If you want an easygoing movie that employs likable actors to pleasing effect, you may wind up accepting "The Undefeated" for what it is. But if you are like me and want a story that keeps your attention and moves you to a satisfying conclusion, this makes for a tough sell.
At the end of the American Civil War, a Union and Confederate colonel separately lead their people into Mexico. The Yank, John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), is bringing 3,000 horses to the Emperor Maximilian at $35 a head. The Rebel, James Langdon (Rock Hudson), is escaping the ignominy of surrender.
Mexico, alas, is in the throes of a bloody revolution. If they are to survive, they must set aside their differences and work together.
As John Henry explains it: "We got Maximilian on one hand and Juárez on the other, and bandits in between. And on top of that, we're Americans in Mexico taking a cavvy of horses to a very unpopular government. Why should we expect trouble?"
A product of that last great year for Westerns, 1969, "The Undefeated" has amazingly crisp and dynamic cinematography. William H. Clothier knew about shooting horses and horizons, and showcases both talents to majestic effect. The dialogue is often funny. But the film itself offers a hodge-podge of undernourished subplots, sweet talk, and sudden bursts of action that never gels.
Director Andrew V. McLaglen liked to cram his films with lots of different stories and people. Sometimes, like with his Wayne movie the next year, "Chisum," it worked. Here it doesn't.
There's a listless quality to the crux of the movie, John Henry and Langdon working together. Hudson's character is introduced as headstrong ("I got no taste losin' to a lot of Yankee rabble") but seems too easygoing with his former foe. Much time is wasted on a gormless romantic subplot involving Langdon's daughter and John Henry's adopted Cherokee son. Ben Johnson as John Henry's chief buddy has little to do but shrug and make wisecracks. The cast list includes John Agar and Richard Mulligan, but there's only a brief glimpse of the former and no sign of the latter in the finished film. McLaglen must have bit off more than he could chew in post- production.
Wayne is perfectly adequate, settling into the role of senior presence rather than a major player. McLaglen has fun setting up Duke's gruff charm and understated reactions, but as Oscar material, he hardly posed a threat to that year's winner, John Wayne in "True Grit."
Goofy subplots include surly cook Dub Taylor, whose main bit of business is telling everyone but his faithful tabby to go to hell; and a Rebel civilian no one will talk to because he didn't serve in the war. So why did he join them on this dangerous journey? It's never explained, but you hardly notice when nothing else is.
SPOILER ALERT - The ending is a strange one, where John Henry and Langdon turn on Maximilian after Juárez's people take the Southerners hostage. To spare their being massacred John Henry gives up the horses and rides home. Perhaps he realizes the Juáristas despite being ungentlemanly have a point, it being their land, but it's never explained: "You win one, you lose one," John Henry shrugs, and that's that. SPOILER END
There are fun scenes in the movie, and everything is beautiful to look at, so I won't carp too much at all the loose ends. My real beef is wishing McLaglen, a solid pro in other efforts, did more with his cast and opportunities here.
Action / Western
Action / Western
After the Civil War, ex-Union Colonel John Henry Thomas and ex-Confederate Colonel James Langdon are leading two disparate groups of people through strife-torn Mexico. John Henry and company are bringing horses to the unpopular Mexican government for $35 a head while Langdon is leading a contingent of displaced southerners, who are looking for a new life in Mexico after losing their property to carpetbaggers. The two men are eventually forced to mend their differences in order to fight off both bandits and revolutionaries, as they try to lead their friends and kin to safety.
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May 18, 2014 at 09:50 PM