The Undefeated(1969), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson in lead roles, is a lavishly mounted, epic Western set during the final days of the American civil war.
Loosely based on Confederate States Army General Joseph Orville Shelby‘s escape to Mexico – with approximately 1,000 of his remaining troops (men later immortalized as “the undefeated” for their determination not to surrender) – after the American Civil War, and his attempt to join with Emperor Maximilian’s Imperial Mexican forces, “The Undefeated(1969), directed by genre veteran Andrew V. McLaglen, is an old-fashioned, epic Western mounted on a huge scale that might have appeared anachronistic in a year when Western underwent a radical transformation with Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” and George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” Contrary to the cynical, satirical and brutal nature of those radical westerns, “The Undefeated” tells a rousing, optimistic tale of two Civil war soldiers who fought on opposite sides, but ends up joining forces for a common good; the film preaches reconciliation between bitter foes and virtues of patriotism, and cheerfully looks forward to the creation of a new ‘United States’ in which everyone, from Yankees to confederates and native tribes will have a place. In the film, Rock Hudson plays the General Shelby surrogate, Colonel James Langdon of the CSA, who, believing that he has no future in the country after their defeat in the war, decides to take his family, and his band of Confederate soldiers to Mexico. Mexico, at the time, is also reeling under its own civil war, with Emperor Maximilian, leader of the French invasion forces, locked in a battle with the government of President Benito Juarez (and his Juaristas). Langdon has received an official invitation from Maximillian to come to Mexico with his soldiers and serve as reinforcements for his army. Seeing that the Yankee carpetbaggers are already circling his 1400 acre plantation, Langdon torches his place before he leaves. Langdon and his forces (dressed in plain clothes) crosses the Rio Grande under the cover of fog and darkness of the night, thus managing to outsmart the Union Soldiers who were following their trail. But unlike General Shelby, who legendarily sunk his battle flag in the river, Langdon is not seen doing any such thing: he makes sure that the battle flags are all taken down before they started their journey, But he and his men get into full confederate uniform and unfurl the confederate flag once they sets foot on the Mexican soil.
Meanwhile, things are not going well for Union army Colonel John Henry Thomas(John Wayne) either. After more than four years of service in the war, Thomas has lost many men, and is left with nothing. To compensate the remaining members of his troop who had remained steadfastly loyal to him, Thomas, after resigning from the army, gathers his men and move Westwards, into Arizona and New Mexico. He plans to round up some wild horses that are plentiful out there and sell them to the Union Army. To this end, he sends for his adopted son, a full blooded Cherokee named Blue Boy(Roman Gabriel)- who arrives with some members of his tribe from Oklahoma territory. Together they round up a herd of 3,000 horses, but when corrupt Union army bureaucrats try to cheat them out of a fair price for the herd, Thomas accepts a lucrative offer from Emperor Maximillian’s agents to deliver the horses to Durango. Thus, Thomas and his men also travels to Mexico with their massive herd of horses, and like Langdon and his men, the too manage to narrowly evade Union army troops – who are close on their heels – while crossing the Rio Grande. Since both our American heroes are in now in Mexico, it’s obvious that they will cross paths: Thomas and Langdon meet for the first time when Thomas and Blue Boy goes to warn the emigrating Confederates that they have spotted a gang of Mexican bandits trying to ambush them. Thomas is surprised to see the confederate flag flying in the middle of Mexico, and after proper introductions, he and Langdon exchange war stories over drinks. Meanwhile, Blue Boy and Langdon’s daughter, Charlotte, develops an attraction. Next morning the Bandits attack, and the Americans, putting their differences aside, fight together to repel the enemy.
Langdon thanks Thomas and his men, and invites them to a ‘Fourth of July’ celebration, but soon the Yankees and the Rebs gets drunk and restages the civil war. Langdon and Thomas decide that it’s better that they part ways, and each gather their men and move on. When Langdon’s Southern company finally reach their destination in Durango, they find that Emperor Maximilian’s forces had been chased out days earlier, replaced by Juaristas under General Rojas (Antonio Aguilar), who imprisons them. Viewing the new foreigners as potential enemies, the General holds the Southerners hostage, offering to release them in exchange for Thomas’ horses. The last thing Langdon wants to do is to beg a Yankee for help, but realizing that his family and men will be shot unless he does what he’s told, he reluctantly goes to Thomas and explains the situation to him. After discussing it with his men, Thomas decides to help Langdon by transporting his horses to the Juaristas. But this does not sit well with Maximillian’s agents who had contracted Thomas; they bring down a unit of French cavalry, and mount an attack on Langdon, Thomas, and his men who are on their way to deliver the herd to Durango. In the ensuing battle, the French forces are defeated, and Langdon, with the help of Thomas, manages to pay the ransom demanded by Rojas, and free his Confederates. Now that all hostilities has ceased to exist, Thomas and Langdon join a beaming Rojas in drinking a toast to the future of Mexico and the United States. The film ends with the company of reunited Americans riding out of Durango to return to the U.S.A, as one of the men plays ‘Yankee Doodle’ on his harmonica.
“The Undefeated” is an extremely good looking film. The visual beauty of the film alone demands multiple viewing. The technicolor, widescreen photography of William H. Clothier, who was a regular DP on most of the late-career John Wayne Westerns, luxuriates in the gorgeous Mexican locations. Each frame is bathed in rich colors and filled with magnificent scenery. Apart from that, I think this is the most lavishly mounted John ‘Duke’ Wayne Western since “The Alamo,” which Duke had directed and Clothier had photographed. The film is populated by a cast of hundreds, with total number of horses and cattle running into thousands. Except for “Duel in the Sun,” I have not seen so many horses in a Western. In almost every frame featuring Duke, we see thousands of horses behind him, and it must have been really tough work for the actors, horse wranglers, and stunt coordinators to coordinate the movement of the herd in tune with the movement of actors. One gets a real kick realizing that every horse and man we see in this film (made in the pre-CGI era) is real The actually had three thousand horses in the film, but by the time they finished, they were missing about sixty; many of the horses took off during the climactic stampede scene. At the time, the film cost more than $7 million to make, and it was a really expensive production for the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. Andrew V. McLaglen was Duke’s ‘go to’ director of Westerns at the time, especially after John Ford retired. McLaglen was Ford’s disciple, and the son of Ford’s favorite actor, Victor McLaglen; and though he maybe inferior to Ford in every other department of filmmaking, one thing where he matches up to his mentor is in pictorial beauty of his films; especially in the shooting of landscapes, his framing closely mirrors that of Ford’s.
What he’s incapable of doing is marrying the splendid visuals with a dramatically strong enough narrative, which Ford was a master at; Ford’s visual sense always complemented and elevated the drama. That’s one of the main problems with this film: the dramatic part is, if not outright weak, it’s rather flat: the narrative is scattered, episodic, and one never feels that anything is at stake at any point of the film. Though the end-of-civil-war setting provides writer James Lee Barrett ample opportunity to push through themes of tolerance, reconciliation, reconstruction and even miscegenation, but he could not develop a good enough story, or very interesting characters. A Yank and a Reb goes into Mexico only to realize that there’s no place like home; and that selling horses to Juaristas is better than selling horses to French Imperialists. Hmmm.. the film’s ending is particularly anti-climactic: the Yanks decides to trade in their horses pretty quickly to save the Rebs. After four years of fighting Johnny Rebs, no Yankee would change their attitudes so quickly. Also if they did, in any other film, Duke would have lead his men in all out attack on the Juaristas fort to save the Reb brethren. I guess the filmmakers wanted to make an all-round safe film, trying their best not to offend anyone: the Yankees, the confederates, the Natives or the Mexicans, so they decided to paint the French as the ultimate villains. It also doesn’t help that the two protagonists of the film are thorough gentlemen, and far too straight-arrows to whip up some color and rowdy energy from the proceedings. Two Americans who fought on opposite sides of the civil war ending up equally disillusioned, and then moving to a foreign country looking for better prospects, only to get engulfed in their civil war is a tale ripe for mining rich drama, tension and intrigue, but the screenplay developed for the film does not exploit the premise to its full potential. Compare this with Robert Aldrich’s “Vera Cruz” starring Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper, which was set in the same place and same time period. Lancaster’s devilish anti-hero act is a nice contrast to the noble heroism of Cooper, and makes that film so energetic and entertaining.
Here, Confederate Colonel, Langdon, is painted in noble, honorable and heroic light: he fights off arrogant Yankee carpetbaggers, who arrive at his doorstep with their even more arrogant black comrades; his slaves are obedient, silently waiting for the future with their heads bowed as the master gives a family heirloom to one of their oldest members; he punches out one of his own men who beats up a native young buck for romancing the Colonel’s daughter. All in all, this is a character that John Wayne should be playing in a John Wayne Western, and not his opposite number. For a John Wayne ‘double hero’ Western to work, it’s imperative that, both, the actor (and the character) opposite to Duke is colorful and a little twisted; like Lee Marvin, Dean Martin or Robert Mitchum, then only they can play off against Duke, who always plays himself, that’s the great, macho, straight man; that’s unless if Duke himself is playing the twisted one as in “Red River” or “The Searchers.” Rock Hudson is an actor who’s very much in the vein of Duke, only much more stuffy and stiff-necked; Duke, even on a very bad day, can effectively throw a punch and put some sardonic lines across, Hudson is not even up to that. Frankly, he’s miscast here- physically he has the build to carry of such a larger-than-life role, but in that moustache, and that hat, and that accent- most of the time he comes across as funny, and not always intentionally. I wonder how James Arness, who was the first choice for the role, would have fared against Duke- the colorlessness of the character notwithstanding; Arness, who’s one of those rare stars who’s couple of inches taller than the mighty Duke, shares a strange relationship with Duke: it was due to Duke that Arness got his big break, but when Duke wanted to cast him for “The Alamo,” Arness stood him up (Duke cast Richard Boone instead), a slight that Duke never forgave, and still he wanted to cast him for this film, only to be ditched by Arness at the last moment once again. Duke and Rock, though politically and socially opposites, got on extremely well during the shoot,; pity! that their chemistry did not spill over into the screen.
It would not be a John Wayne Western if it did not feature his stock company actors; this film features Ben Johnson, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Royal Dano, John Agar, Dub Taylor and Pedro Armendariz Jr; prominent supporting roles are also given to a very young Jan-Michael Vincent and two professional American football stars, Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen. Duke, by then, was used to casting some up and coming young stars – usually music stars like Ricky Nelson or Frankie Avalon – in his films to appeal to the youth market. But this time he cast a sports-star, Roman Gabriel, as his Cherokee foster son, and, perhaps, for even more contemporary relevance, an interracial love story was woven into the plot. But Gabriel proves that he’s no actor, and only a quarterback, in the role. At least, he looks good on a horse and has a physique to fill the frame, but poor Melissa Newman, who’s cast opposite him as his love interest, fares the worst in the film- reduced to making cute expressions and finding it hard to deliver her lines through a stilted southern accent. The love story, which was intended to be the progressive, modern element in this very traditional Western affair, turns out to be its biggest weakness. Also by this time, Duke had stopped being a traditional romantic hero, so there’s no feisty heroine in the story, like the ones played by Maureen O’ Hara, with whom Duke can light up the screen. Thomas get a very unconvincing, silent romance going with Langdon’s sister, Ann, and it’s hinted at the end that they both might settle down together. But then there’s Ben Johnson & Co, whose banter with Duke is still very enjoyable. I only wish Johnson had a much larger role. Duke was coming off his splendid performance in “True Grit,” which was the big John Wayne Western of the year, and for which Duke would eventually win his only Oscar. “The Undefeated,” which released just a few months after that film came out, benefitted from the success of “True Grit”. Despite being a very traditional film, and not a very good John Wayne Western, it managed to gross a substantial $14 million in a marketplace driven by a young, countercultural audiences, who were feasting on movies like “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy.”; though the grosses was not enough to cover its enormous production cost, and it grossed only half of what “True Grit” ultimately grossed.
Before appearing in this film, Duke had to loose a lot of weight that he had put on for “True Grit.”; and he would suffer through two accidents during the course of this film’s shooting, resulting in broken ribs and a broken shoulder that restricted the angles from which the director could shoot him. Duke had already lost a lung to cancer by this point, but he still soldiered on bravely, not wanting to disappoint his fans. Though the film is nowhere near a top tier John Wayne Western, it’s in no way a disappointment. Though I have been very vocal about this film’s flaws (only because this film had the potential to being so much better) this film has a lot of merits: in its scale and its visual resplendence (that I already mentioned); then there’s always the magnetic, megawatt star-presence of Duke; despite not being well served by the writer and director- the role does not play to all of Duke’s strengths as an actor and charismatic star – Duke still manages to hold the scattered narrative together, and keep us invested in the film at all times. Duke does not get enough punchlines- “The conversation kinda dried up, ma’am” and “Windage and Elevation” are the only memorable ones from the film; maybe because he didn’t have his favorite writer James Edward Grant on the film. There aren’t enough action scenes as well; just wo or three major ones; but because the film is full of scenes of people and animals always on the move, we don’t feel the absence of big action scenes that much. Duke’s character seems to be modelled on Southern Unionist & Civil War General George Henry Thomas, the hero of the Battle of Chickamauga– which is referenced in the conversations between Thomas and Langdon. But George Henry was a more fascinating character than what Duke has been saddled with here, just like General Shelby is much more interesting than Hudson’s Langdon, and if they have made a biopic on either one of them, this would have been a much more interesting film. Nevertheless, in today’s times it’s a great pleasure to watch a very traditional, uncomplicated, undemanding piece of unpretentiously rousing and grand entertainment made during a less complicated time when stars were truly stars, capable of elevating even an average film with their presence.