distrustful of each other but also dependent; the viewer is left uncertain who will stick to the stated plan or who will betray the others. To complicate matters, the Juaristas are also vying for the gold, and a beautiful Juarista spy has captured Trane’s heart. When they reach Las Palmas, the Marquis, who had always been aware of the scheming behind his back, retreats with the gold and his Lancers to a fortified building. Erin and Trane team up with the Juristas to retrieve it, and Trane states that the Juaristas have earned the gold for their bravery, eliciting disbelief and scorn from Erin. In the chaos of battle, Erin seizes the carriage with the gold and abandons the Countess after she mistakenly reveals the location of their getaway boat. However, Erin still has Trane to contend with, who insists that the gold belongs to Mexico. Erin is hell-bent on getting the gold and demands that one man kill the other in a quick-draw, which Trane deftly wins. Rather than joining his lady-love, Trane walks silently away, over the mingled corpses of both sides of the war.

The American presence in Vera Cruz, embodied by Joe Erin and Benjamin Trane, is an ambivalent one. Taken as an allegory for the twin sides of American foreign policy, one could say that Trane represents interventionism based on goodwill and Erin represents interventionism based on self-interest. It is unclear at what moment Trane decides that the gold must stay in Mexico with the Juaristas, but he becomes so steadfast in his belief that he shoots Erin, who cared for no one but himself. American morality, which takes side with the revolutionary common-folk in contrast to the French who support an imposed emperor and associated elites, seems to come out squarely on top. However, Trane may not be the straightforward hero he appears, straying from the moral high ground on more than one occasion. For instance, Trane does not find Erin and his ragged crew of thugs so morally objectionable that he is compelled to leave them, and it is questionable how much of Erin’s violence he would permit if the end justified the means.

Indeed, Mexico is portrayed as an environment that facilitates misleading appearances. When Erin first becomes suspicious of their mission he comments, “Funny country, the carriage leaves steeper tracks than an overloaded wagon,” and later Trane muses how “They say a thief in Mexico can disappear like a puff of smoke.” In their imagination, Mexico itself plays a role in concealing deception, such as the beautiful Mexican woman who is a pickpocket and spy, and in revealing it, such as in the tell-tale tracks in the mud. This symbolism is most apparent when an American man lifts the mask of a pretty señorita with whom he has spent a fiesta, only to reveal a gap-toothed guffawing man. Despite misleading appearances, the Mexico of Vera Cruz is real (the theatrical trailer boasts that the entire film was shot in Mexico) and the Mexicans are portrayed as friendly, reasonable and valiant. Mexico may be a place of turmoil and trickery, but in comparison to the American profiteers and outlaws that populate the film, its moral fabric is for the most part intact.

See also Jon's account of the film.

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