Undefeated, The (1969): Western Starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson

One of John Wayne’s least interesting films is produced, written and directed by the same team that’s responsible for the slightly better and more entertaining “Bandolero!” James Lee Barrett (who also wrote the preposterous Vietnam saga, “The Green Berets”) wrote the script, based on Stanley L. Hough’s story, Robert L. Jacks produced, and Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

Wayne plays John Henry Thomas, a Civil War Union Cavalry veteran who makes his living rounding up wild horses, leading his men on a horse drive south of the border. When a conference with Mexican bandits break down, Wayne shoots their leader without hesitation. “You went out there to talk. Why did you have to kill him” asks a war widow. “Guess the conversation just kinda…dried up, ma’am,” he replies in a characteristic manner.

As most of Wayne’s films of that era, the plot is two-generational: Rock Hudson plays James Langdon, a Southern leading his defeated men to a new future in Mexico.

Other than Hudson, the workmanlike helmer McLaglen surrounds the Duke with mediocre and amateurish cast, including Marion McCargo as love interest, and Roman Gabriel as his adopted son, a Cheyenne Indian, who recalls in role and acting the handsomer Jeffrey Hunter on John Ford’s “The Searchers.”

Not much of a director, McLaglen, who must have studied master John Ford’s films well, stages the scenes in an impersonal, haphazard way, including a Forth of July even that posits Northerners and Southerners. His most overt tribute to Ford is evident in a scene in which Paul Fix, a familiar presence from the Duke’s presence, accepts Wayne’s resignation from the Army.

Wayne is his usual pro, excelling in delivering cynical lines. Confronting greedy horse buyers, who are offended by him calling them thieves, Wayne says: “Why, yes, isn’t it an accurate description”

Along with instructing his men, he also gives a useful lesson to his romantic interest, Anne Langdon (Marian McCargo), when she is about to use a rifle for the first time: “Remember two things, Windage and Elevation!”

Thematically, “The Undefeated” preaches for peace and reconciliation between North and South. But the film is full of clichs, taken from Wayne’s previous films, the most obvious of which is him talking about a wife who didn’t like his hunting adventures and independent streak, and had thus left him to go East and teach piano in Philadelphia.

The contrast between Wayne, the macho leader with no familial attachments, and Hudson’s Confederate Colonel James Langdon, as the civilian family man, is all too obvious. Hailing from Louisiana, Langdon, unwilling to accept life in a “conquered land,” leaves his plantation and departs for Mexico with several women, his wife Margaret (Lee Meriwether), his daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman), and Anne Langdon, the widow of his brother, who had been killed in the war. At least half of his party that tries to evade interception by Union troops, as they cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, consists of older men, women and children.

In their scenes together, there is some tension between Wayne and Hudson, a combined result of their differing parts and acting styles. But Hudson makes it clear that he’s more suited and looks better and more convincing in melodrama of the Douglas Sirk kind “(“All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind”) and romantic comedies with Doris Day (Pillow Talk,” among others).

In the same year, Wayne made a better, more significant and characteristic Western, vet Henry Hathaway’s “True Grit,” which finally won his the Best Actor Oscar.

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