Classic themes of hope, resilience and redemption influence director Andrew V. McLaglen’s follow-up to Shenandoah (1965). Add in a battle against widespread misogyny, thieves falling out, a brilliant stampede and a forlorn hunt that has echoes in the decade-old The Searchers. But other more serious issues are explored. At the film’s core is the question of how a nation built on innovation refuses to countenance change, in other words a country where hierarchy (inevitably male) has begun to impose its preference and how those who suggest alternatives must not just buckle to that collective will but admit they are wrong, a problem that in the half century since the film was made has not gone away.
Widow Martha (Maureen O’Hara) and daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills) bring to auction her white-face Hereford bull, a British institution, the first of its kind to be imported (for breeding purposes, you understand) to America where hardy longhorn cattle are the dominant species. Despite being insulted for her temerity in challenging the existing order, Martha is astonished to receive a winning bid of $2,000, only to realize this comes with conditions attached, the buyer assuming his largesse will also win her, a sharp elbow to the ribs dissuading him of this notion.
Determined to see the bull delivered to the Texan ranch, Martha decides to accompany the animal on its journey. Wrangler Sam (James Stewart), hired to transport it instead plans to steal it and to keep the dupe sweet until the time is ripe encourages her to develop romantic ideas towards him. When another cowboy, Simons (Jack Elam), with eyes on the same four-legged prize causes confrontation the game is up, though Sam sees the trip through.
Rancher Bowen (Brian Keith) belittles the Hereford bull although viewing Martha as a better proposition, but the only way to discover whether the beast can survive in the territory is to let it loose on the open range where it was likely to encounter blizzards (not so rare in Texas as you might think). Once the bull is set free, the movie shifts onto a question of endurance, not just of the animal, but of the mindset of Martha and Sam. Her faith in her insane idea is tested to the limit and, almost in compensation, a woman needing security/protection et al, she comes to appreciate the attentions of a less wild Bowen.
Both central characters have much to lose and much to face up to. Martha, in accepting she was wrong and letting Bowen into her life, will almost certainly be surrendering her independence (she can still be feisty but that’s not the same thing). It’s a testament to her acting that you can see that faith wilting. Sam, a conniving thief whichever way you cut it (although the storyline gives him something of a free pass), has to face up to the fact that he was planning to con a woman out of the precious possession on which her precarious future was built.
The scenes between Martha and Sam are superb, especially when he is grooming what he thinks will be an easy dupe. Sam, in a purgatory of his own making, almost certainly an outcast were the truth more widely broadcast, attempts to expiate his guilt.
James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara had worked together in Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and there is no denying their screen chemistry. But there’s an innocence that O’Hara rarely displays, the woman in love suppressing those emotions not denying them as perhaps in The Quiet Man (1952). She’s both independent and, if the right man comes along, happy to accept his protection (from the male predators of the West), while at the same time keeping him on the right track and sorting out his world of misshapen priorities. There are some brilliant scenes where something else is going on story-wise and O’Hara is internalizing some deeper emotion entirely. It’s an acting coup for an actress like Maureen O’Hara who would never give up to convey so well a character on the verge of surrender.
This is one of James Stewart’s best roles, far removed from the principled hero of Shenandoah (1965) and returning him closer to the shifty character of Vertigo (1958) adept at self-justification. In the scene where he is found out by O’Hara he is outstanding. It’s not a given that the character will find a way to turn things round and his efforts to redeem himself make the latter part of the picture emotionally involving, especially as this is countered by O’Hara’s own internal battle.
It’s worth pointing out that although the narrative mainly concerns the two main characters, the background is filled with ruthlessness. Not only does Sam feel no compunction about stealing a bull worth $2,000, we first encounter Bowen’s son Jamie (Don Galloway) when he is making off with a herd of his father’s longhorns. The cattle barons use their wealth to “buy” a classy woman and cheat cowboys. And there is further murder along the way.
I was going to mark this picture down for the comedy which seems to amount to endless brawls but I wondered if modern audiences, reared on the never-ending fistfights and wanton destruction that usually indicated the finale of a superhero picture, would accept it quite happily, perhaps even welcome it. While Brian Keith (The Deadly Companions, 1961) stands accused not only of one of the worst Scottish accents committed to the screen – and these days of cultural appropriation – that does not take away from a character who, behind the beard, transitions from loathsome father to something more approaching humanity, in other words wild man who realizes the benefits of civilization.
In fact, the broad comedy serves to obscure a film full of brilliant, cutting, funny lines, generally delivered in scathing tones by the woman. O’Hara to Stewart: “You may bulldog a steer but you can’t bulldog me.” Stewart to O’Hara: “Can I help you with that” and her response “No, they’re clean and I’d like to keep them that way.” And that’s not forgetting the sight of the cowboys whistling British national anthem “God Save the Queen” in order to bring the bull to heel.
I forgot to mention the romantic subplot involving Hilary – in case you were wondering what role she had in all this – and Bowen’s estranged son, Jamie. Juliet Mills (Avanti!, 1970), older sister of child star Hayley, is excellent as the sassy daughter of a feisty woman, Don Galloway (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) less of a stand-out in his debut, in part because he has to subsume his rage against his father.
Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is good as always and you will spot in smaller parts Ben Johnson (The Undefeated, 1969), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated), Barbara Werle (Krakatoa, East of Java, 1968) and David Brian (Castle of Evil, 1966). John Williams, masquerading as Johnny Williams, wrote the score.
Setting the comedy aside, this is a more intimate film from director Andrew V. McLaglen compared to the widescreen glory of The Undefeated and the intensity of Shenandoah and for that reason tends to be underrated. There are some wonderful images, not least Sam carrying the injured Jamie in the style of Michelangelo’s La Pieta – an idea stolen by Oliver Stone for Platoon (1986) – but mostly McLaglen concentrates on the actors.
As you might expect with a title like this John Wayne was in the frame, at least at the start. But when Burt Lancaster’s production outfit Hecht-Lancaster bought the property that was the end of that casting idea. Hecht-Lancaster was at its peak in 1956, each of its first 11 pictures turning a profit, and just signed up to a $40 million three-year deal with United Artists. Biggest project on the table: $5 million for The Way West with a dream team of Lancaster, James Stewart and Gary Cooper and a script from Clifford Odets (The Sweet Smell of Success, 1957). But by 1959 the dream had soured, with $545,000 already shelled out on the western with no sign of a start date. A year later the project was shelved. When Harold Hecht split from Lancaster, the rights reverted to United Artists.
Hecht’s initial efforts as a solo producer had not paid off, Taras Bulba (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), both starring Yul Brynner, and Tony Curtis comedy Wild and Wonderful (1964) all covered in red ink, before suddenly resurfacing with the hit Cat Ballou (1965), making him imminently more bankable than before. However, given the impact music had in Cat Ballou, Hecht hankered after something in the same vein, except bigger, and bought the rights to Finian’s Rainbow, a Broadway hit from 1947. When casting issues caused delay, Hecht signed a one-picture deal with United Artists for The Way West. The studio had such high hopes for the movie that plans were made for its world premiere to be held at the Houston Astrodome, a first, and it was considered a natural for roadshow treatment.
A substantial rejig was required of the source material, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by A.B. Guthrie, by screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, not least to ensure that the character played by Kirk Douglas remained with the wagon train until the end of the trail, unlike in the book. Andrew V. McLaglen, with three box office western hits behind him in McLintock (1963) starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, Shenandoah (1965) with James Stewart and The Rare Breed (1966) co-starring Stewart and O’Hara, was first choice to sit in the director’s chair.
Charlton Heston (El Cid, 1961) was approached to play the lead of Senator Tadlock. When he turned it down, Kirk Douglas signed on for his first western in five years – although his next would also be a western, The War Wagon (1967) with John Wayne – Robert Mitchum (Villa Rides, 1968) was offered the choice of either scout Dick Summers or firebrand Life Evans. At the end of a long lunch with Hecht and McLaglen, Mitchum could not make up his mind and the producer and director assigned him the role of the scout.
“I’m awfully glad it worked out the way it did,” recalled McLaglen, “because Widmark was perfect for the other part and Mitchum was perfect for the scout.” It might not have been Widmark because Max von Sydow was also reputedly offered a part. Von Sydow was too big a star to play any of the other supporting parts and the part assigned to Widmark was Scandinavian so in that sense an ideal fit.
While Widmark did not attempt a Scandinavian accent, Mitchum spoke Lakota, apparently with a decent accent, in several scenes where he had to communicate with Native Americans. He didn’t learn the language, as modern actors might do, but simply recited the words spoken to him off-camera. Mitchum and Douglas had acted together in Out of the Past (1947), where the former had the larger role, and, while not sharing scenes, appeared in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), where the billing was reversed. Although not in a directorial capacity McLaglen had worked with Mitchum on Blood Alley (1956) before the actor was fired.
It was an arduous shoot, virtually the whole picture shot as exteriors, in Tucson, Arizona, and in various locations in Oregon including Bend, Christmas Valley and the Crooked River Gorge. Around 400 members of cast and crew made the trek. In the absence of CGI, everything seen on the screen was achieved for real without any recourse to blue screen. The desert was real. When the river was forded, it was with real wagons and the cast. The wagons were raised and then lowered from the tops of cliffs using the old-fashioned methods that would have been available at the time, that is by rope-and-tackle.
In order to begin filming or play less arduous scenes on top of the cliffs, cast and crew went up in a ski lift. “You’re up there, hundreds of feet up, nothing but rocks to call on,” Jack Elam remembered. “If you had to go to the bathroom it was a matter of half an hour down and half an hour up.” When the wagons were lowered down the cliff all the actors at some point had to participate and according to Elam “some people landed in the hospital.” The river crossing was no less dangerous, with the potential for drowning a constant hazard.
“Andy McLaglen…was wonderful through the whole thing. Stayed calm through thick and thin,” said Elam. Added assistant director Terry Morse, “Nothing intimidated him…for all the difficulties he kept it right on schedule.”
Given three stars with reputations, it was not surprising there were flashpoints, Kirk Douglas, apparently, at the heart of most, accused of snatching newspapers out of the hands of supporting players and trying to usurp the director. Commented Harry Carey Jr., “He tried to take over the thing at some point. Widmark got furious at it, very agitated. He screamed, ‘You’re not directing this goddam movie.’ Really raised hell with Douglas.”
Said McLaglen, “Somebody like Kirk Douglas and somebody like Mitchum, they were poles apart in personality. Bob was an easygoing guy and Kirk was more volatile. But there was never a feud.” Just how easygoing Mitchum was – a production assistant was assigned to keep an eye on him just in case he got carried away with his predilection for fishing and was wading in the water when it was time for his next scene.
Kirk Douglas thought so little of the picture there’s not a single mention of it in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son.
The movie wrapped on August 29, two days ahead of schedule, which was quite remarkable given how tough the shoot had been. The fact that it took almost a year to reach screens suggested UA had problems with the finished product. Andrew McLaglen asserted that it had been shorn by nearly 30 minutes after the first round of cinema screenings, but that memory seems faulty given that the film Variety reviewed the movie in mid-May 1967 – a month before its world premiere in Eugene, Oregon, on June 13 – ran 122 minutes, the stated running time. Critics were not kind but the director thought it was “a terrific picture” and “one of the things I dream about today.”
SOURCES: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster, An American Life (Aurum Press, 2000) p171,192, 194; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care, (Faber and Faber, 2002), p491-495; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012); “Largest Independent Motion Picture Deal,” Variety, April 13, 1956; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, November 15, 1965, p20; “Hecht’s Oncer for UA,” Variety, March 30, 1966, p5; “Astrodome May Show Hollywood’s Way West,” Variety, May 4, 1966, p12; “Hecht Finishes Production of UA’s The Way West,” Box Office, September 5, 1966, pW5; “Review,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p6.
How this crispy-told beautifully-mounted character-driven western ever languished among the also-rans is beyond me. I suspect the specter of John Ford hung heavily over it in the eyes of critics at the time but it more correctly belongs to the cycle of Cecil B. DeMille westerns that told stories with a true historical bent. Often detrimentally compared to How the West Was Won (1963), which told a similar tale of endeavor, this movie deliberately lacks that movie’s inflated drama in which every incident was built up, not least influenced by the need for Cinerama effect, rather than seeking an authentic truth.
Plainly put, the difference is here there are no charges, no races, no fording of rivers in the wrong places. Native Americans are treated with respect. Above all, an epic crossing of the continent with fully-loaded wagons is necessarily going to be slow, risk avoided at all costs, and yet this is not without incident or character arc. In fact, the script is terrific, not just dialogue that rings true, but among the elements brought into play are male rivalry, clash with authority, guilt, young love, revenge, vision, justice, America in embryo. That the movie maintains a stately pace, no fistfights descending into brawls, and a shock ending indicate a director in charge of his material.
Based on A.B. Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in 1843, the first wagon train heads for Oregon under the iron rule of Senator William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) and guided by a scout with failing eyesight in Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), both men widowed and in emotional limbo, and in the cantankerous company of Lije Evans (Richard Widmark) and his glamorous wife Rebecca (Lola Albright). There’s a stowaway (Jack Elam), a preacher who can’t afford the price of transportation, an illicit love affair between the vibrant and lusty Mercy (Sally Field) who “hankers after any three-legged boy” but makes eyes at married man Johnnie Mack (Michael Witney), and enough obstacles to keep less determined settlers from reaching their promised land.
Tadlock is the visionary, a politician suffering from an overblown estimation of his self-worth, who “might have been President except for a woman,” ruthless, valuing only his own ideas. “Point the way,” he tells Summers, “don’t gall me with opinions.” For fear it might interfere with his role as commander, he hides his vulnerability. There’s a plaintive moment when he shares his vision of a city with Rebecca, on the one hand full of his own importance, on the other clearly needing the pat on the back. Later, an occasion of death sees him falling prostate with grief on a grave and on breaking his own laws demands to whipped. The over confident blustering individual is by the end almost suicidal. What is a leader if there is no one to lead?
Summers stoically accepts his infirmity, constantly dropping his head so his eyes are hidden from sight under his hat as if his ailment could be easily detected, mourning the loss of his Native American wife, and while full of Western lore as easily passing on gentle wisdom about love, and his “lucky necklace” to an unrequited lover, but still accused of unworldliness, “for a smart man you ain’t got a lick of sense.” Evans bristles at any authority, believing independence means he goes his own way, especially if that permits the freedom to get drunk at a time of his choosing, and especially once he realizes such lack of inhibition riles the repressed Tadlock. But his fondness for alcohol triggers an incident that almost costs his son his life.
Celebrations he started catch the attention of the nearby Sioux and in the communal drunkenness a Native American child is accidentally killed. In the best scene in the film battle Sioux seeking justice and intent on attack are thwarted only by the “sacrifice” of the killer.
The picture is packed full of incident, many characters coming alive in a single shot or with one line of dialogue. A woman tramps on her husband’s foot to prevent him challenging Tadlock’s authority. A woman with a baby retorts that she is afraid when bolder settlers facing potential Native American attack assert the opposite. The bravest man in the camp, the first volunteer to be lowered down a canyon, dies when his rope snaps.
There are any number of reversals. Buffalo, instead of being a danger and prone to stampede, create a dust cloud to hide behind. Rivers are crossed at sensible points, rapids avoided. An African-American whips a white man. A boy becomes a man through honor rather than violence. Stories, large and small, play out in a succinct script.
Kirk Douglas (The Arrangement, 1969) is superb as a man whose iron core deserts him. Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968), in almost a supporting role, excellent in full awareness that the sight on which his reputation and job depend will vanish, brings a subtlety to his performance that would be recognized as ideal for Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1965), who is generally simmering, gets to mix in a bit of fun in with the simmering.
Lola Albright (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) swaps seductiveness for sense. In her debut Sally Field (Smokey and the Bandit, 1977), filled with zip and zest, sparkles as the lusty young woman and it’s astonishing to realize she would not make another movie for nearly a decade while another debutante Katherine Justice (Five Card Stud, 1968) finds her inner fire when it’s too late. There’s supporting talent a plenty – Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated, 1969) and William Lundigan (The Underwater City, 1962) in only his second film of the decade.
Director Andrew V. McLaglen (The Rare Breed, 1966) captures the correct tone for the film, making up for the essential slow pace with brilliant use of widescreen, coaxing great performances from all concerned. Screenwriters Ben Maddow (The Chairman, 1969) and Mitch Lindemann (The Careless Years, 1957) compress Guthrie’s tome with considerable skill.
Woefully underrated at the time and since, this deserves reassessment. This is a truer version of how the west was won. And I surely can’t be alone in demanding that McLaglen’s talent be more properly recognized.
I couldn’t get my head around the idea of the U.S. Army recruiting a bunch of undisciplined misfits, many with jail time, in order to link them up with a crack Canadian outfit. Turns out this part of the film was fictional, the Americans in reality responding to advertisements at Army posts which prioritized men previously employed as forest rangers, game wardens, lumberjacks and the like which made sense since the original mission was mountainous Norway. I should also point out the red beret the soldiers wear is also fictional and while depicted on the poster sporting a moustache commanding officer Lt. Col. Frederick (William Holden) is minus facial hair in the film.
But, basically, it follows a similar formula to The Dirty Dozen (1967), training and internal conflict followed by a dangerous mission. The conflict comes from a clash of cultures between spit-and-polish Canucks and disorderly/juvenile Yanks though, as with the Robert Aldrich epic, the leader taking some of the brunt of the discontent. Collapsible bunk beds, snakes under the sheets and a tendency to fisticuffs are the extent of the antipathy between the units, which is all resolved, as with The Dirty Dozen, when they have to take on people they jointly hate, in this case local bar-room brawlers in Utah.
The movie picks up once they are sent to Italy. Initially employed on reconnaissance, Frederick challenges Major-General Hunter (Carroll O’Connor) who wants to do things by the book and sets out to take an Italian position by trekking two miles up a riverbed, creeping into town by stealth and capturing the location without firing a shot.
Next up is the impregnable Monte la Difensa. Taking a leaf out of the Lawrence of Arabia playbook, in a brilliant tactical move, the Americans attack the mountainous stronghold from the rear by way of a mile-high cliff. But that’s the easy part. The rest is trench-by-trench, pillbox-by-pillbox, brutal hand-to-hand fighting.
The battle scenes are excellent and the training section would be perfectly acceptable except for the high bar set by The Dirty Dozen. That said, there is enough going on with the various shenanigans to keep up the interest, but we don’t get to know the characters as intimately as in The Dirty Dozen and there is certainly nobody in the supporting cast to match the likes of Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes. That also said, the men do bond sufficiently for some emotional moments during the final battle.
At this point William Holden’s career was in disarray, just one leading role (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) and a cameo (Casino Royale, 1967) in four years, and although his screen persona was more charming maverick than disciplined leader he carries off the role well, especially solid when confronting superiors, exhibiting the world-weariness that would a year later in The Wild Bunch put him back on top. Ironically, Cliff Robertson was coming to a peak and would follow his role as the strict disciplinarian Major Crown, the Canadian chief, with an Oscar-winning turn as Charly (1968). Vince Edwards (Hammerhead, 1968) as cigar-chomping hustler Major Bricker makes an ill-advised attempt to steal scenes.
This was the kind of film where the supporting cast were jockeying for a breakout role that would rocket them up the Hollywood food chain – as it did with The Dirty Dozen. Jack Watson (Tobruk, 1967) is the pick among the supporting cast, but he has plenty of competition from Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Claude Akins (Waterhole 3, 1967), Jeremy Slate (The Born Losers, 1967), Andrew Prine (Texas Across the River, 1966), Tom Stern (Angels from Hell, 1968) and Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, 1967). Veterans in tow include Dana Andrews (The Satan Bug, 1965) and Michael Rennie (Hotel, 1966).
William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) adapted the bestselling book by Robert H. Ableman and George Walton. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (Shenandoah, 1965) was more at home with the western and although there are some fine sequences and the battle scenes are well done this lacks the instinctive touch of some of his other films.
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.
Pressbooks (also known as Campaign Manuals) were notorious for coming up with all sorts of insane and inane devices in an attempt to entice the moviegoer. The extremely handsome 20-page A3 pressbook for Andrew V. McLaglen’s Civil War western Shenandoah (1965) was no different in that respect – “racetrack in your area – hold a Shenandoah handicap.” Or how about this classic: “In Shenandoah the war stops for a cow that wanders between the fighting…a local dairy might be interested: Everything Stops While The Public Drinks Our Milk etc.”
Luckily, the marketeers had some better ideas, mostly based on the traditional folk song of the title which has a hymnal quality. So star James Stewart was roped in to cut a record, released on the Decca label, with special lyrics of that famous song. For a start the idea of Stewart singing was a clever stunt in itself, but the main aim was not to garner some newspaper coverage but to attract the attention of radio stations and use the record’s cover as a means of encouraging music stores to set up window displays.
And never mind Stewart’s contribution to the canon of singers of the song, the marketing team identified more than 30 other versions of the song by the likes of Harry Belafonte (four versions), Jimmie Rodgers (three) and Guy Lombardo and instrumentals by British jazzman Acker Bilk of “Strangers on the Shore” fame and guitarist Duane Eddy. Decca was putting further promotional push behind an album entitled “The Blue and the Grey, Songs of the American Civil War.”
Theater managers were urged to suggest to radio stations they group some of these tunes together “for an interesting period of broadcast listening, perhaps in a musical segment of Civil War songs or a radio contest to identify the vocalist.”
In addition, the marketing team sought coverage in the television pages of newspapers since many of the supporting cast were small screen regulars – Doug McClure star of The Virginian, Glenn Corbett star of Route 66 and James McMullen a regular on Ben Casey – and newcomer Katharine Ross had been featured in a few shows. “You should take advantage of this away-from-the-amusement-section opportunity to pick up extra publicity space directed to the TV page reader!”
Of course, the main purpose of a Pressbook was to provide the theater owner with the actual advertisements for the movie. He or she would cut these out and drop them off at the local newspaper which would use them to make up the ads that ran in the newspaper. These came in a variety of sizes from small single column black-and-white efforts to larger five-column full-color ads.
And they also came with an avalanche of taglines (note the varying use of capital letters) and images. The key tagline was “Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley…A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both.”
Or you might have come across these alternatives –“Like giants they stood in the path of two might armies…and with their fighting spirit challenged them both” or “James Stewart, A Giant Of A Man Who Fought For Shenandoah” and “When History Called for Men and Women Larger than Life…Charlie Anderson and his proud family answered the challenge – with courage mightier than guns – and with love that no cannot could ever shatter.”
And there were more: “They reached for their rifles in the name of love…not hate…to challenge two mighty armies” down to the simpler “Shakes The Screen Like Cannon Thunder” and “Where A Mighty Adventure Was Born.” You might be led to believe from this fusillade of taglines that the marketing department could not make up its minds about which tagline was best and just chucked them all at the theater manager, leaving them to choose.
But that was not the case. The reason behind the disparate taglines was precisely to provide choice, to allow the theater manager to decide how best to market the picture to suit the audience he or she knew best.