The Gary Cooper first seen atop a limping horse in the middle of the desert is patently the one from The Plainsman and The Westerner, Robert Aldrich ponders the icon in an analysis completed by Anthony Mann (Man of the West). Cooper’s former Confederate colonel renting out his services in Emperor Maximilian’s Mexico is one head of American adventurism, the other one facing him Janus-style is Burt Lancaster’s grinning cutthroat, who, having no morality to weigh him down, is better adapted to the times. The imperial nobleman (Cesar Romero) offers them gold, the Juarista officer (Morris Ankrum) has only a noble cause (and an army of peasants, revealed in a low-angled, 360° panning shot); "Wars are not won by killing children," the sombrero-haloed Ankrum intones, but Lancaster and his buccaneers (which include Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam) know better. The Mexico City palace is a haven of perfumed imperialism, Maximilian (George Macready) is a suave degenerate and an amateur manxman who tests a gringo rifle on the help ("Perhaps I better stop, we have a servant problem as it is"). The McGuffin is a gold shipment hidden in a fabulous carriage, the ride to Vera Cruz pairs each man with his female counterpart: Lancaster’s ruthlessness earns him an equally corrupt European countess (Denise Darcel), Cooper’s grudging gallantry is matched by Sara Montiel’s closet morality as a spirited pickpocket ("It is hard to be a patriot on an empty stomach"). The frontier nature that enraptured the filmmaker in Apache yields here to the baroque colonial ruins that frame the characters’ machinations; an extended tracking shot outlines the rebel camp at dusk, dwarfing long-shots and jarring close-ups state a campesino’s execution by imperial lancers. Behind Aldrich’s humoristic veneer and lush eye lurks a despairing absurdist, carving a path through the prairie for Peckinpah and Leone and Corbucci. With James McCallion, James Seay, Henry Brandon, Archie Savage, and Jack Lambert.
--- Fernando F. Croce