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Sixty Plus Two Is Another Way To Show It
by Jon Schuller

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There have been films over the years in which an older, wiser person takes a younger person - unskilled, naïve but quick to learn, or bright but lacking motivation and confidence – under their wing to help them understand the world and its myriad mysteries and pitfalls. We see the "student" making mistakes but pushing forward, eager to learn and please the "teacher." It may be harmless, as with school situations. Or, in the real world, maybe it's business, or the legal profession, the arts, like music or painting, or, sports; maybe, even, crime and criminals. Big brothers and big sisters watching and waiting as their fledgling charges slowly catch up, catch on and, eventually, eclipse their older, wiser mentors. Have there ever been western movies where we've seen this sort of relationship? An older man, a loner perhaps, recently a soldier in a war on the losing side, seeks his fortune, trying to recover his dignity and reputation as a result of a lost cause. His name is Ben Trane, under-played with characteristic charm and wisdom by the great Gary Cooper. He accidently runs into an outlaw, a hothead with a rather fast draw on his .45, dressed in black, who accuses Ben of stealing his horse. The villain's name is Joe Erin, played with charm, flair and that unforgettable grin by Burt Lancaster, who quickly comes to respect Ben Trane as a smart
guy, someone he should befriend and learn from. Both men are in Mexico where Juarez is trying to overthrow the puppet Emperor Maximillian I, installed by France. The film's debut is in December, 1954 and the timeless, classic movie is Vera Cruz.

Many Americans went into Mexico to seek the chance to make money from the many revolutions there. Joe Erin and his gang, played by Ernest Borgnine (Donnegan), Jack Elam (Tex), Jack Lambert (Charlie), Charles Bronson (Pittsburgh), and Archie Savage (Ballard), have volunteered their services – for a large fee – to the Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) to protect the Emperor, (the great "stoneface", George Macready). Ben Trane has joined with Joe and his men, especially since, as he explains, he's been a part of a lost cause, The Confederacy, and wants to gain some self-respect and cash. The Marquis tells them they'll be accompanying the Countess Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz on the coast to get on a ship bound for France. It's a ploy to smuggle gold out of the country. The Emperor and his minions are afraid that this time the Juaristas may win. The gold will pay for additional French troops to sail to Mexico. Both Joe and Ben discover the gold in the coach as they travel with it, seeing the coach sink into the mud crossing a stream. They both talk to the Countess and she
conspires with each man separately.

General Ramírez (Morris Ankrum), one of the Juarista leaders, finds out about the gold from a girl, Nina (Sara Montiel) who's become part of the wagon train but is actually a Juarista spy. The General too wants the gold, as well as Joe Erin's gang, who've noticed how chummy Joe's become with the Countess. As they move along the trail each person's hidden agenda plays out against the on-going battles between the Emperor's troops and the revolutionaries. Plots and counter-plots go back and forth while the uneasy relationship between Ben Trane and Joe Erin also moves toward an almost inevitable conclusion. Joe has decided he'll get the gold and the Countess, cutting out everyone else. Despite Ben being smarter – and Joe knows it – Joe has to show his mentor that the pupil has already graduated.

The showdown comes as the coach and its protective detail of soldiers and gunmen enters the city of Vera Cruz. Joe has gotten the Countess to admit that she'd made a deal with the ship's captain, who was take her back to France, to keep the gold for herself. The last battle between the Juaristas and the Emperor's troops takes place. Joe is ready to steal the gold but Ben stops him. The predictable showdown between the two men takes place and Ben shoots Joe as the Countess looks on from a window above. Ben gets the
girl, the General gets the gold and we watch as grieving widows try to find their men among the heroes.

Vera Cruz, directed by Robert Aldrich, made some critics dislike the film for its gratuitous violence and almost relaxed view of shooting people in cold blood. Apparently it had an effect on future, similar films like The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals (also starring Burt Lancaster) and the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. But it's the bond that develops between the older and supposedly wiser, Ben Trane and the violently unpredictable, Joe Erin, that has always held my interest over the years. Watching these two marvelous actors is worth the entire movie. They are two complete opposites, with some similarities, like needing more money. But Ben's basically a traditional southern gentleman from Louisiana who admits he had championed the lost cause. Joe's just the amoral opposite who cares only about himself and making alliances that are simply done for convenience. Breaking a friendship by murdering his friends has no meaning to him. He'll do whatever it takes to win. The supporting cast was great, with some of Hollywood's stalwart actors – and some new faces for the time, like Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson (billed with his real name, Charles Buchinsky) . So what if it didn't win awards. It's still a marvelous film nearly 62 years later.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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