Steve Seid of Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive contributed an essay to FICM's catalog to accompany the "Imaginary Mexico" retrospective, and The Evening Class is grateful to Seid and FICM for granting permission to republish same for a North American audience.
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Burt Lancaster can be a tough hombre, a tough hombre with a grin the size of Texas. And it's not just one grin, but multitudes, called into action to be wry, or welcoming, or devilishly threatening. Put that smirky smile on an actor trained as an acrobat and you have a pliable mug perched atop some great athleticism.
By the time his youthful acrobatics had waned, Lancaster had stretched his more mature manners as an actor, limber now in gesture not gymnastics. Who can forget the vertiginous emotions of Ned Merrill, the long-drowning suburbanite in The Swimmer (1968), the world-weary wisdom of McIntosh, the reluctant Indian scout of Ulzana's Raid (1972), or Lou, the aging mobster, hit by antique desires in Atlantic City (1980)?
With over seventy lead roles, Burt Lancaster nimbly inhabited just about every conceivable film genre, receiving recognition in the form of an Oscar® and three additional nominations, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. Of his multitude of films, a half-dozen might constitute his Mexican sojourn, beginning with Vera Cruz in 1954 and ending with Valdez Is Coming (1971), where the-then 58 year–old actor plays a worn-out Mexican-American constable determined to exact justice for an innocent man's death. A pair of westerns, The Scalphunters (1968) and Lawman (1971), both produced in Durango, share the same stretch of broken earth, but only the former film conjures Mexico as an elusive safe haven for the fleeing bounty hunters.
Aldrich's second western, Vera Cruz was shot throughout the Valley of Mexico. One grand scene, an opulent gathering with the soon-to-be deposed Emperor, is staged at Max's Castle high atop the Chapultepec promontory. In another, the caravan carrying the Emperor's treasure passes close by Teotihuacan, suggesting in its stony grandeur that Mexico's true soul shall remain while the dalliances of the invaders shall pass.
Across the border and into a heartless terrain of desert scrub and treacherous ravines ride the "professionals" as they close in on Raza's encampment. Raza, who notably speaks Spanish for half of his screen time, is the disillusioned revolutionary, now turning the chaos of war toward his own ends. "The Revolución is like a great love affair. In the beginning she is a goddess…. In time, we see her as she is," he says to Lancaster during a lethal stand-off.
And Lancaster's Bill, the demolition man? A short-fused adventurer, he turned an adolescent urge for artful creation into its explosive opposite. This was the perfect role for Burt Lancaster who himself possessed a barely containable inner energy that threatened detonation at any moment. His great actor's art was keeping that energy enclosed within the nuanced bounds of his body. Expect ignition.