Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Undefeated (1969) - Lightweight, but Overlooked Western

The Undefeated
"The Undefeated."

"The Undefeated" (1969) got lost in the shuffle when it was released during a terrific year for Westerns. Competing against "Butch Cassidy," "The Wild Bunch" and John Wayne's other little Western that year, "True Grit," who was going to remember "The Undefeated"?

Well, not too many moviegoers. However, this is a nice production of a clever script that features several acting legends. With all of the (justifiable) attention on the Civil War in film, concurrent events in Mexico that were just as far-reaching for that country (and, in some ways, for the US) have largely been forgotten, or at least overlooked. Sure, people remember the Alamo from twenty years before the Civil War, and many recall Pancho Villa from 50 years after, but how much recognition has there been of France's blatant violation of the Monroe doctrine with its bid for dominance south of the US border while Grant and Lee were going at it? Clearly, not a lot.

So, this film serves as a nice history lesson. France tried to install its own emperor, Maximilian, on the throne of Mexico while the US was preoccupied with its Civil War. Unfortunately for the French, many Mexicans were not too thrilled with this idea. "Undefeated" takes Maximilian's struggle for survival and combines it with a tale of disaffected US and Confederate soldiers. What results is a very involving story set shortly after the Civil War in which former US soldiers on a cattle (horse) drive encounter former Confederate soldiers, along with their families, who aren't quite ready yet to give up their military trade and are on their way to serve as mercenaries for Emperor Maximilian.

The Undefeated John Wayne Rock Hudson
John Wayne and Rock Hudson dominate "The Undefeated."

So, with that as the backdrop, the film essentially becomes a character study. Wayne plays Wayne at his most iconic. Perhaps you can tell from time to time that he is not taking the whole thing very seriously, but he lends the film whatever air of gravity it possesses. Football legend Merlin Olsen surprisingly turns in a fine performance, Melissa Newman is very attractive as Hudson's flirty daughter, and quarterback Roman Gabriel of all people provides the romantic conflict. You aren't going to see most of these folks elsewhere, and they give it their all here in unique performances. Ben Johnson and some others of Wayne's traveling troupe of movie cowboys are along to give some down-home flavor, though they aren't called on to do much.

There are lots of chances for Wayne and his buddies to act tough and weathered. The main flaw to me is that the Rock Hudson character, leader of the Confederate force, comes across as too exuberant, a touch too "I'm so happy to be here in a Wayne film." For a man who has lost everything including his fancy mansion and property, his character comes across as a bit too happy-go-lucky. His character also is undercut several times as being naive, such as when Wayne's character has to come and warn him that his party is being tracked by bandits. Wouldn't a formed military body of battle-hardened soldiers know enough to maintain scouts in hostile territory? I thought Hudson rocked in "Ice Station Zebra" from the year before, but coming in to this role at the last minute to replace another actor probably didn't give him enough time to think the role through and maybe make a few script suggestions.

A confrontation between Wayne's small force and formed Mexican troops also is disappointing in how it is staged, making it seem perfunctory. Since this is the main "suspense" at the film's conclusion, the ending is kind of a let-down. Also, the fact that most of the film takes place in the middle of nowhere, with no contact with the world at large, gives the film an artificial feel, as if this were a laboratory experiment about post-war relations. At times like this, the story seems to go through the motions and almost plays like a made-for-TV film.

However, these are not fatal flaws. The heart of the film lies in the interaction of the characters and how they come to terms with how the world has changed since Appomattox. Hudson and his boys appear to learn that it is one thing to fight for your home and hearth against invaders, but war on foreign soil for ephemeral benefits is Hell indeed. There are echoes of modern times with the observation of the Wayne character that "It seems we've gotten ourselves involved in someone else's war." Note the year the film was released.

Recommended for fans of Westerns or the stars. Not a top Wayne film, but an interesting plot with fine performances by an eclectic cast.


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