Vera Cruz is a 1954 American Technicolor Western starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, and featuring Denise Darcel, Sara Montiel, Cesar Romero, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Charles Bronson. The movie was directed by Robert Aldrich from a story by Borden Chase. The film’s amoral characters and cynical attitude toward violence (including a scene where Lancaster’s character threatens to murder child hostages) were considered shocking at the time and influenced future Westerns such as The Magnificent Seven, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and the films of Sergio Leone, which often featured supporting cast members from Vera Cruz in similar roles.
During the Franco-Mexican War, ex-Confederate soldier Ben Trane (Cooper) travels to Mexico seeking a job as a mercenary. He falls in with Joe Erin (Lancaster), a lethal gunslinger who heads a gang of cutthroats (including Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Charles Bronson, and Archie Savage). They are recruited by Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) for service with the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (George Macready) After an almost miraculous display of shooting with a lever action model 1873 Winchester rifle, the Emperor offers them $25,000 to escort the Countess Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to the seaport city of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Trane uses a compliment to the countess to get the Emperor to double it, impressing Erin with his boldness. During a river crossing, Trane and Erin noticed that the stagecoach that the countess is traveling in is extremely heavy. Erin later discovers that the stagecoach contains six cases of gold coins. First Trane and then the countess discover him looking at the gold. The countess informs them that it is worth $3 million dollars which is being transported to pay for troops for Maximilian’s French army. They form an uneasy alliance to steal and split the gold. Unfortunately for their plans, the Marquis was listening from the shadows.
Also involved in the mix is Morris Ankrum as a heroic Juarista leader. He and the other Juarista leaders soon suspect that there is more to the expedition than the countess and ambush the column several times. Eventually, the rest of Erin’s group also learn that something suspicious is going on and they demand to be let in on the secret. The different groups, including Juarista secret agent Nina (Sara Montiel), conspire to steal the gold for their own purposes. Alliances are formed, quickly dissolved and others are formed. A ruse is successful in getting the gold to Veracruz where the Juarista troops attack the French in a bloody battle over the ownership of the gold. Erin attempts to steal the gold for himself by getting the countess to reveal the location of the ship she had hired to transport the gold. However, Trane arrives in time to stop him. In the end, Trane and Erin face off in a showdown that concludes with Erin’s death. Trane leaves the gold and walks through the dead bodies from the battle while the wives and mothers of the Juarista troops are searching for their loved ones.