In Vera Cruz, Mexico appears as a land of opportunity for mercenaries and professional soldiers displaced by the Civil War. Ex-Confederate Colonel Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) travels south of the border to sell his services to Napoleon III’s effete puppet dictator, the Habsburg Emperor Maximillian, who is desperately trying to suppress the rebellion of the Juaristas. Trane hopes to earn enough money to return to Louisiana and rebuild his ruined plantation, rejuvenating the lives of “the folks,” as he puts it, who are counting on him.
To offset the strong implications of paternalism associated with this endeavor, the film presents Trane as a good man who just happened to be on the wrong side of the fight. Contrasted to the noble Trane is Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin, an amoral gunslinger who initially tries to dupe Trane, but comes to respect him for his martial prowess and eventually forms an alliance with him.
Together, the two gringo adventurers turn down a plea to aid the beleaguered Juaristas, selling their guns for Maximillian’s gold. However, Trane gradually comes to sympathize with the Juaristas and their struggle for freedom, which the film depicts an analogue to the Confederate secession. He betrays Maximillian in order to secure a shipment of gold for the rebels, killing Erin to do so. Through this denial of mere self-gratification, Trane affirms the idealism that the Civil War had shattered, though the film’s ambiguous ending leaves open the question of his return to Louisiana.
Vera Cruz is a film in which the metaphor of Mexico operates on a number of levels. The overall tone is grimly cynical about human motives, yet Mexico still functions as a place where rebirth is made possible because of a political state of confusion that verges on the inchoate. In this climate, where the woman Cooper eventually ends up with is presented, successively, as exotic seductress, untrustworthy thief, and finally, dedicated revolutionary, nothing is as it seems, and identity itself becomes fluid, questionable. These are the very conditions that make Ben Trane’s redemption possible. But to undergo this redemption, he must first separate himself from his own cultural matrix, making, as it were, an archetypal journey to the underworld.
Trane never quite regresses, though. He does not take on the attributes of savagery usually associated with regeneration through violence. The casting of Gary Cooper in this role is largely responsible for this, as Cooper’s iconic status as the American Everyman was not flexible enough to allow him to play against the grain. Instead, it is Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin, with his almost prankish sense of eroticism and larceny, who enacts the regression. While presented fait accompli, Erin’s savagery may be understood as the id complementing Trane’s ego, the primitive energies necessary to enable Trane’s idealism. What Trane represses, Erin expresses: the two men form a psychological symbiote, in which the ego agrees to a partnership with its temporarily unrestrained lower self in order to accomplish a goal. By himself, Trane can’t steal the gold. Once the French troops guarding it have been killed, with the help of Erin and his gang, the partnership must end. The savagery necessary to attain the gold then becomes sublimated in the act of assisting the Juaristas, who never appear except en masse, representing the needs of the collective, which must take precedence over the desires of the individual.
Vera Cruz posits a Mexico populated by primitive, yet noble, peasants, and lorded over by European decadence in the person of the ineffectual Maximillian. Against this is set the implacable pragmatism of a dispossessed American, Ben Trane, seeking to re-enfranchise himself in the cultural status quo through calculated acts of deceit and violence. For Trane, as for the viewer, the idealism of the rebels whom he aids evokes a sense of nostalgia which looks back to the “lost cause” of the Confederacy – Trane’s “site of memory” – thereby allowing the present to redress the anxiety created by that loss. This anxiety is further assuaged by the signs that invoke “the otherness” of Mexico: its exotic women, its Aztec ruins, its festive music. In this equation, Mexico becomes the land of the psyche’s provenance, a kind of rough and tumble Eden where the re-invention of the self is always possible.