26 May 2007 | Bunuel1976
THE UNDEFEATED (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1969) **1/2
The late, great British film critic Leslie Halliwell’s verdict on Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO (1966) – “Easy going, semi-somnolent, generally likable but disappointing Western…an old man’s movie all around” – is a bit harsh in my view but it does rather aptly describe John Wayne’s films from DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) onwards – with a couple of obvious exceptions. This, then, is one from that professionally made, solidly entertaining and unassuming bunch; despite having been shown on TV several times over the years, it is not one that I had been familiar with prior to this viewing.
The third of five films the Duke would make with director Andrew V.McLaglen, it is not the best but not the worst either: actually, it has a surprisingly good premise – in post Civil War days, a band of Northerners (led by Wayne, naturally) take to rustling horses and selling them to the highest bidder; when that happens to be Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, they take a hard ride down Mexico way which pits them against several odds: the U.S. and the rebel Juaristas-aiding French armies (who both want to take possession of their herd), as well as a proud group of Confederates (led by a somewhat uncomfortable Rock Hudson) who have been promised shelter from Maximilian himself. During the course of the journey, tensions and friendships flare up as Wayne’s adopted Native American son falls for Hudson’s daughter and both parties engage in a free-for-all drunken fistfight (a pre-requisite John Wayne movie ingredient, especially at this stage in his career) to celebrate the 4th of July. However, when Hudson and his men reach Maximilian territory, they are abducted by the Juaristas who demand the exchange of Wayne’s horses for the Southerners’ lives. Will they comply?
The immediate post-Civil War backdrop provides James Lee Barrett’s script with something to say about tolerance and patriotism; the rugged, larger-than-life action is set in sprawling locations (Louisiana and Durango, Mexico) expertly lighted by frequent Wayne cinematographer William H. Clothier and set to an appropriately grandiose Hugo Montenegro score. The film (running a longish 118 minutes) loses some momentum in the second half and the romantic/youthful interest here is a particular liability – but this is countered by some good quips, delivered in Wayne’s typically dry fashion (especially his classic excuse to shooting a bandit he was supposed to just have a talk with: “The conversation kinda dried up, ma’am”)!
Of course, it would not be a John Wayne movie if it did not have the benefit of a number of reliable character actors featured in the cast and here we have a pretty colorful one, too: Ben Johnson, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Royal Dano, John Agar, Dub Taylor and Pedro Armendariz Jr; prominent supporting roles are also offered to a very young Jan-Michael Vincent and two professional American football stars, Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen. Interestingly enough, Hudson’s role was originally intended for another of Wayne’s stock company of character actors, James Arness; again, Wayne was injured during the making of the film (forcing the director to shoot him from a limited number of angles) but he, ahem, soldiered on because he felt he owed his fans a good show!