The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Undefeated

Considering the extreme and far-reaching effects the Civil War had on American history, it's odd there haven't been more movies about the most costly war in the United States' relatively young history. The western genre has done its fair share of quasi-Civil War movies, the war becoming a jumping off point for a shoot 'em up story. What to do once the war is over? Like Major Dundee and Vera Cruz, many went south into Mexico. We can add 1969's The Undefeated to that short list.

After four years of bloody fighting, the Civil War has come to a close, leaving both the North and South to figure out where to go forward. With some of his remaining soldiers, a former Union cavalry officer, Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), rounds up a herd of 3,000 wild horses with the intention of driving them south into Mexico where they'll sell them to Emperor Maximilian's forces. A former Confederate officer, Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson), who had outfitted his own regiment, is leaving his plantation behind, moving south to Mexico with his surviving men, along with their wives, children and family in hoping to start a new life. In turbulent times for both the U.S. and Mexico, these two groups' paths may cross, and with wounds from the war still fresh on both sides.

This portion of history has always fascinated me, especially in movies like this, Major Dundee and Vera Cruz. I grew up watching this John Wayne western, and in spite of its flaws, I've always been a fan. From frequent Wayne collaborator and director Andrew V. McLaglen, 'Undefeated' is a fun western with a very good, deep cast, authentic locations in and around Durango, Mexico (Dundee fans will appreciate some familiar spots), a memorable score from composer Hugo Montenegro (listen HERE, disregard the odd video choice), and in general an entertaining quality that lifts it up past the flaws. It plays like a lot of Wayne's later movies; easy to sit back and watch, some action and shootouts, some drama, some romance, and some laughs here and there. When westerns were changing so dramatically in the late 1960s and heading into the 1970s, it can be fun just to watch an old-fashioned western with good guys and bad guys. No more, no less.

In a pretty cool casting choice, Wayne goes toe to toe here with Rock Hudson. It's not the most obvious pairing, but it works, simple as that. Wayne is playing a variation on his archetypal cowboy part, the leader of a small, surviving group of volunteers that rode with him throughout the Civil War. Now, he's looking for some cash to start over with, hence the immense horse drive. Hudson's Langdon too is looking for a clean start, the horrors and severe losses of the war still fresh on his mind. They're two different men, but they also have many similarities. They're fighting men who stand by what's right, loyal to those who ride with them, and ultimately try to do what they should do, not what's easiest. Their scenes together are the high points of the story, an easygoing charm with just a little Union vs. Confederacy animosity lingering. Two parts I liked a lot.

Working with a big story and a whole lot of characters, there's a lot going on in 'Undefeated,' clocking in at 119 minutes. Both halves -- Union and Confederacy -- are interesting, but I liked Wayne's half more. His trail-worn, loyal riders include Ben Johnson as Short Grub, his right hand man, Harry Carey Jr., John Agar (his part was heavily cut, including his early death scene), Don Collier (a familiar face, often a stunt man in Wayne movies), Jerry Gatlin and Dub Taylor as McCartney, the cantankerous cook who's always looking to fight, a mangy cat, High Bred, at his side. NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel joins the cast too as Blue Boy, Thomas' adopted Cherokee son. With so many western regulars, there's an ease to these scenes that are just fun to watch. Also look briefly for small parts for Paul Fix, Royal Dano and Pedro Armendariz Jr.

With the kinda-sorta episodic story that amiably drifts along, half of the focus is on those Confederates. It's never boring, but it's also not as interesting as their Union counterparts. We meet Langdon's wife (Lee Meriwether), his buxom teenage daughter, Charlotte (Melissa Newman), and his widowed sister-in-law (Marian McCargo). His men include Bruce Cabot, NFL star Merlin Olsen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Robert Donner, Edward Faulkner and whiny Big John Hamilton. We get to see young, pretty Charlotte hold off Jan-Michael Vincent's Bubba Wilkes' advances (she like Blue Boy). We get to see worrying wife Lee Meriwether....well, look worried. Olsen's Little George hangs out with the kids, then fights the Union cavalry. There's plenty of familiar faces, some good parts, but it's simply not as interesting to watch. Not bad, just not as good as it could have been.

Certain portions of the episodic story drag, but some certainly stand out. The pre-credits sequence wraps up the Civil War in a quick Union attack on a Confederate position. Later, Wayne and Hudson must team up to hold off a bandit attack on the Confederate wagon train, a good, exciting sequence. My favorite though is a late battle between the Union riders and French cavalry, the horse herd used as a weapon and negotiating ploy with a Mexican officer (Tony Aguilar). I'm wavering here. It's not a great western -- maybe not even a good one -- but I'm always entertained watching it. John Wayne fans, western fans alike should like this one.

The Undefeated (1969): ***/****

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