Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Undefeated (Fox, 1969)

 

The Duke and Rock show

 

 

We’ve been looking lately at the Western career of Rock Hudson. After the rather plodding Taza, Son of Cochise in 1954, which Hudson himself called “crap”, he generally avoided the genre until 1961, when he paired with Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset, as we saw last time (the links will take you to our reviews). And for most of the rest of the 60s he also steered clear of saddle and Stetson. Maybe he thought it wasn’t for him anymore, or perhaps he was busy elsewhere. He did do a couple of war/action pictures, stuff like Tobruk and Ice Station Zebra, but no oaters. Until 1969.

 

Then in July 1968 he agreed to pair with the king of the big commercial Western at the time, the Duke, and do The Undefeated at Fox. It is said that his part was first offered to James Arness but he backed out.

 

 

It was produced by Robert L Jacks, who married Darryl Zanuck’s daughter Darrylin (they later divorced) and produced quite a few Westerns, big screen and small, for Fox and ones released by other studios. The best of the features (in my view) were Fox’s The Proud Ones and Man from Del Rio, released by United Artists.

 

 

The original script was by Stan Hough (another Fox producer, known for Bandolero! also, and Mr Jean Peters) and writer/director Casey Robinson of Captain Blood fame, but neither is credited in the final film. Jacks bought it in December 1967, announcing that James Lee Barrett would do the screenplay. Barrett would become famous in the 70s for Smokey and the Bandit but earlier worked a lot with James Stewart and director AV McLaglen on Westerns, not always good ones it must be said, such as Shenandoah and Bandolero! Lewis B Patten also got a screenwriting credit on The Undefeated; he did Red Sundown in 1956 and Death of a Gunfighter in 1969, among other Westerns.

 

Writer Barrett

 

So there seems to have been a plethora of writers involved.

 

It’s an 1860s story, (very) loosely based on CSA General Joe Shelby’s crossing into Mexico with a thousand men, sinking his battle flag in the Rio Grande, rather than surrender at the end of the Civil War – thus being ‘undefeated’ – and his attempt to join with Maximilian’s Imperial Mexican forces as a ‘foreign legion’. In fact Maximilian declined to accept the ex-Confederates into his armed forces, but he did grant them land near Veracruz.

 

General Shelby

 

In the movie Rock plays the Shelby-like character, as Colonel James Langdon, who torches his plantation, in quite a powerful scene, so that it won’t fall into the hands of carpetbaggers (and he pays off his force of Negroes by giving one of them his granddaddy’s watch, so doubtless they were very satisfied) and aims to cross into Mexico and join Maximilian.

 

 

Wayne is also a colonel, John Henry Thomas, but a Union man of course.

 

 

After winning an engagement against one-armed Confederate Major Royal Dano, as it turns out three days after Appomattox, but who knew?, he hands his resignation in to General Paul Fix and is asked by Short Grub (Ben Johnson), “Where to, John Henry?” to which the reply is “West!” Thomas has the intention of rounding up and selling wild horses to compensate his men for their loyalty, friendship, and war service.

 

 

With his Indian adopted son Blue Boy (LA Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel – fellow Ram Merlin Olsen had a small part too) he rounds up 3000 head and aims to drive them across the border to sell them to Maximilian.

 

Cherokee adopted son

 

 

Comancheros under Pedro Armendariz present a threat to the Confederates and gallant Union Col. Thomas goes to their aid.

 

Pedro is boss of the Comancheros

 

Later Thomas invites the Rebs, er, I mean Confederates, to a Fourth of July shindig, where Blue Boy and Langdon’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman) fall in love. This match is daringly interracial and does not please the Southerners, though both dads seem very relaxed about the affair.

 

Rock and daughter

 

Both sides put up a dumb-ox prize fighter for a bout, which of course degenerates into a McLintock!-style free-for-all, supposed to be highly amusing. You do get the feeling right about now that the writers and director were searching about for something to fill in the minutes, which are now beginning to drag. Roger Ebert said, “In the midst of the love affair, Hudson invites Wayne’s men to a Fourth of July celebration. This is the sort of thing Ford liked to throw in. But McLaglen bobbles it. The party quickly degenerates into one of those stagy fights that have you squirming in your seat. It is not necessarily hilarious to see a big man hit a small man several times. Not even if everybody is laughing.”

 

Mmm, how can we pad it out a bit more?

 

With old enmities resurfacing and degenerating into open conflict, the two parties go their separate ways. When Langdon arrives in Mexico Maximilian has been overthrown (this was actually in May 1867 so I’m not quite sure what has happened in the interim). The new (fictional) warlord is General Rojas (Antonio, billed as Tony Aguilar, the famous Mexican singer-actor who was to write and star as Zapata in 1970). Normally in Hollywood movies Maximilian and his foreign forces are the baddies and the Juaristas are noble freedom fighters but here the Juaristas under the general (pronounced heneral, natch) are swine, shooting people with a firing squad.  Rojas takes Rock and his men captive and will only release them if Thomas hands over his 3000 horses. Will he do it? There’s a force of French cavalry still loyal to Maximilian who will try to stop him…

 

Hudson was used to co-starring and, preferring the ‘strong silent type’ of role, did especially well opposite a perhaps more charismatic or at least extrovert actor. The Last Sunset with Douglas had been a good example. How would he fare with Wayne? According to his partner Marc Christian, Wayne started by nagging at Rock during filming. In Mark Griffin’s biography of Hudson, All That Heaven Allows, Wayne is said to have started to ‘direct’ Hudson early on, constantly suggesting what he should do on camera. When Hudson began to do the same to Wayne, Wayne pointed his finger at Hudson and said, ‘I like you.’ The suggestions stopped, and the two men became frequent partners in chess and bridge. Duke joked that he’d rather have been born with Hudson’s movie star face than his own.

 

 

Among the support cast there are many of ‘the usual suspects’. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey do a lot of ropin’ and ridin’.

 

Dobe does his thing

 

Also in the cast are Bruce Cabot, Pedro Armendariz Jr and Paul Fix, Wayne and ex-Ford stock company regulars all. Dub Taylor is the obligatory dirty old cook and he has what he calls a mangy old cat, though the puss looked quite sleek to me. Sadly, both are casualties of the trip.

 

 

There’s a lame happy-ever-after ending.

 

William Clothier, a favorite Ford and Wayne cinematographer, was behind the camera and, as ever, did a good job of the Durango locations beloved by Wayne. It’s in Panavision with color by De Luxe and looks big and glossy. There are some lovely shots of running horses.

 

 

 

The music, by Hugo Montenegro, verges on the extraordinary, sometimes rousing but with one long scene played against an interminable sustained single note, perhaps to suggest tension, which, though, it doesn’t.

 

The picture was designed as a big, commercial 60s crowd-pleaser aimed at the loyal fans and able to fill theaters all over the world, especially in the Mid-West, which up to a point it did. It earned $8m, not bad. Unfortunately, though, the budget had been very substantial, at over $7m, and according to Fox records, with ancillary costs the film required $12.4m in rentals to break even. Western box office sales that year went to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which grossed a huge $102m, and other pictures in the genre, such as Paint Your Wagon and Wayne’s own True Grit did a lot better ($31m each). The Undefeated languished at No. 18 in the rankings that year. Oh well.

 

Critics were underwhelmed. Variety said, “Basically wrong is the whole uneven mood of the film. Neither Wayne or Hudson seems to know whether they are in a light comedy or a serious drama. They are, to use the word in an exact sense, simply unbelievable”. The review added, “Film has a basic storyline, character elements and dialog for what might have been a superior drama and possibly a great western. But Andrew McLaglen’s direction seems to consist of splicing together cliches, static camera work and Central Casting of the bit parts.”

 

I’m afraid this is probably true. Wayne groupie McLaglen had a sound record helming Western TV shows like Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel but his feature Western CV is far from spectacular. His first, Gun the Man Down in 1956, was little more than a Gunsmoke spin-off with James Arness and has all the look of a TV movie; McLintock! with Wayne was commercially successful but (in my view) awful. Shenandoah (1965) was one of James Stewart’s weaker efforts in the genre and as for The Rare Breed the year after, it was embarrassingly bad. The Way West in 1967 was boring and Bandolero! in ’68 (with Stewart again) plain weak. I quite like Chisum and Cahill, US Marshal, in a commercial Dukey kind of way. But no, sorry, AV hadn’t got it.

 

 

It is said that Henry King was first going to helm it. That would have been something but he hadn’t directed a Western since The Bravados in 1958 and hadn’t done any film since 1962.

 

The New York Times at the time thought there were very faint Fordian echoes (and I suppose Ford might have done it – he would certainly have done it better – but not after Cheyenne Autumn; Roger Ebert wrote, “It exhibits a lot of the Ford trademarks”) but the Times thought that the picture was “easy to take and even easier to forget.”

 

Dennis Schwartz wrote that McLaglen “directs as a homage to John Ford westerns, but shows few signs of having the same talent.”

 

Roger Ebert thought there was the odd good scene and amusing bit of dialogue but didn’t like Hudson, saying “these scenes help pass the time and help you forget how wooden and uninteresting Hudson is. Which is pretty wooden and uninteresting indeed.” A bit harsh, I think. Schwartz disagreed anyway: “The big surprise is that not only does Rock hold his own with the Duke, but puts in a more spirited performance.”

 

Brian Garfield said it was “A very disappointing movie to say the least.”

 

All in all it’s a kind of Major Dundee without the quality. And I’m not that keen on Major Dundee. Hudson himself admitted in a 1980 interview that he thought the movie was “crap”, a word he had also used to describe Taza. It wasn’t crap, actually.  There are some good bits. Duke does his Wayne thing and Rock was pretty good, I thought (apart from his fake Southern drawl). It’s a visually attractive picture. Many people do like it.

 

But it’s too long (119 minutes but seems endless) and slow-paced, and derivative. It basically never recovered from its direction.

 

 

 

24 Responses

  1. Having knocked Andy McLaglen recently on this site I nevertheless have just subjected myself to this item in his oeuvre. Fairly sure I’ve seen it before, perhaps decades ago, some Sunday afternoon – it all seemed familiar. I wholly and predictably agree with your review. If you enjoy watching John Wayne in pretty much anything (and I do), even when he’s going through the motions, then you’ll enjoy him in this, several familiar supporting actors are also predictably good value, and I agree with you that Hudson ain’t bad at all, it’s really quite a careful, dignified performance. Nice landscape photography from Clothier, and impressive supervision (much of it by a second unit director, perhaps?) of those majestic long shots of horses kicking up dust. But really all of that’s something of a waste when it’s in service of such a flabby script and such flabby direction by McLaglen.

    All in all, it’s a pleasant time-waster. But did it need to waste quite *that* much time?

    PS Where you might have been harder on the film is its point of view on post Civil War America. Now I’m not one to judge films only by their ‘ideology’ (I always find this to be an interesting thing to think about in a movie, but only while considering its many other aspects – I can certainly appreciate a film that I don’t fully ‘agree’ with if it has other merits). But I have to say the ‘noble lost cause of the Confederacy’ schtick was always pretty dodgy, never one of my favourite ‘tropes’ in Westerns, and here it’s laid on quite thick, kind of the premise of the whole movie. Moreover, as you gently suggest, but could have done so more forcefully, the portrayal of black people in the early, pre-Mexico part of the film is incredibly patronising – at best. The sort of thing to be expected (if hardly to be applauded) in 1939. But this film was made in 1969!

    1. On your PS, yes, perhaps I was over-tactful and I do tend to agree with you on the romantic Confederate lost cause business often being overdone.

      1. I would assume the romantic lost cause stuff went down well at the time among (white) viewers in the South, while being tolerated by viewers elsewhere in the US and going over the heads of most audiences abroad? As a kid watching westerns on British TV in the 70s and 80s I don’t think it was something I really picked up on at the time, I was just there for the stories and the action. But nowadays I’d have a bit more of a critical perspective, there was a pernicious side to playing up the nobility of the Confederacy during the era of Civil Rights struggles and to see those cards still being played in a film made in 1969 (when everyone involved should have known better – and may well have done) sticks in the craw a little…

        1. The Confederate infantryman (and his brothers) are essential characters of American history. I am descended from Confederate soldiers but am just fine with the defeat of ‘The Cause’ including the horrors of human slavery. I am writing historical fiction on that war of wars and wish not to sugarcoat it one bit. I respect the Northern fighting man without limits. Something like the Battle of Franklin, TN shows the terror of it all to both sides. Interestingly, later McLaglen would do a miniseries on the war with Gregory Peck as Lincoln and Warren Oates as a psychopathic Confederate officer called ‘The Blue and the Gray’ on CBS in 1982. It is flawed but I still like it and Western buffs will see many familiar faces. Also, a great score by Bruce Broughton who did ‘Silverado’. Not as good as what was to come but still worth checking out.

          1. I’ve never had the chance to see that series (I’m not sure it was broadcast here) but will check it out if I ever do. I’m not American but am interested in US history, and have read a fair bit on the Civil War (not nearly as much as you I’m sure)- a super interesting topic. I’m aware that most average Confederate soldiers had no direct involvement in slavery and didn’t particularly benefit from it but undoubtedly maintaining slavery was a / the central goal of the Confederate side of the war, and unfortunately later that tended to be underplayed by Hollywood, together with those at the bottom of the heap (slaves / ex-slaves) being represented stereotypically. It’s a blemish on the Western in my view, speaking as a fan of Westerns.

            I’m much more keen on Major Dundee than Jeff, it’s an extremely flawed film but a deeply fascinating one almost because of that. It seems to pick at some of these scabs of Civil War historiography – and that’s just one of the themes running through it, nothing about the film completely works but there’s so much going on in it that I keep returning to it, I’ve seen it more times than just about any other film.

        2. Even as a youth I was skeptical of those Westerns in which cheerful ‘darkies’ applauded their white overlords going off to fight for the Confederate cause.
          Reconstructiuon in Westerns was generally A Bad Thing, and movies set then concentrated on the crooked carpetbaggers and swaggering ‘Negroes’, and and never mentioned any positive aspect of Reconstruction at all.

          1. Exactly and well put. Strange for how long the wrongheaded view of Reconstruction held sway. The South had to construct so many myths it is hard to keep up with them.

      2. RR you are not alone ! I have a special overpowering fondness and sensivity for Major Dundee. If only Peckinpah had been able to control himself and negociate with his producers and if Columbia butchers had not been so stupid… As the film was never really completed, even if Sony has published an extended version, we will never see any truly definitive version but just guess and feel what it could have been. As is, it is just a lost treasure with its mysteries, like the pyramids of Egypt or Mexico.

          1. I have the Arrow set, yes- and agree, it’s amazing. I so agree with Jean-Marie, it’s a film that, not just despite of but because of its imperfections, never gives up all its mysteries. Personally I don’t think anyone involved- Peckinpah, the producers, the studio, Heston – entirely knew what they were doing so the perfect film was never going to be made. But we can imagine it in our minds while wandering the ruined cathedral that they did manage to build. I enjoy both the studio release and ‘director’s cut’ (but it’s not really) versions available on the Arrow discs.

          2. Such excellent thoughts on a magnificent ruin. I remember the first time catching it on TV being immediately taken in by it. A sort of dream like state when watching an experience I also had with completely different films like ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘Point Blank’. Films that never quite leave the mind. I assume on ‘Dundee’ you prefer the original score to the modern one?

  2. Truly passionate by the Civil War, a great admirer of Lincoln and Grant, and sympathizer of the North cause, Jules Verne has written several books connected to the War between the states. If The Mysterious Island (1875) begins during the war but it is not the major subject of the novel on the contrary of 2 others.
    His early novella Blockade Runners published as soon as 1865 is not as well known as Texar’s Revenge, or, North Against South published in 1887. In spite of its many historical inaccuracies, it would make a very good movie.

  3. For once, on the contrary of western movies, the english translation is exactly the French titles: Les Forceurs de blocus and Nord contre Sud (there are 2 english translations but North against South is the more common I think)

  4. In reply to Chris Evans re Major Dundee- yes, although there are things I prefer in the so-called extended version the score isn’t one of them- it’s a fine piece of music in its own right but anachronistic for a (reimagining of a) mid-1960s movie. The original score on the other hand while frankly a bit cheesy is rousing and memorable- inseperable in fact from my memories of the movie. As is that strange tinkling sound plonked onto the soundtrack every time the enemy is mentioned. I agree with you, it’s a film that sticks with you, without you being sure exactly why…

    1. Yes, the strange tinkling sound should never be taken away. Thanks for the reply. I prefer the original score too.

          1. Your concluding comment that it’s not a great work of art cut to ribbons I totally agree with, it’s more that there was the makings of a great work of art in there but nobody involved was quite able to bring it about, so we’re left with a fragmentary film and the fragments are fascinating. If that makes sense. It does to me. I think.

        1. Oh sure plenty flawed but fascinating all the same. The flawed Peckinpah film that actually haunts the most is ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. Sure wish it would get a Blu release like ‘Dundee’ has.

  5. François Truffaut had invented a special expression, “grand film malade” aka sick great film, being twisted, flawed or cursed for various reasons to qualify this kind of film made by great directors with all kinds of awkwardness and blunders but with many qualities too, allowing it to become a cult. Dundee to me belongs to this category (some could say that most of Peckinpah’s films as well do).
    Here is Truffaut full text in french :
    “Un grand film malade : ce n’est rien d’autre qu’un chef-d’œuvre avorté, une entreprise ambitieuse qui a souffert d’erreurs de parcours : un beau scénario intournable, un casting inadéquat, un tournage empoisonné par la haine ou aveuglé par l’amour, un trop fort décalage entre intention et exécution, un enlisement sournois ou une exaltation trompeuse. Cette notion de “grand film malade” ne peut s’appliquer évidemment qu’à de très bons metteurs en scènes, à ceux qui ont démontré dans d’autres circonstances qu’ils pouvaient atteindre la perfection. Un certain degré de cinéphilie encourage parfois à préférer, dans l’œuvre d’un metteur en scène, son “grand film malade” à son chef-d’œuvre incontesté, donc Le Roi à New York à La Ruée vers l’Or, ou encore La Règle du Jeu à La Grande Illusion. Si l’on accepte l’idée qu’une exécution parfaite aboutit le plus souvent à dissimuler les intentions, on admettra que “les grands films malades” laissent apparaître plus crûment leur raison d’être. Observons aussi que, si le chef-d’œuvre n’est pas toujours vibrant, “le grand film malade” l’est souvent, ce qui explique qu’il fera, plus aisément que le chef d’œuvre reconnu, l’objet de ce que les critiques appellent un “culte”.

    1. Much as I hate to agree with Truffaut, I think there is something in this.
      Though in the case of MAJOR DUNDEE, “un chef d’oeuvre avorté” might be putting it a bit too strongly.

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