Judge P.S. Colbert considers himself to be the John Agar of film critics.
Our review of The Undefeated (1969), published June 18th, 2003, is also available.
"We're all Americans."
People are often a tangle of contradictions. Take me, for instance. Though I've never actually hugged a tree, or read Karl Marx, I'm a proud, rock-ribbed American liberal, who never could resist a good John Wayne film.
And considering all the Saturday matinee-like fun I had screening The Undefeated, I guess it's fair to say that I'm also pretty vulnerable to the Duke's charms, even in a middling big-screen vehicle.
This sprawling reconstruction era romp starts just three days after the Civil War's official end—Lee has surrendered to Grant in Appomattox, but as Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (Wayne) discovers, many confederate soldiers are unwilling to concede defeat.
Take Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson, Seconds), who's spent his last dime financing his own rebel army. Though the ranks have been severely depleted in battle, those remaining are determined to follow Langdon to Durango, Mexico, where they plan to forge an alliance with the country's highly controversial Emperor Maximilian.
Coincidentally, Colonel Thomas—having resigned his army commission—is heading the same way, after agreeing to deliver three thousand horses to the very same Emperor, who promises to pay top dollar for them. Inevitably, the former Confederate Colonel and the ex-Union Colonel will cross paths.
From here on, all you really need to know is: the relationship between the opposing officers takes a different turn than you might think. The film puts a new twist on the Wayne western formula. Here, Indians: good, Mexicans: bad (Roman Gabriel—then a quarterback for the LA Rams—plays "Blue Boy," a Cherokee that Thomas claims as his adopted son).
True, the two (one and a half?) love interests presented are half-baked and almost inconsequential. True, the Maximilian link makes both Colonels party to a very corrupt ruler, and the film (in an effort to keep from tarnishing its heroes) simply ignores this fact, choosing to focus more importance on things like the big ol' 4th of July Union vs. Confederate veterans brawl, expertly choreographed by stunt coordinator Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit).
The cast is positively polluted with familiar faces, including Merlin Olsen (later the voice of FTD Flowers, but then, a defensive tackle for the Rams); Lee Meriwether (Batman: The Movie); Jan-Michael Vincent (Bite the Bullet); Kiel Martin (Trick Baby); Royal Dano (Crime of Passion); Dub Taylor (Falling From Grace), and Oscar-winner Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show). Though he's often dismissed as a studio hack, director Andrew V. McLaglen (a favorite of Wayne's, as well as Jimmy Stewart's, and a veteran of Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Have Gun, Will Travel,) is the perfect choice for keeping a two hour western light and breezy, while effortlessly bringing the action.
The Undefeated (Blu-ray) handsomely improves on the DVD version 20th Century Fox released a decade back, with a lush and colorful 2.35:1 print that shines especially during its sweeping panoramic shots. There are a full panoply of audio and subtitle choices, which demonstrates the universal popularity of the Duke's catalog. The lone extra is the theatrical trailer, in three language versions: English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Arriving in the shadow of Wayne's Oscar-winning performance in True Grit, and Sam Peckinpah's genre-redefining The Wild Bunch, this standard "fun for all ages" horse opera didn't stand much of a chance in terms of earning street cred, but this re-release will make a perfect gift for fans of the Duke and Rock Hudson, both of whom ride tall in their saddles here.
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