The American Civil War has just ended, but another has begun down South in Mexico where the people are rising up against the Emperor Maximilian (George Macready), though it's going to be a real struggle to bring about any change. Into this atmosphere of revolution come men from the United States, looking to sell their services as mercenaries for either side, one of those being Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper), a refugee of sorts from the war where he lost almost everything. Now it looks as if he will lose his horse, which is lame, and he spots some other horses up ahead...
That's not all that's up ahead, as Cooper's co-star and producer Burt Lancaster is there as well, in the role of Joe Erin, a mercenary just like him, but somewhat less scrupulous because Coop refused to play anything but the pure hero, so just as Western clichés dictated, he wore the white hat while Lancaster wore the black hat. This was one of the films which established director Robert Aldrich as one of the premier creators of manly films for manly men, something he tried to adapt to other forms later on, but his muscular style was well displayed in works such as Vera Cruz, one of those movies which may have had audiences thinking, ho hum, another Gary Cooper Western, but emerged saying, hey, that was pretty good.
Thus when word got around that the combination of Cooper and Lancaster, not to mention the solid backing of some of the finest tough guy character actors in Hollywood and an expensive sheen (all those extras!), was actually something well worth seeing, Vera Cruz became one of the biggest hits in the careers to date of many of those involved, paving the way for more of the same, though not always quite as accomplished. Certainly the Europeans were watching intently, as the film was credited with pushing a lot of those filmmakers into trying to emulate that innovative, wary camaraderie between the lead characters and those visuals with the sun beating down on dusty landscapes, men unshaven, and guns always on the verge of being drawn.
Not to mention that both hero and villain will be expert sharpshooters when the weapons do come into play; this means Vera Cruz has lost some of its gloss and sparkle down the years, but only because its pioneering style for the genre became so overworked. Ben has his own reasons for visiting Mexico which are not quite as apparent as that title crawl might indicate, but we can tell why Joe is there right away when he sells him a horse belonging to an officer in the Mexican army - Trane wasn't to know, but it does have him chased by the officer and his troops before he gets his own back on the treacherous soul. Yet in a constant game of oneupmanship, Joe's gang are waiting for him and turn the tables.
Those men including such famous faces as Ernest Borgnine (who gets biffed straight out of the bar and into the street with one punch), Charles Bronson (in a kind of rapist role which later he would specialise in blowing away with a large handgun) and Jack Elam (who got into a fight with Lancaster on the set when Burt made fun of his looks). It was one of the better casts assembled for a fifties Western, and also showing up were Cesar Romero as the Marquis who makes the offer to Joe and Ben about assisting a Countess (French actress Denise Darcel) to the town of the title, and popular Spanish singer Sara Monteil as the feisty pickpocket who becomes Trane's love interest. Of course, there's more to the mission than meets the eye, as the theme of selfish greed versus moral conscience runs through this, embodied by the guarded but oddly humorous inteprlay between the two leads, Lancaster grinning for all he's worth. It may have lost some of its lustre through imitation, and the tension dips in the middle, but there's plenty to enjoy here for sheer star power alone. Music by Hugo Freidhofer.