“Where to, John Henry?”
The Undefeated was John Wayne’s follow-up film to True Grit (1969) for which he would later win an Academy Award. It was a return to Twentieth Century-Fox after an interval of almost seven years, and Fox was pleased to have him. The decade had not been exactly a happy one financially for the company, so it was glad to have Wayne for a film that should prove to be money in the bank. As a consequence, Fox gave Wayne a generous contract and complete control of the film. He chose Andrew V. McLaglen to direct and principal shooting began in Durango in February 1969, with additional exteriors later filmed near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The film eventually opened in November 1969 to a fairly ho-hum response.
Fox has now released the film on DVD as part of its mini-festival of John Wayne westerns.
At the end of the Civil War, ex-Union Colonel John Henry Thomas heads west with his men to capture wild horses with the intention of selling them to the army. His efforts are successful and he accumulates 3000 horses, but the buyers for the army are neither willing to purchase all the horses nor are they offering top dollar. John Henry turns to two agents for Mexican Emperor Maximilian, who agree to take the lot for top dollar if he and his men will drive the horses to Durango, Mexico.
Meanwhile, ex-Confederate Colonel James Langdon leads a column of Confederate soldiers and their families on a long trek to Mexico where they hope to be welcomed as allies by the Emperor Maximilian.
The two groups meet up with each other soon after crossing into Mexico, where the hostile territory with its warring factions of Maximilian’s troops and Juarez’s rebels soon force the former Civil War enemies to form an uneasy alliance as they both make their way to their destinations.
The Undefeated lies somewhere in the middle of the pack of the dozen-odd westerns that John Wayne made during his last ten years. I’ve always rated it a little more highly than many others do. The tale it relates is somewhat unique in its consideration of what relationship there may have been between Maximilian’s nationalist forces and the remnants of the Confederacy. And it conveys that tale in a relaxed fashion with just enough action punctuating the story to keep things interesting.
Wayne was comfortable working with director Andrew V. McLaglen because he was Victor McLaglen’s son and frequently around during the John Ford days when Wayne, Ford, and Victor McLaglen would be working on films together. It’s not surprising then that one notices touches in the film that are clearly Fordian in spirit if not quite in execution. The brief scene between Wayne and Paul Fix (playing John Henry’s commanding officer at the end of the war) is one example, as is the July 4th celebration at the camp of the ex-Confederate column. What also made Wayne comfortable was the presence of numerous friends that had appeared with him before, such as Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Bruce Cabot, John Agar, and the above-mentioned Paul Fix.
The film has added interest due to the presence of Rock Hudson as Langdon. Hudson was not exactly a stranger to westerns, having appeared in a number of them early in his career for Universal, but once he became a full-fledged star, his western parts were few and far between. After Giant (1956), he was cast in only three westerns — The Last Sunset (1961, with Kirk Douglas and Dorothy Malone), Showdown (1973, with Dean Martin), and The Undefeated (or, as some might term them — the good, the bad, and the middling). Despite his reputation for light comedy and melodrama, Hudson actually looked fairly comfortable in westerns and The Undefeated is no exception. He holds his own with Wayne, although his role is clearly secondary in importance if not screen time.
One characteristic of many of Wayne’s latter-day westerns was the habit of casting pop stars, or in this case, football players, in supporting roles. Ricky Nelson worked out fine in Rio Bravo (1959), but Fabian was a disaster in North to Alaska (1960). Similarly, Roman Gabriel is unpersuasive as a young Indian brave who is John Henry’s adopted son in The Undefeated. Merlin Olsen is trotted out to play a hulking but child-like soldier to no great effect.
One of the most impressive sights in the film is the huge herd of wild horses that Wayne and his men are driving southward. It seems unlikely that a similar herd could be rounded up for filming today. Instead, 95% of them would likely be computer generated.
Fox’s DVD presentation (2.35:1 anamorphic) is just slightly below the other contemporary Wayne releases that Fox has come out with — The Commancheros and North to Alaska. The colours appear quite accurate, but overall, the image is not quite as vibrant, even allowing for the browns and dusty images that are frequent in the film. Black levels are good and shadow detail is fine. Edge effects are not intrusive.
The mono sound (available in English, French, and Spanish) is quite adequate, but the supplements are modest. They consist of English, Portuguese, and Spanish versions of the film’s theatrical trailer, and trailers for two other Wayne westerns (The Commancheros, North to Alaska).
The Undefeated is a reasonable time-passer and lies somewhere in the middle of the pack of John Wayne’s last dozen or so westerns. The plot has a somewhat fresh angle to it and benefits from Wayne and Rock Hudson squaring off against each other. Fox’s DVD presentation is more than adequate. Probably a good rental, and a purchase only for John Wayne completists.