A mighty cast headed by John Wayne (True Grit, 1969), James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Vera Miles (Pyscho, 1960) with support from Edmond O’Brien (Seven Days in May, 1964), Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) do justice to John Ford’s tightly-structured hymn to liberty and equality and reflection on the end of the Wild West. So tight is the picture that despite a love triangle there are no love scenes and no verbal protestations of love.
The thematic depth is astonishing: civilization’s erosion of lawlessness, big business vs. ordinary people, political chicanery, and a democracy where “people are the boss.” Throw in a villain with a penchant for whipping and a lack of the standard brawls that often marred the director’s work and you have a western that snaps at the heels of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).
The story is told in flashback after Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and wife Hallie (Vera Miles) turn up unexpectedly in the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a nobody Tom Donovan (John Wayne), so poor the undertaker has filched his boots and gunbelt to pay for the pay for the barest of bare coffins. Intrigued by his arrival, newspapermen descend and Stoddard explains why he has returned.
The backstory unfolds. Arriving on stagecoach, novice lawyer Ransom is attacked, beaten and whipped by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by horse-trader Donovan (John Wayne) and taken to a local boarding house-cum-restaurant where Hallie (Vera Miles) tends his wounds. With a young man’s full quotient of principle, Stoddard is astonished to discover that local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) has ducked out of responsibility for apprehending Valance on the dubious grounds that it is outside his jurisdiction and that Valance has so mean a reputation he has the town scared witless. When Valance turns up he humiliates Stoddard and only Donovan stands up to him, rescuing an ungrateful Ransom, who detests violence and any threat of it.
Stoddard soon turns principle into action, setting up his shingle in the local newspaper office run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) and on learning that Hallie is illiterate establishing a school for all ages. In the background is politics, but the push for statehood is inhibited by big ranchers who employ Valance to intimidate. Despite his aversion to violence and insistence that due legal process will eliminate the law of the gun, Stoddard practices shooting. When Donovan gives him a lesson and, to point out his unsuitability to confront such a mean character as Valance, covers him in paint, Stoddard floors him with a punch.
That principle I mentioned has something in common with Rio Bravo (1959) – Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon (1952) – in that Stoddard, determined to fight his own battles, refuses to ask for help when targeted by Valance. The inevitable showdown is extraordinary, not least because it takes place at night and Ford, a la Rashomon (1951) tells it twice from different points of view.
Precisely because it retains focus throughout with no extraneous scenes as was occasionally John Ford’s wont, the direction is superb. As in The Searchers, to suggest emotional state-of-mind, the director uses imagery relating to doors. This time the humor is not so broad and limited primarily to one incident. Both main male characters suffer reversals, in the case of Stoddard it is physical but in the instance of Donovan it is emotional. Either way, action is character. In the romantic stakes, they are equals, dancing around their true feelings.
Upfront there is one storyline, the upholding of law and order whether against an individual such as Valance or against the attempts of big business to thwart democracy. But underneath is a subtly-told romance. Donovan and Stoddard are allies but in terms of Hallie they are rivals. Neither have an ounce of sense when it comes to women. Neither actually protests their love for Hallie. Although Donovan brings her cactus roses and is, unknown to her, building an extension to his house to accommodate what he hopes is his future bride, his idea of romance is to mutter, in patronizing manner, the old saw of “you look pretty when you’re angry.” He would have been wiser to have taken note of her spunk, because she can be more than direct if need be.
Stoddard isn’t much better. Despite her growing feelings towards him being obvious to the audience, he assumes she prefers Donovan. Action drives the love element, the need to save or destroy.
All three principals are superb. This may seem a typical Wayne performance, a dominant figure, comfortable with a gun and his abilities, but awkward in matters of the heart. But he shows as great depth as in The Searchers and the despair etched on his face at the possibility of losing Hallie eats into his soul. Stewart combines the man-of-the-people he essayed for Frank Capra with some of the toughness he showed in the Anthony Mann series of westerns. Vera Miles tempers genuine anger with tenderness and practicality. Unlike many Ford heroines she is not a trophy wife, but a worker, mostly seen running a kitchen. Lee Marvin cuts a sadistic figure, with an arrogance that sets him above the law, his tongue as sharp as his whip.
As well as Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Van Cleef, you will spot various members of the John Ford stock company including Andy Devine (Two Rode Together, 1961) as the cowardly gluttonous marshal, John Carradine (Stagecoach), John Qualen (The Searchers) as the restaurant owner and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) as his wife.
The boldest part of the picture, however, comes at the end, when the director dismantles the myth built up around Stoddard and which the politician has used to create a career that spanned two terms as a Senator, three terms as a Governor and been the American Ambassador to Britain. So be warned, if you ain’t seen the picture, this is spoiler alert. In some respects, Ford was way ahead of his time. The twist at the end where the good guy is revealed as the villain of the piece is more of a contemporary trope. There were plenty of pictures where the villain appeared to have gotten away with it only to be caught out at the very last minute. This is not that kind of movie. Stoddard gets away with it for the simple reason that he fits the heroic mold.
“Print the legend” is very much the standard American attitude to myth. Dig deeper and what you find is hypocrisy. Man-of-the-people Stoddard’s life is based on bare-faced fraud. He took the glory for an action he did not commit. Of course this was in the days before newspapers found that bringing down politicians sold more papers than building them up and these days I doubt if such a scoop would be ignored.
Nor for all his upstanding image does Stoddart show the slightest sign of remorse – until now when he must know his confession will never see the light of day. (Maybe, if he had gone to the New York Times but not the Shinbone paper). He built his entire career on this violent action, the antithesis of his supposed stance on process of law. He takes all the plaudits and fails to acknowledge Donovan, except when it’s too late, and Donovan has died a pauper, his rootless life perhaps engendered as a result of losing Hallie. Hallie’s character, too, is besmirched. She chose Stoddart precisely because he was a man of principle who risked his life to tackle – and apparently kill – Donovan. Those two elements are indistinguishable. Had she know Stoddart had failed and was only saved by the action of Donovan it is questionable whether she would have chosen the lawyer.
There are a couple of other quibbles, not so much about the picture itself, but about other quibblers, commonly known as critics. Alfred Hitchcock famously came under fire for the use of back projection, not just in Marnie (1964) but other later films. That spotlight never appeared to be turned on the at-the-time more famous John Ford. The train sequence at the end of the film uses back projection and the ambush at the beginning is so obviously a set.
Don’t let these put you off, however, this is one very fine western indeed and fully justifies its growing critical status.
CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: By the way, if you live in Italy you can catch this on the big screen in Bologna where it is showing at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna on July 20-27, 2021.
I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.
The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.
It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.
The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).
There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.
Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).
Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions. Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.
Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg, was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.
Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).
Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.
For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.
To my mind the best of the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin collaborations, outside of the more straightforwardly dramatic Some Came Running (1958), and for the simple reason that they are rivals rather than buddies. The banter of previous “Rat Pack” outings is given a harder edge and it is shorn of extraneous songs.
I came at this picture with some trepidation, since it did not receive kind reviews, “stinks to high heaven” being a sample. But I thought it worked tremendously well, a delightful surprise, the ongoing intrigue intercut with occasional outright dramatic moments and a few good laughs.
It’s unfair to term it a comedy western since for a contemporary audience that invariably means a spoof of some kind, rather than a movie that dips into a variety of genres. In some respects it defies pigeonholing. For example, it begins with a dramatic shoot-out, stagecoach passengers Zack Thomson (Frank Sinatra), a crack shot with a rifle, and pistolero Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin) out-shooting an outlaw gang headed by Matson (Charles Bronson). When director Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) has the cojones to kill off legendary villain Jack Elam in the opening section you know you are in for something different.
After out-foxing Matson, Jarrett attempts to steal the $100,000 the stagecoach has been carrying from its owner Thomas. Jarrett looks to be getting away with it until he realizes he is still in range of Thomas’s rifle. Then Thomas looks to have secured the money until Jarrett produces a pistol from his hat. And that sets the template for the movie, Thomas trying to outsmart Jarrett, the thief always one step ahead, and the pair of them locking horns with corrupt banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono), in whose employ is Matson.
The movie is full of clever twists, cunning ruses, scams, double-crosses, reversals and sparkling dialog. Whenever Jarrett and Thomas are heading for a showdown, something or someone (such as Matson) gets in the way. While Thomas has the perfect domestic life, fawned over by buxom maids and girlfriend Elya (Anita Ekberg), Jarrett encounters much tougher widow Maxine (Ursula Andress) who greets his attempts to invest in her riverboat casino by shooting at him.
Take away the comedic elements and you would have a plot worthy of Wall Street and ruthless financiers. The story is occasionally complicated without being complex and the characters, as illustrated by their devious intent, are all perfectly believable.
It’s a great mix of action and comedy – with some extra spice added by The Three Stooges in a laugh-out-loud sequence – and it’s a quintessential example of the Sinatra-Martin schtick, one of the great screen partnerships, illuminated by sharp exchanges neither lazily scripted nor delivered. Even the blatant sexism is played for laughs.
Sinatra and Martin, especially, are at the top of their game. Forget all you’ve read about Aldrich and Sinatra not getting on. Sinatra never got on with any director. But an actor and director not getting on does not spell a poor picture. Sinatra brings enough to the table to make it work, especially as he is playing against type, essentially a dodgy businessman who is taken to the cleaners by both Martin and Buono.
The only flaw is that Ursula Andress (Dr No, 1962) does not turn up sooner. She has a great role, mixing seductiveness and maternal instinct with a stiff shot of ruthlessness, not someone to be fooled with at all, qualities that would resonate more in the career-making She (1965). Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960) on the other hand is all bosom and not much else. Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) demonstrates a surprising grasp of the essentials of comedy for someone so often categorized as the tough guy’s tough guy.
The biggest bonus for the picture overall is the absence of the other clan members – Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – who appeared in previous Rat Pack endeavors Oceans 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1963). Without having to laboriously fit all these other characters in, this film seems to fly along much better. As I mentioned, the fact that Sinatra and Martin play deadly enemies provides greater dramatic intensity.
Robert Aldrich was a versatile director, by this point having turned out westerns (Vera Cruz, 1954), thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955), war pictures (The Angry Hills, 1959), Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and horror picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But 4 for Texas called for even greater versatility, combining action with quickfire dialog, a bit of slapstick and romance and shepherding the whole thing with some visual flair.
If you are a fan of Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3 you will probably like this. If you are not, it’s worth giving this a go since it takes on such a different dynamic to those two pictures.
Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog: Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3; Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); and Ursula Andress in The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).
Action-packed and plot-jammed revisionist western with fresh performances from James Garner and Sidney Poitier caught up in an Apache uprising. Tough-as-teak ex-cavalry scout Garner has dispensed with his glib smart-aleck persona in favor of world-weariness and Poitier is a revelation as a cocky cigar-smoking ex-cavalry sergeant horse-dealer. Racism here concerns hostility towards Indian squaw Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966), Garner, who had married a Commanche (now dead) the only one to treat her with any decency.
Returned to “civilization,” Andersson wants nothing more than to escape, back to her baby it transpires. Her crime is staying alive after Apache capture when she should have done the “decent thing” and killed herself rather than living as a squaw. But prejudice is leavened by husband Dennis Weaver (minus trademark moustache) who retains tender feelings towards her and, eventually, her baby. Apache chief John Hoyt is equally redeemed by his care towards the baby.
Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, 1963) handles the action with aplomb but it is the Apaches who prove the masters of battlefield strategy, deftly maneuvering the cavalry into an ambush and cutting them to shreds. His biggest problem is delivering logical reasons for all the principals – Weaver is an arms dealer, Garner and Poitier no longer in the army – to join up with Bill Travers’ (Born Free, 1966) cavalry troop. However, rather than slowing the story down, the various complications add further tension.
Nelson never reins in reality. The cavalry are raw recruits, hardly able to control their mounts. Garner and Poitier don’t buddy-up, there is no camaraderie, and Andersson is an outcast in both worlds. And the good guys are constantly out-smarted by the Apaches, Poitier’s mistake leading to initial ambush, the Apaches targeting water supplies to derail the enemy and resorting to bow-and-arrow in case a stray bullet ignites the ammunition wagons. But it is still a duel, Poitier, Garner and Travers each in turn coming up with brilliant ideas to retrieve what looks like a desperate position trapped in a box canyon.
We might be more sympathetic towards the plight of the Apaches, shoved into a “hell-hole of a reservation,” had Nelson concentrated less on their brutality, the picture opening with the corpse of a mutilated man, the cavalry under siege at Diablo tortured by the screams in the night of a man being tortured, Andersson told that she will be buried alive. But when any Commanche woman can be killed and scalped just because she married a white man and Andersson viewed as fair game for rapists because she lived with Apaches, you can see how little regard the Native Americans have for their oppressors.
Garner and Poitier are superb and top marks for a rounded performance from John Hoyt, savage one minute, gentle the next. Scotsman Travers and Swede Andersson should have added to the authenticity since immigrants such as these provided the mass of settlers, but Travers seems quite out of place and Andersson never quite delivers the angst required of her situation. William Redfield (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) can be spotted. Nelson has a cameo and if you look closely you will see a fleeting glimpse of Richard Farnsworth. Western specialist Marvin H. Albert (The Law and Jake Wade, 1958) co-wrote the screenplay from his novel.
You might be able to catch this for free on Sony Action Movies, but otherwise here’s a DVD link. You might get it on Amazon Prime but last time I posted a link for that, it didn’t work.
Best viewed as Charles Bronson’s breakout movie. Yes, he had played supporting roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, but these had all been versions of the same dour, almost monosyllabic, persona. Here, though somewhat ruthless, he steals the show from the top-billed Robert Mitchum and Yul Brynner with many of the best lines and best situations with an extra slice of humor (make that first-ever slice of humor) to add to the mix. He is the most interesting of the three main characters, in part because he does not have to spout any of the “good revolution/bad revolution” dialog that falls to the other two.
Villa (Brynner) is fighting the Colorados but his superior General Huertas (Herbert Lom) is planning to overthrow President Madero (Alexander Knox). Mitchum is an aeronautical gun-runner from El Paso, initially against the revolutionaries, stranded in Mexico when his plane breaks down. He has just about time to romance a local woman Fina (Maria Grazia Buccello) before the Colorados arrive, take over the village, start hanging the leaders and raping Fina. Villa saves them, Bronson slaughtering the Colorados with a Gatling gun on the rooftop. Faced with the one-man firing squad that is Bronson, Mitchum turns sides. His plane comes in handy for scouting the enemy, then bombing them.
The actions sequences are terrific especially Villa’s attack on a troop train. To get Villa out of the way, Huertas puts him in the front line in a suicidal attack on a heavily-defended stronghold which turns into another brilliant set-piece with cavalry charges. The plot is constantly interrupted by politics of one kind or another and comes to dead stop when Villa is arrested by Heurtas and Villa demands a proper trial. It’s kind of hard to take when a murdering bandit, no matter how legendary, decides that he has been hard done by in the justice department.
That aside, there are interesting attempts to build up his legend. He doesn’t want power for himself, but to give it to the people, although he has sat back and let the first village be attacked so that the people there learn to hate the Colorados enough to join the fight. There’s not really any good guys – Brynner and Bronson are stone-cold killers, Mitchum a mercenary. But Brynner does marry Fina in order to prove that a raped woman should not be treated with dishonor, though he has a tendency to marry other women as well.
Bronson’s unusual one-man firing squad involves him laying on the ground with a pistol in each hand and giving prisoners the opportunity to escape before he shoots them. After all that hard work, he bathes his hands. Then he decides he can kill three men with one bullet, lining them up exactly so he can drill them all in the heart. But he’s also the one who shoots a molester in a cantina, then delivers the classic line: “Go outside and die, where are your manners?” He is at the heart of some well-judged comedy – continually sending back his meals and trying to get out of getting into a plane with Mitchum. Without him, there would be too much justification of slaughter (Brynner) and arguments against (Mitchum). This is the first time in the kind of action role that suits him that he has an expanded characterization.
Brynner did not like Sam Peckinpah’s original script so Robert Towne (Chinatown) was brought in to present Villa in a more appealing light. Jill Ireland (Mrs Bronson) has a small part and you can also spot Fernando Rey.
The links below seem somewhat dodgy but you could try the Talking Pictures channel which is free.
There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes. Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.
A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals, where the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation. For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry. Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.
When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief. The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and when the action is so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, it’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.
Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.
If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident. And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.
That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.
There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.
In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.
Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.
Since this is my 100th blog, I am in celebratory mood and hope to convince you that The Undefeated is one of the most under-rated westerns of all time. (Be warned – this is longer than my normal reviews.)
While John Wayne was at a career peak, Rock Hudson was in a trough. Wayne had just posted his biggest-ever box office figures for True Grit, which had opened in the summer, the first western ever shown at the Radio City Music Hall, the country’s biggest auditorium with nearly 6,000 seats, although it was advertised as an ‘outdoor adventure.’ He had appeared on the covers of both “Time” and “Life” magazines, and was being talked-up as a genuine Oscar contender. True Grit was proving to have such popular appeal that, in the year of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, it would finish sixth on the annual box office rankings, just shading the former and well ahead of the latter.
Rock Hudson had ended up nearly at the top of another list – of the worst-performing stars at the box office, according to Variety his last five pictures tallying a total of $8.5million. After a decade at the top of the trees, segueing from Douglas Sirk melodramas to Doris Day comedies, he had come unstuck with John Frankenheimer’s black-and-white experimental Seconds (1966), derided at the Cannes Film Festival and ignored by ticket buyers, and thereafter gone downhill fast with Blindfold (1966), Tobruk (1967), A Fine Pair (1968), and MGM’s big-budget Cinerama Ice Station Zebra (1968).
Director Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor McLaglen (The Informer, 1935), got his break on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Wayne provided the guarantee four years later for McLaglen Jr. to make his first foray into direction, the western Gun the Man Down. After making a splash in television – over 200 episodes of Have Gun Will Travel and around 100 of Gunsmoke – his career moved into higher gear with McLintock (1963), Shenandoah (1965) and The Rare Breed (1966). Three further westerns followed – The Way West (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967) and Bandolero! (1968) – before diversifying into oil wildcatting adventure Hellfighters (1968).
McLaglen was the victim of two erroneous assumptions. The first was that he was happy to be type cast as a director of westerns. He refuted this notion in an interview for Conversations on Film and claimed that “it’s the way my course was laid out for me,” suggesting that, in the early days at least, he had little control over the kind of projects for which he was deemed most suitable. Secondly, he was unfairly condemned as a “journeyman” director, an unworthy successor to John Ford, although Christopher Frayling put it more kindly when he asserted that McLaglen was a “figurative painter when everyone else had gone abstract,” indicating that the director was out of keeping with the times.
However, this was equally unfair, since in the 1960s, until Sam Peckinpah produced The Wild Bunch, there had been no real contenders for the Ford crown apart from a critic-driven revival of the 1950s films of Budd Boetticher long after he had stopped making them while Anthony Mann’s decade-long love affair with the western had ended with the dismal Cimarron (1960). U.S. recognition of Sergio Leone was slow in coming. Other directors considered as candidates such as John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957; The Magnificent Seven, 1960) proved too erratic, while the likes of Henry Hathaway had only consistently turned to the genre in the 1960s. McLaglen was underrated as a director of westerns, McLintock hugely enjoyable, Shenandoah belonging close to the top rank, and, as I shall attempt to prove, The Undefeated a far better movie than given credit for. While not in itself a masterpiece in the category of Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch, it is McLaglen’s masterpiece.
Wayne played Unionist colonel John Henry Thomas and Hudson his opposite number in the Confederacy Col. James Langdon. The rest of the cast was composed of newcomers like Michael (later Jan Michael) Vincent and Melissa Newman (not the daughter of Paul), pro-football players Merlin Olsen and Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams, members of the John Ford stock company like Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr, and Mexican actor-singer Antonio Aguilar. The movie was filmed on a 1,600 acre plantation in Louisiana and in and around Durango in Mexico. Nonetheless, at $7.2 million, it had a bigger budget than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Planet of the Apes (1968), which cost $6.8 million, $4.6 million and $5.8 million, respectively.
I don’t usually begin a discussion of a film by examining its composition but I am making an exception with The Undefeated. I had come to this picture with vague memories of having seen it on original release in second- or possibly third-run at my local theater. I do not recall being particularly impressed, although at that age I had not formed any critical faculties for the evaluation of the western, nor any movie for that matter, being only 16 or 17 at the time. As a result, I did not hold out much hope for the movie when it came to the current re-evaluation, in part because it lacked the critical status of The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West, which I had viewed many times since their original release, and in part because it had not been a box office or critical hit and therefore subject to the theatrical reissue, continuous television programming and re-evaluation that had accompanied The Wild Bunchor Once Upon a Time in the West.
What struck me most was how Andrew V. McLaglen constructed the movie on screen. A substantial number of scenes were in long shot, but, unlike, say True Grit, the director made more consistent use of the divisions between background, center and foreground. Most often by using the 3,000 horses as the long distance focal point in the middle of the screen, or a line of cavalry, the director achieved a fine separation of elements that, to me, at least appeared to show a mastery of composition. The screen, lengthways, was consistently divided into three, or four. Sometimes the entire action took place in the bottom half of the screen, the upper part reserved for sky or sky peering through mountains. Like a traditional landscape painter, McLaglen would work with the horizon line, sometimes with a vanishing point. It seemed to me that an artist, in the most ordinary sense of the word, was at work. This conceptual approach is apparent from the very start. When a rider arrives to announce to the Union troops that the Civil War is over, half the screen is sky.
What does let the movie down is the story. The basic concept – the reconciliation of deadly enemies – is an intriguing one and more than enough to carry the picture, but, the plot is overly complicated and the ending, while in one respect emotionally satisfying, is an anti-climax. In post-Civil War America, a group of ex-Union soldiers and a contingent of former Confederate soldiers (plus families) both converge on Mexico, but for different reasons. The Union soldiers, led by Col Thomas, are intent on selling a herd of 3,000 wild horses to the Mexican army, while Col. Langdon’s Confederates are taking their weapons and money in the same direction but in the hope of setting up a second front in order to continue the fight against the Unionists.
On the way, both groups encounter double-dealing, the Mexicans attempt to renege on the agreement to buy the wild horses, while the rebels are taken hostage by, ironically enough, forces in opposition to the existing Mexican government. The Unionists come to the rescue of the Confederates twice, once in a rousing battle against bandits, and, at the climax, by trading their horses (and their futures) for their former enemies’ lives. But this is an unsatisfactory conclusion since, to complete the circle, it should have been the Confederates baling the Unionists out of trouble, and therefore, honors even, they can come to a peaceful accommodation.
The movie opens with a battered Confederate flag. The camera tracks left along lines of grey-uniformed soldiers waiting for the expected attack. Almost immediately, their ranks are decimated by cannon fire followed by a Union cavalry charge, sabers cutting the defending soldiers to ribbons, Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) in the thick of the action, a Confederate flag abandoned on the ground. As a rider brings news of the cessation of hostilities, the camera, from Thomas’s point-of-view lingers on the dead. Thomas seeks out the enemy to accept their surrender.
To his astonishment, the Confederates already know that peace has been agreed when they continued fighting and, as far as the rebel commanding officer is concerned, the war is not over. “Are you telling me,” asks an incredulous Thomas, “that you intend to keep fighting?” The officer replies, “Haven’t we just proven it?” A few minutes into the picture, the entire concept is established, emotional sides taken, Unionists exhibiting disbelief, Confederates appearing resolute.
Mustachioed and resplendent in a Southern uniform that incorporates a cape and a hat with a feather in it, the dashing Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson) spells out his post-war secret mission to his troops, a 2,000-mile trip to Mexico, arms and ammunition and uniforms hidden at the bottom of wagons, their rendezvous, 500 miles south of the border, in Durango leading to being escorted by representatives of Emperor Maximilian to the country’s capital. Langdon sets fire to their grand mansion as a romantic subplot unfolds involving two juveniles, Langdon’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman) and the slightly older Bubba Wilkes (Michael Vincent).
Thomas hands in his resignation, explaining that the 10 men remaining out of the 75 he recruited three years prior takes priority over continuing as a soldier. “Those left deserve more than a pat on the back from some newspaper editor and I’m gonna see they get it,” he snaps, as he leads his men away on their mission, to round up 3,000 horses to sell to the U.S. Army. What do men do while they wait around, capture flies as in Once Upon a Time in the West, or bicker as The Wild Bunch? Like Peckinpah’s squad, these men like to make fun of each other and, reminiscent of the scene when Warren Oates is teased over a bottle of whiskey, the ex-soldiers toss a chew of tobacco around until one stops after catching sight of approaching Indians.
In a mild twist, these are not enemies, but a group led by Blue Blood (Roman Gabriel), who, in another twist, we learn later, is Thomas’s adopted son – a major twist, in fact, if we are the homage business, given The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards is dedicated to hunting down and killing Debbie (Natalie Wood) simply because she has lived with Indians after being kidnapped. The arrival of the riders is typical of McLaglen’s compositional skills: the men appear in long shot below the horizon. The screen, in reality, is divided into two – sky at the top, land at the bottom. Crammed into the middle is a tiny stretch of men.
We cut the first rousing adventure scene, a two-minute scene of the lassoing, capture and breaking-in of thousands of horses, the screen filled with images of the racing animals. As Col. Langdon’s wagon train sets off, Charlotte tells her beau that she is “looking for something more substantial” in a man than this lovelorn youth, as if she has quickly grown up during the war. Thomas and Short Grub (Ben Johnson) head off to a staging post for a meeting with the agents who buy horses for the government but instead they come into contact with a “couple of popinjays” representing Emperor Maximilian and willing to buy the entire herd. The loyal Thomas rejects their offer out of hand until, in an attempt to defraud him, the government agents offer him $10 less per horse than the going market rate, and for a fraction of the herd.
Summary justice, in the form of a punch, is meted out to the agents. In the middle of a fog we learn that the Confederates are being pursued by Union Cavalry intent on turning them round. When Langdon hears the Union horses he orders his wagon train to race the enemy to the Rio Grande. Once across, there is a close-up of the Confederate flag and McLaglen pulls back to reveal the train of wagons which takes up only the bottom half of the screen, the upper half entirely sky. Thomas faces the same dilemma and only a massive stampede of the horses sees them safely across.
As 1969 westerns are filled with dreamers (Butch Cassidy filling his head with ideas of Bolivia and, later, Australia; Omar Sharif’s bandit in Mackenna’s Gold dreaming of Paris), there is a short scene among Thomas’s men when they talk about what they will do with the money they will earn. Most of their notions are relatively mundane but one entertains a vision of a small library under a big elm. Thomas is in no mood for such frivolities, going to sleep with his guns cocked, telling his men, “We’re Americans in Mexico taking horses to a very unpopular government.”
Blue Blood, who has been scouting ahead, returns the next morning to inform Thomas that he has found a box canyon four miles ahead where there is forage and water for the horses. But he also warns that he came across two trails, the first of wagons and horses, and the second, following the first, about 40 riders. “I’d suspect an ambush,” says Thomas. When Blue Blood and Thomas go off to investigate they find the Confederates. In a nod to the opening shot, McLaglen gives a close-up of the rebel flag, this time in pristine condition. Approaching the wagon train, arranged in a circle, they explain the situation to Langdon, who asks what the bandits could be after. “Gold, horses, women,” replies Thomas, at which point Langdon’s wife Margaret (Lee Meriwether) and sister-in-law Ann (Marian McCargo) Ann look up.
This is another twist, or will be, for what happens to captured women has been a constant theme of westerns, especially in 1969, the treatment of white women at the hands of Indians forming a central plank of The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold, and any women taken by any men in 100 Rifles, The Wild Bunch and True Grit. Hatred for an enemy being subsumed by Southern hospitality, Langdon shares a whisky with Thomas who learns that Langdon’s son was killed at Shiloh, an engagement in which Thomas participated. Meanwhile, Blue Blood who has been making eyes at Charlotte, is send by Thomas on an errand.
Next day the night picket returns, strapped to his horse, and dead. Captain Anderson (Edward Faulkner) suspects Blue Blood is involved, but Thomas reveals Blue Blood is his adopted son, information that receives a glance from Ann as she cocks her rifle. As Thomas gives her some advice, “Windage and elevation” we suspect this may be the beginning of a romance. But the Mexican leader is not open to negotiation. “We want everything,” he says, “We want wagons, horses, guns, and gold and you also have some women.”
Bearing in mind that Thomas is a soldier rather than a frontiersman or a citizen of the West who, in confrontation, would not, in the grand Hollywood tradition, shoot first, it still comes as a surprise when Thomas simply kills the Mexican as a solider would employ the element of surprise. Back at the wagons, Thomas is upbraided by Ann, “Why did you have to shoot him?” His dry response, “Conversation kind of dried up,” would not have been out of place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and while there are many other funny quips, and while McLaglen has an eye – and ear – for comedy as demonstrated in previous films, there is a big difference in audience response between lines delivered by the amiable Butch Cassidy and those uttered by the no-nonsense Thomas.
Maintaining compositional discipline, the battle begins with McLaglen creating a shot that places the wagons horizontally in the bottom quarter of the screen, the line of charging bandits above them but still below the screen’s halfway point, with the rest of the picture taken up with two huge rocks on either side of the screen with the sky peeking through them. The bandits are beaten off. Ann says to Thomas, “Tell me they’re leaving.”
If romance is brewing,McLaglen’s shorthand method of showing it is simply to put them in the same frame without resorting to anything more intimate. “No, ma’am,” replies Thomas, “they’re reforming to charge again.” He pauses, “At least that’s their plan.”
What follows is easily the best action scene in the picture, especially as it is entirely done in long shot and not, as others would be tempted to do, with lots of close-ups of individual pieces of action. As the bandits race away to reform, they head for the shelter of rocks where they are ambushed by the rest of Thomas’s outfit. When they twist away to escape the relentless gunfire, Blue Blood leads his band of Indians in a charge against them and the Mexican bandits are routed.
The symmetry of the action as the bandits race from one side of the screen to the other, encountering conflict at every turn, is stunning. Following the battle, Thomas confides in Langdon that he was at the battle where Ann lost her husband. In part, this is further shorthand, Thomas expecting such a revelation, which clearly he expects the Confederate to pass on, to kill off any incipient romance, but, in the wider emotional context, it binds the former enemies together, not in conflict, but in sadness for what they have all lost. Winners and losers, McLaglen appears to point out, all suffer the same losses. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Blue Blood are getting closer, the Indian having waved his hat in her direction on his triumphant return, the girl’s eyes lighting up at the sight.
No sooner has Thomas returned to his own camp than his men are invited back to join the Confederates to celebrate the Fourth of July. One of the reasons for Thomas to grow closer to Ann is a technical one, so that he can unburden himself. Romance, if it is that, is not advanced one iota except for the way the woman listens to the man, who recounts his own tale without prompting and without being accused of being uncommunicative and without it being beaten out of him.
It turns out that Thomas was once married but his wife left him. “She was so busy being a lady that she forgot to be a woman.” She objected to him going off hunting but, most of all, she did not want children so he adopted Blue Blood and is “as proud of him as if he were my own blood.” The adoption of the Indian was not as odd as all that in 1969 western iteration, Glenn Ford brought up by Indian in Smith! (1969) and, two years before, in Hombre (1967) Paul Newman’s character nurtured by Indians, but those were matters of chance not individual decision, a child has no say in who brings it up, but for an adult male to choose to adopt an Indian boy is a different story altogether.
Nothing more is made of Blue Blood’s adoption, but, as loyal viewers of many westerns over many years, audiences will have grown accustomed to romances between an Indian and a white woman hitting the skids.
But just as the movie clicks into gear, with two incipient romances and bandits thwarted, the question of the Confederate dream still unresolved, issues regarding the acceptance of Indians into society under discussion, former enemies halfway to reconciliation by fighting together against a common foe, both groups still to conclude their missions, the script almost destroys the fine work so far by introducing a western stereotype – the fistfight. As usual, there is no good reason, plot-wise, Thomas and Langdon dragged in, until the unnecessary fracas (with the usual side helping of low comedy) is halted by Ann firing a rifle.
Thomas and his men take their and comes across buzzards scavenging the French troops[i] sent by Emperor Maximilian to meet the Confederates. Blue Blood races off to warn the Confederates and, invited to stay the night, kisses Charlotte and, as a consequence, is beaten up by Wilkes and Captain Anderson who send him away. Later, the Indian spots Mexican troops. Meanwhile, Thomas, awaiting a rendezvous with the Mexican agents, is annoyed that his team have lost 500 horses on the journey (none of this has been dramatized) and worried that Blue Blood is three days late.
There is a nice exchange worthy of the self-delusion exhibited in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid between Thomas and Short Grub. The latter says, “I’d be thinking that he’s made off with that little Reb girl and he’d be just about by Rio Grande by this time.” Thomas replies, “That’s what I’m thinking.” Short Grub continues, “He wouldn’t do that.” Thomas agrees, “He wouldn’t do that,” while his expression shows the opposite. The agents count 2,505 horses and promise money is on its way.
Langdon’s party reaches Durango to the Confederate flag being raised and a local band playing Dixie. Host General Rojas (Antonio Aguilar) lays on a welcoming banquet. But it is a trap they are surrounded by gunman on the rooftops. “Consider yourselves prisoners of the revolution,” explains Rojas. Now Langdon’s contingent are held hostage until Thomas’s herd is brought in exchange. This is the worst possible dilemma for a Southerner. “I’m not asking any Yankee for anything,” blusters Langdon, at which point one of the Confederates is dragged in front of the firing squad, and Langdon has no option but to capitulate. Rojas sets a deadline of “noon tomorrow” or all will be shot. Blue Blood is in the crowd, and at night, when Charlotte is set upon by Mexicans he rushes to her rescue.
At the cowboy camp, Langdon explains the situation. The Unionists agree to help. But the Mexican government has no intention of paying for the herd when they can as easily steal it by force of arms. A regiment of cavalry will do the enforcing. Seizing the initiative, Thomas sets the herd on collision course with the Mexicans, leading the stampede two wagons bristling with guns.
The attack takes the Mexicans by surprise, the wild horses punching through the cavalry line, rifles picking off the enemy, Langdon slashing with his sabre. In Durango, with time running out, the General begins selecting Confederates to face the firing squad but just at that moment Rojas hears approaching hooves. All are saved. Blue Blood kisses Charlotte. Thomas, Langdon and Rojas drink to Juarez, the Mexican rebel leader.
Now comes the final twist for students of the American western of 1969. Many of the key pictures of the year had involved escape of one kind or another. The Wild Bunch take refuge in Mexico, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. All the refugees have no intention of returning home. Only in The Undefeated do the would-be escapees return home, having resolved their differences rather than running away from them. While that is an intriguing ending – Langdon resolving to run for the House of Representatives, Charlotte determined to go with Blue Blood to his home, the romance between Thomas and Ann remaining, unusually for a western, unresolved – the incidents leading up to this are, for many, anti-climactic.
Whether the ending has been truncated for reasons of running time or because McLaglen believed a longer scene showing the herd racing towards Durango and the clock ticking away was redundant is unknown. As it stands, the ending convinces me, although, to Hollywood, the idea of Americans helping foreigners overthrow their government always provides an easy get-out clause, and, as I mentioned before, in order for the picture to run full circle, it should be the Confederates who save the Unionists’ skin.
Nonetheless, it is a bold decision to end the picture in this fashion, and although the movie is not seen as having a political point to make, what could be more political, at the height of the Vietnam War, than of finding a way for bitter enemies to put aside their enmity and resolve to work together in the future? The film ends in compromise, riding out, returning as companions not enemies, to the U.S., they play “Yankee Doodle Dandy” instead of, in an echo to an earlier scene, the divisive “Battle Hymn of The Republic” or “Dixie.”
This is another impressive performance from John Wayne, especially as his character is fully-formed by his experiences in the Civil War, where, unlike the traditional western, the good guy does not need to wait for the other fellow to draw first and an astute commander will take the enemy by surprise. This is Wayne in a more thoughtful register, looking after his adopted son and the soldiers he has equally “adopted,” able to speak openly about regret and accepting the part he played, courtesy of the war, in inflicting grief on others. Gung-ho is long gone.
The actor cracked a couple of ribs during filming so for some weeks could only be filmed from one camera position, but that appears to have been no limitation on his performance, which is considerably more rounded than in the past. Had there been no True Grit between this and Hellfighters, his performance might have been praised. For a country still rooted in bigotry and inflamed by race hatred at the end of the 1960s, Wayne, taking on a role where he espoused racial appeasement and where he accepted the sadness war inevitably inflicts on families regardless of which side they are on, sounds like the opposite to his character in The Green Berets.
Rock Hudson is a shade over-the-top in his portrayal of Colonel Langdon but movies work best with opposites and it would not do if he was as reflective as Wayne. Nobody came within a mile of Oscar consideration but spare a thought for Marian McCargo’s quiet dignity as the widow.
As I mentioned at the outset, what impressed me most was McLaglen’s cinematic handling, the consistent way in which he used the screen, a discipline he maintained right up to the end when the screen is divided in two by the Rio Grande with in the bottom half the wagon train itself splitting the screen by going up the its middle. Should anyone decide to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Undefeated by showing it on the big screen, then take the opportunity of seeing exactly why Andrew V. McLaglen should not be denigrated as a “journeyman” director.
Sophia Loren is enjoying a swansong with the Netflix feature The Life Ahead (2020), which may well net here another Oscar nomination to add to two wins for Two Women (1960) and an Honorary Award in 1991 and a previous nomination for Marriage Italian-Style (1964). She has dined at the Hollywood high table for over 60 years since taking America by storm in 1957 in a three-film blast comprising Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and Legend of the Lost with John Wayne. She was one of the greatest leading ladies of the second half of the twentieth century, combining style with ability. If you want an idea of how mesmerising she was in her pomp, check out this little number – Heller in Pink Tights.
Taken on its own merits, George Cukor’s western is a highly enjoyable romp. Hardly your first choice for the genre, Cukor ignores the tenets laid down by John Ford and Howard Hawks and the film is all the better for it. Although there are stagecoach chases, gunfighters and Native Americans, don’t expect upstanding citizens rescuing good folk.
Instead of stunning vistas Cukor chooses to spend his budget on lavish costumes and sets. You can see he knows how to use a colour palette, and there is red or a tinge of it in every scene (to the extent of rather a lot of red-haired folk), and although this might not be your bag – and you may not even notice it – it is what makes a Cukor production so lush. The film might start with comedic overtones but by the end you realise it is serious after all.
Sophia Loren is the coquettish leading lady and Anthony Quinn the actor-manager of a theatrical company managing to stay one step ahead of its creditors, in the main thanks to Loren’s capacity for spending money she doesn’t have. Of course, once a gunfighter (Steve Forrest) wins Loren in a poker game, things go askew. Quinn had never convinced me as a romantic lead, but here there is genuine charisma between the two stars.
Loren is at her most alluring, in dazzling outfits and occasionally in costumes as skin-tight as censors would allow in those days, but with a tendency to use beauty as a means to an end, with the conviction that a smile (or occasionally more) will see her out of any scrape. There is no doubt she is totally beguiling. But that is not enough for Quinn, as she is inclined to include him in her list of dupes.
While primarily a love story crossed with a tale of theatrical woes set against the backdrop of a western, when it comes to dealing with the tropes of the genre Cukor blows it out of the water. We open with a stagecoach chase but our heroes are only racing away from debt until they reach the safety of a state line. We have a gunfighter, but instead of a shoot-out being built up, minutes ticking by as tension rises, Cukor’s gunman just shoots people in sudden matter-of-fact fashion.
Best of all, Cukor extracts tremendous comedy from the overbearing actors, each convinced of their own genius, and the petty jealousies and intrigue that are endemic in such a troupe. An everyday story of show-folk contains as much incipient drama as the more angst-ridden A Star Is Born (1954), his previous venture into this arena. From the guy who gave us The Philadelphia Story (1940) with all its sophisticated comedy, it’s quite astonishing that Cukor extracts so much from a picture where the laughs, mostly from throwaway lines, are derived from less substantial material.
Quinn (his third film in a row with Cukor) has never been better, no Oscar-bait this time round, just a genuine guy, pride always to the forefront, king of his domain inside his tiny theatrical kingdom, out of his depth in the big wide world, and unable to contain the “heller.” I won’t spoil it for you but there are two wonderful character-driven twists that set the world to rights.
There is a tremendous supporting cast with former silent film star Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1925) as a duplicitous businessman, former child star Margaret O’Brien, another star from a previous era in Edmund Lowe (Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, 1933), and Eileen Eckhart. Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, 1939) and Walter Bernstein, who wrote a previous Loren romance That Kind of Women (1959) and had a hand in The Magnificent Seven (1960), do an excellent job of adapting the Louis L’Amour source novel Heller with a Gun, especially considering that contained an entirely different story.