You can count on Glenn Ford to bring his A-game to a B-picture. While never reaching the top tier of stardom he had been a box office stalwart in the 1950s until gradually losing his marquee touch in the early 1960s.
This is an odd one, with some nods at Wages of Fear (1953) and any picture that involved a trek or featured a hooker with a heart of gold. The story was certainly unusual – rabies. And the idea of a resulting pandemic will resonate more now than it did then. But it takes quite a long time for the key storyline to emerge, which is just as well because it allows Glenn Ford (Experiment in Terror, 1962) time to turn in one of his best characterisations.
Generally, Ford was Mr Dependable, very capable of holding his own and meting out punishment to anyone who crossed the line. So, this is as far from typecasting as you can get.
Dr Reuben (Glenn Ford) is a washed-up alcoholic working in a flyblown mining pitstop in Mexico, riddled with guilt at the death of wife and child. So when a posse of prostitutes turns up, he’s last in the queue, possibly his disinterest the attraction for Perla (Stella Stevens). By the time he realises he’s contracted rabies, he’s up against the clock, 48 hours to reach a town with an antidote, but still a baby to deliver, a jeep that has to cross a rickety bridge and then runs out of gas, so that, once linked up again with Perla and helped by Pancho, he has to cross mountain and desert to reach safety.
Logic isn’t in much evidence here. Despite knowing he has contracted the disease, he still delivers a baby and then spends most of the final 36 hours in the company of Perla and Pancho (David Reynoso), not to mention that the Mexican has abandoned his wife, who has just given birth in a shack, in order to accompany the doctor, or that the doc finds his way onto a bus loaded up with kids (presumably they are immune).
Not to mention that with a jeep running out of gas surely the last thing you’d want is to weight it down with passengers. And with a budget that’s not going to cater for a proper runaway bus that sequence falls back on the old speeded-up film. And if you’re going down the line of a rickety bridge, do it once, don’t repeat it.
But then you wouldn’t have anyone on hand to deliver philosophic lines, or to start to fall in love (wih Perla, you understand, not Pancho).
Take away the illogicality and there is still quite enough that works. The driver of the hooker truck unceremoniously jacks up his load to dump them in the town. A woman is tied to a table in preparation for giving birth. A suspected rabies victim is dragged through the streets by rope. The hunt for gas leads them to drain oil lamps. There’s a very self-aware Perla, more than enough common sense for both of them. She knows exactly what she has become and that’s something for which there ain’t no cure. But there are a couple of beautifully-wrought scenes that would allow Reuben and Perla to express their true feelings if either was capable of letting go, and you won’t see more expressive fingers.
And the clock running down also means that the symptoms are building up. Reuben’s senses are heightened. Light is too bright, sounds deafening, and if the doctor is already too ill he won’t be able to drink from a waterfall.
Every now and then director Gilberto Gazcon – who hadn’t made a picture in four years since La Risa de la Ciudad (1962) and wouldn’t make another for three years – chucks in a cinematic morsel, the camera whizzing around or racing back, to show Reuben’s state of mind. But, honestly, he needn’t have bothered.
You hire Glenn Ford and you get everything through his eyes, maybe a sly tensing of his features or a gesture from time to time, but this is one actor – mostly under-rated – who is just rock solid when it comes to displaying character. So when he’s not trying to save himself, dashing from one scheme to the next, he’s flat out trying to stop himself going mad, and only pausing for a bit of reflection as Perla tries to inject some meaning into his life.
Stella Stevens (Sol Madrid, 1968) ain’t that gold-hearted she’s going to let men treat her like dirt, she hands out a couple of good thumpings, but in her world you’re not going to come across any men who aren’t pure predatory, and it’s a shock for her to meet someone who thinks a woman can’t be bought. This is a rounded character – tough but vulnerable, and surprisingly tender should the opportunity arise.
Definitely a mixed-bag and a bit more work on the screenplay would not have gone amiss but top-drawer performance from Glenn Ford.
100 Rifles was easily the most underrated film of the year. Even if the sum of all its parts did not add up to greatness, it had a lot more going for it than has generally been attributed. For a start, there was the attempt to build Jim Brown into a mainstream African American star. Secondly: the return of the bold female character that had largely disappeared since the heyday of Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford. Thirdly: the conjunction of these first two elements in a sex scene raised the issue of miscegenation that Hollywood had otherwise sought to avoid.
Fourthly, and perhaps most hard- hitting of all: the issue of genocide, the mass slaughter of the Yaqui Indian population providing an uneasy parallel not just to the United States treatment of its own indigenous Native American population but also to its actions in Vietnam.
But there was a danger that, without both incisive direction and potent performances, the movie would spiral downwards into another simple case of “When Beefcake (Jim Brown) Met Cheesecake (Raquel Welch).” Since nobody had expected Sidney Poitier to ascend the Hollywood ladder so fast, and in so doing set a trend, the industry had nobody lined up to ride in his wake and exploit what now appeared to be, at the very least, acceptance of African Africans as stars in their own right, with an audience ready to embrace a new kind of hero. Although MPAA president Jack Valenti called for more African Americans in more African American films, the number of highly touted big- budget African American–oriented pictures that offered stardom potential rarely made it out of the starting blocks.
But there was one potential crossover star waiting in the wings: Jim Brown. While lacking Poitier’s acting chops, he had the physique, looks and charisma. Cleveland Browns football legend with strong supporting roles in The Dirty Dozen (1967), Dark of the Sun (1968) and Ice Station Zebra (1968), top-billing had been limited to low-budgeters like Kenner (1968), The Split (1968) and Riot (1969).
But Variety had singled him out at the start of 1969 as one of its “new stars of the year” and judged him “the strongest contender to inherit some of Sidney Poitier’s earning power.” 100 Rifles had double the budget of any of his previous pictures.
Raquel Welch was in a similar situation to Jim Brown regarding Hollywood acceptance. However, she was not in a minority as far as female stars were concerned. The 1960s had been dominated by the likes of drama queen (in more ways than one) Elizabeth Taylor, comedy queen Doris Day and musical queen Julie Andrews, not to mention Audrey Hepburn, (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961), Italian import Sophia Loren (El Cid, 1961), Jane Fonda (Cat Ballou, 1965), Natalie Wood (Sex and the Single Girl, 1964) and Shirley MacLaine (Sweet Charity, 1968). There was also an overabundance of new talent in Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago, 1965), Vanessa Redgrave (Blow Up, 1966), Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl, 1965), Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) and Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967).
But those stars had more to offer than mere beauty, whereas Welch, having made her name primarily as a pin- up and as eye candy in movies like One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), had trouble shaking off the idea that she won more parts on the basis of her body than for the acting skills, appearing in a dry bikini in Fathom (1967) and a wet one in Lady in Cement (1968).
However, like Jim Brown, she was actively looking to fill a niche, and set out her stall as a player of dramatic intensity, and she found it in the most unlikely of places: the western. That she chose 100 Rifles was interesting given her other choices. She was offered the Katharine Ross part in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the lead roles had been offered to Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty and again when Paul Newman came into the frame. She was also up for the Faye Dunaway role for The Crown Caper (title later changed to TheThomas Crown Affair), again with McQueen, and a film with Terence Stamp (which was never made). But she clearly felt those roles were more decorative.
At one time, the female western star had been a staple. Claire Trevor was the star of Stagecoach (1939) and Texas (1941). Gene Tierney made her name with The Return of Frank James (1940) and Belle Starr (1941). Barbara Stanwyck carved out her own niche as a western icon after taking top billing in Union Pacific (1939), California (1947), The Furies (1950), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), The Maverick Queen (1956) and Forty Guns (1957). While Maureen O’Hara took second billing in Rio Grande (1950), McLintock! (1963) and The Rare Breed (1965), she was the star of Comanche Territory (1950), The Redhead from Wyoming (1953) and The Deadly Companions (1961). Yvonne De Carlo headlined Black Bart (1948), The Gal Who Took the West (1949) and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949). Rhonda Fleming had the female lead in The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), The Last Outpost (1951), Pony Express (1953) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Johnny Guitar (1954) achieved classic status largely on the performance of Joan Crawford.
There had even been modern precedent: Inger Stevens had nearly cornered the recent market after A Time for Killing (1967), Firecreek (1968), Hang ’Em High (1968) and 5 Card Stud (1968) while Claudia Cardinale went from a supporting role in The Professionals (1966) to top billing in the forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the West.
Raquel Welch set out to follow suit. In Bandolero (1968) she proved capable not only of holding her own against veterans James Stewart and Dean Martin but as adept on the pistol- packing side of things. While Welch professed herself “no Anne Bancroft,” she was pleased that she was not “running around half- naked all the time.” After that punched a hole in the box office, she was offered the female lead in 100 Rifles to be directed by Tom Gries who had made his name as a director with his unflinching portrayal of the cowboy in Will Penny (1968).
The basis of the film was Robert MacLeod’s The Californio, published in 1966, and the essence of the story concerned a “reckless stranger” who refused to turn the other cheek while innocent people were being killed. After Clair Huffaker turned in his screenplay, Gries wrote two further drafts. It is safe to assume that the casting of Jim Brown came after the Huffaker script had been handed in. When Huffaker did not like the way his work had ended up on screen, he insisted on using the pseudonym Cecil Dan Hansen, as he had done on The Second Time Around.
For 100 Rifles, he was so upset at the end result that he demanded either his name removed or the pseudonym installed, complaining that the finished product “bears absolutely no resemblance to my script.”
The story of The Californio bears little resemblance to 100 Rifles. Not only is the hero of the book, Steve McCall, white, he is a rawboned young man and not a lawman in his 30s. He is not a gunman either, being more proficient with the lasso. In fact, when forced into bloody action, he discovers that he abhors violence. The book could more aptly be described as a “rite of passage” novel where a young man, sent south “on legitimate business in the interests of the (U.S.) Federal Government,” leaves home for the first time, becomes a man, loses his virginity and kills his first man.
Nor is Yaqui Joe a bank robber in the book, and after meeting up with McCall, they embark on further legitimate business. Maria, named Sarita in the film, is most like her feisty movie counterpart, and although in the MacLeod version she is married, that does not prevent her taking Steve’s virginity. Of the villains, Verdugo (the name means “Hangman”), while not elevated to general, is still as ruthless, but the foreign adviser is not.
Most of the film’s action was invented by the screenwriters, including the concept of the 100 Rifles, Sarita’s sexy shower as a way of stopping the troop train, and the children being taken hostage (although in one episode in the book, children are shot). Trying to reshape the book to suit the new requirements of the characters makes the picture unnecessarily complicated. Burt Reynold’s solution was simpler: “Keep his shirt off and her [Raquel Welch’s] shirt off and give me all the lines,” he reportedly advised producer Marvin Schwartz.
The movie was shot over a ten- week period in Spain beginning in July 1968. Although that country had become a viable alternative for westerns looking to keep budgets low, in part in 1968 due to the devaluing of the peseta against the dollar, the volume of films shot there had declined by nearly a third compared to the previous year.
Despite the popularity of the location, Almeria, the actual area of countryside where most spaghetti westerns were shot, was very small. This resulted in a limited variety of available landscapes compared with films shot in the U.S. such as The Stalking Moon. The actors had to contend with extreme heat, and Gries was laid low for three days after contracting typhus. Gries decided to get the sex scene out of the way on the first day of shooting, probably to ensure that tension about the content was not allowed to linger until later in the shoot. However, it had the opposite effect. Neither Brown nor Welch had been given time to get to know one another nor to adjust to different styles of acting and to understand the perspectives of each other’s characters. Welch was not happy with the scene and tensions between the two stars continued throughout the film, some press reports putting this down to squabbles over close- ups, others to unresolved sexual tension. Welch later complained that scenes edited out of the picture had reduced audience understanding of her motivations. The MPAA also did some judicial trimming, axing Welch’s shrieks during lovemaking.
Critical reception ranged from sniffy to downright hostile. Perhaps like The Stalking Moon, advance publicity, although not this time pointing in the direction of the Oscars, had served to put critics off what sounded like an exploitative film. For the western traditionalist, sex scenes were off- putting, and although naked breasts had started appearing in a handful of movies, there were precious few full- on sex scenes, never mind one that featured miscegenation. Variety judged it a “routine Spanish- made western with a questionable sex scene as a possible exploitation hook.” On the plus side, Welch’s performance was “spirited” as was the Jerry Goldsmith score; Brown and Reynolds were just “okay.” The Showmen’s Servisection took a different view: “Fast pace, fine performances lift western several notches above the ordinary.” Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun- Times called it “pretty dreary.” Howard Thompson, the New York Times’ second- string reviewer, said it was a “triumphantly empty exercise.”
Twentieth Century–Fox had been affected by recent financial disasters such as Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Star! (1968); the former collecting $6.2 million in domestic rentals on a budget of $17 million, the latter $4.2 million in rentals after costing $14.5 million. To counter mounting exhibitor panic about production being slashed, Fox had drawn up an ambitious program for 1969, promising one new movie every month. The program kicked off with a $7.7 million adaptation of the Lawrence Durrell classic Justine with Dirk Bogarde (January), followed by Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn in the $3.77 million film of the John Fowles bestseller The Magus (February) and the trendy $1.1 million Joanna from new director Mike Sarne (March). British star Maggie Smith in the $2.7 million The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (April) came next with 100 Rifles (May) and another Marvin Schwarz production, Hard Contract starring James Coburn, costing $4 million (June). Summer highlights were Omar Sharif in the $5.1 million biopic of Che! directed by Richard Fleischer (July) and Gregory Peck in the $4.9 million Cold War thriller The Chairman (August). Come fall it was the turn of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid coming in at $6.8 million (September), Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as aging homosexuals in The Staircase costing $6.3 million (October) and Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens’ $10 million The Only Game in Town (November). The year ended with John Wayne and Rock Hudson in the $7.1 million Civil War western The Undefeated (December).
The studio needed several box office home runs because the following year it was already committed to three roadshows—Tora! Tora ! Tora!, Hello, Dolly and Patton—costing over $60 million. By spring it was clear that the first two movies in the schedule had been major flops, Justine bringing in only $2.2 million in rentals, The Magus $1 million. Income from Joanna and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie barely exceeded costs.
By the time 100 Rifles swung into action with two largely untried leads and a director making only his second major picture, the pressure was on. “
At the box office 100 Rifles got off to a great start and Twentieth Century–Fox reported with delight that it had outgrossed Bandolero! by 40 percent in Washington (and by 500 percent in the ghetto areas), and by 300 percent in Philadelphia. In Baltimore it grossed $50,000 from a single theater compared to $80,000 from eight for Bandolero! and in Atlanta first run it had been $61,000 for the new film compared to $38,000 for the previous one. However, while Brown and Welch fans were out in force in certain areas, that did not make up for less interest in regions where westerns were associated with bigger or more traditional names. Ultimately, 100 Rifles fell short of expectations given the budget. U.S. rentals amounted to $3.5 million, and it registered in 29th position on the annual chart— the sixth highest- grossing western of the year and ahead of Mackenna’s Gold, The Stalking Moon, Paint Your Wagon and Once Upon a Time in the West.
But, of course, the domestic performance did not take into account the popularity of westerns overseas and the distinct following Raquel Welch had accumulated. So where some of the studio’s major dramas stumbled in the global market, 100 Rifles hit the ground running.
SOURCES: This is an abbreviated version of much longer chapter devoted to the film that ran in The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019) by Brian Hannan (that’s me). All the references mentioned can be found in the Notes section of that book.
The eponymous reptile is a rather obvious metaphor for characters trapped by quixotic decisions. Regardless of the Rev Dr. T Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) being a defrocked priest, he was always going to lead a dissolute life, alcohol the least of his temptations. This heady drama begins with comedy about a man with ideas above his station ending up as an incompetent tourist guide.
And if his behaviour is not scandalous enough for current coach party, middle-aged Baptist ladies, he leads them to a hotel in Mexico run by former lover Maxine (Ava Gardner) who has two younger lovers on the go. And as is the way with author Tennessee Williams there’s a posse of fascinating characters, led by spinster Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who ekes out an itinerant living selling paintings while her aged grandfather (Cyril Devalanti) recites poetry. Raising the moral stakes is under-age Charlotte (Sue Lyon) who has taken a fancy to Shannon, partly in rebellion against her frosty chaperone Judith (Grayson Hall).
For a movie with no great narrative drive, there’s no shortage of drama, whether it’s the Reverend under constant attack from his charges, Charlotte making advances, Shannon succumbing or trying to fight his addictions, Maxine succumbing then rejecting his advances, and Hannah on the sidelines trying to work out why her entire life has been lived in the shadows.
A simple dramatic fuse has been lit, disparate group with secrets set to explode, and you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Exceptionally daring, even if in discreet fashion, for the time, not just the Lolita-style Charlotte, but the middle-aged Maxine cavorting with not one but two men young enough to be her sons, so effectively a Cougar (before the term was invented) in a threesome, a woman in full command on her sex life not at the whim of a male. There’s as overt a gay woman as you would find in this era. And that’s before we come to Hannah, one of whose two sexual experiences involved averting her eyes while her male companion masturbated on a piece of her clothing. That was taking it way beyond the limits of acceptable on-screen behaviour of the day.
Characters are either engulfed by their passions or weaknesses or trying to come to terms with them, sometimes both. Over everything hangs poignancy at the self-deception practised, redemption scarcely a possibility, communication a minefield, acceptance the best anyone can hope for. Quality acting prevents this disappearing down a sinkhole of self-pity.
Richard Burton (Becket, 1964) was on a roll, one brilliant performance after another either with or without Elizabeth Taylor, essaying a wide range of characters. This is one of his best. You should despise the sham he has become, relying on charm to dig himself out of a hole, relying far too much on the kindness of strangers whose sympathy is exhausted. Yet the loss of the only position, a clergyman, for which he was possibly suited, thrown out for committing unforgiveable sin while preaching sanctity, makes him a very relatable human being. This isn’t Days of Wine and Roses reborn, but someone trying to win the pinch of oxygen required to keep his soul alive, and stir the energy inside. And he would be furious if you ever made the mistake of feeling sorry for him.
Ava Gardner (Mayerling, 1968) is superb, staring age in the face, unrepentant, sex an acceptable substitute for love, underlying sadness admirably restrained. But Deborah Kerr (The Chalk Garden, 1964), brings a refreshing dash to her introspective character, a woman with practical solutions except to her own emotional emptiness. Sue Lyon (Lolita, 1962) is only briefly scandalous and the movie’s conclusion suggests she is capable of settling down and not giving into the base desires that afflict all the others.
Just as with The Misfits (1961), director John Huston allows his characters to breathe. It would have been very easy to allow Shannon to have a more heroic or stoic stature, instead of someone stumbling around. Tinges of comedy and wit lighten the load. Huston and Anthony Veiller (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963) wrote the screenplay from the Tennessee Williams play.
Darkest – and possibly the most under-rated – western of the decade featuring a top-class cast playing against type, down-and-dirty in its depiction of the itinerant cowboy, an ending you won’t see coming and if it’s not a heretical notion close cousin to the later The Wild Bunch (1969).
Gang of outlaws led by Dee (Dean Martin), condemned to death for robbing a bank, is rescued by his brother Mace (James Stewart) posing as a hangman. While a posse led by Sheriff Johnson (George Kennedy) is in hot pursuit and the outlaws kidnap as potential hostage recently widowed Maria (Raquel Welch), Mace, sauntering through the deserted town, indulges in a bit of larceny himself.
All head for Mexico, a pitiless region, where the posse are picked off by bandits, the outlaws directed by the native Maria towards a small town which turns out to offer no safety at all. While there’s plenty action, this is more character-based. Mace and Dee are on the Civil War divide, the former (still sporting his Union uniform) riding with General Sherman, the latter with the Confederate Quantrill’s Raiders, despised by Mace as nothing more than glorified killers.
And while they are both outlaws, Mace blaming his situation on the Civil War, they are divided too by a sense of honor, Mace making it a point of principle never to harm women or children, Dee, far removed from any sense of himself, guilt-ridden, past caring, and lonely, can’t remember the last time he was with a woman he respected.
Sheriff Johnson is in pursuit in part due to unrequited love for Maria. Quick to action in a professional capacity, he is tongue-tied in her presence. Nor has the newly-wealthy Maria much need of a male protector. A whore since the age of 13 to provide for her extended family, sold into marriage nd acceptance that for security not love, she has been, ironically, set free by violent robbery. Dee’s gang views Maria as plunder, rape imminent should the brothers turn their backs. While Maria has little interest in another male protector she finds herself attracted to Dee.
Mace is mostly peacemaker, prodding his weaker sibling into responsibility, trying to instil into him the kind of code by which the likes of The Wild Bunch swore, but, still on the shifty side himself, concealing from the others the loot from his own robbery. But where The Wild Bunch are essentially sanctified by Peckinpah, especially with their hypocritical codes of honor and their unlikely redemption, the lives of Dee and Mace are unfulfilled, lawful or lawless drifters enjoying little of life.
There’s an ambivalence to Mace, theoretically a law-abiding rancher, but apparently turning outlaw on a whim. We are introduced to an impoverished Mace being ripped off for food and accommodation, spending the night in an overcrowded bunkhouse, his Unionist uniform doing him no favors two years after the end of the Civil War in Confederate Texas. He appears less prone to violence but we are not privy to how he persuaded a hangman to part with his outfit. And he’s a mean hand with a rifle, helping his brother escape his pursuers.
You might wonder just how Mace came to be an outlaw when he witters on so often about his God-fearing mother and his upbringing on a farm and you always have the sense he’s part of that woeful Hollywood creation, the “good” outlaw, as if there was such a thing, certainly no sign of him dispersing ill-gotten gains to the poor. He might just be as deluded as his brother.
Of the three, Maria is the most clear-sighted, no qualms about her behaviour, and, provided with weaponry, perfectly capable of defending herself. Mexican bandits offer her no clemency either, assuming that, escorted by gringos, she has abandoned the land of her birth, or just because any woman is prey.
So it’s a perfect onion of a western, layers upon layers, the pursued needing to defend themselves not just against the pursuers, but bandits lying in wait, and within their supposed close-knit community the brothers guarding against fellow outlaws and protecting the woman.
James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) played many a tough guy at the reinvention of his career in the early 1950s in Anthony Mann westerns, and while his characters often displayed venal qualities they were not outlaws. Career-wise this was a dicey role for an established western hero. That he brings the common touch that was the hallmark of his original screen persona to this characterisation of an outlaw with a code of honor does not disguise the fact that he is still an outlaw.
Dean Martin had essayed a really mean bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho (1967) but again this was his debut as an outlaw, and a conflicted one at that, enjoying the boost to his self-esteem that leadership brings, but finding himself enmeshed with the dregs of society, and certainly not on the look-out for any acts of kindness or redemption. This is a beautifully nuanced performance especially when he realizes Maria is responding to him.
Raquel Welch (Fathom, 1967) in what amounts to her first major film opposite two Hollywood legends more than holds her own. Not able to rely upon her overt sex appeal as in her previous outings, she portrays an upstanding women, abused by men in the past, determined not to take that route in the future. Alone of all the characters, having accepted her fate at an early age, she has developed a self-esteem not sacrificed to circumstance. The whore and the outlaw might be the oldest trope in the book but it works very well here as two characters find solace in each other.
George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), more accustomed to playing tough guys, leavens his portrayal by appearing idiotic with women. This, too, is a departure for Andrew V. McLaglen. Anyone aware of Shenandoah or The Undefeated (1969) will be familiar with his dexterity for widescreen composition, but here he tamps down on that stylistic device, concentrating more on group reaction and interaction. James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) wrote the biting script based on a story by producer Stanley Hough.
While there’s plenty action it’s not a rip-roaring western, too much character involvement for that, but certainly ranks as one of the top westerns of the decade.
Apologies again for the premature appearance of the blog “Behind the Scenes: Bandolero!” but that will definitely appear tomorrow.
Pre-Stagecoach (1939) Hollywood used to differentiate between historical adventure pictures and westerns. Given it’s set in 1746, before there was such a thing as a revolver or repeater rifle, so a complete absence of gunslingers, this falls squarely into the former camp though its format displays western credentials. A tad top-heavy with religious allegory, “miracles,” peasant piety and an Ennio Morricone score mainlining on the celestial, nonetheless it manages to achieve a character-driven narrative and some powerful action sequences.
However, it’s a lengthy set-up. Outlaw Leon (Anthony Quinn), on the run from Mexican troops, takes refuge in a church. As punishment for giving him sanctuary Fr Joseph (Sam Jaffe) is expelled to the abandoned church of San Sebastian in an equally abandoned village. Ringing the bell to attract parishioners only alerts bandits who kill him. Donning his garb, Leon is mistaken for a priest by Yaqui leader Teclo (Charles Bronson) and strung up crucifixion style. But he’s rescued by villagers who almost elevate him to sainthood courtesy of a couple of accidental “miracles.”
Enjoying his newfound status, but still attracted to peasant Kinita (Anjanette Comer), he directs the parishioners to build a dam to flood the fields to assist in corn-growing. Teclo objects to challenges to his authority and burns down the village. The villagers turn against Leon, and although initially intending to vanish, he decides instead to blackmail his mistress, the wife of the local governor (Fernard Gravey) who agrees to supply him with weapons. Leon builds a fortress to withstand the expected attack setting up a very engaging climax in which the dam plays a critical role.
A modern audience might expect a sturdier narrative rather than one that seems to shift at whim, not helped by Leon’s indecision. And it’s too slight a vehicle to carry the political points, the state of Mexico at the time, the settlers vs. original occupants (i.e. Native Indians) scenario, the problems facing half-breeds (Leon and Teclo both), but it’s better at exploring the power of the church, the worship bestowed on any priest who turns up, regardless of how ill-suited he appears. The occasional comic sequence, banter with an architect, negotiation with a Mexican colonel, seems out of place.
On the other hand there is a truly mesmerizing performance from Anthony Quinn (Lost Command, 1966) as a womanizing low-life who happens upon redemption, so deep does his impersonation of a priest go that he can’t bring himself to touch the compliant Kinita, who is aware of his true identity. Switching between shiftiness and godliness at the drop of a hat and deriding villagers for their lack of character his turning point comes when he realizes he has fallen into the same trap. That he emerges as a wily man of conscience is no mean feat.
The other big bonus is to see someone at last recognize Charles Bronson (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969). Here he is given cinematic status, camera pitched up at his face, and allowed to eliminate the growl and monosyllabic delivery that has been his wont in lesser roles. He’s a rather decent villain at the end.
There are a couple of inconsistencies. Teclo wants villagers to take to the hills but on the other hand somehow to spend enough time tending the corn that come harvest time he can steal. And it’s a bit too neat how he falls into the dam trap.
All in all, enjoyable and very under-rated primarily, i suspect, because people come at it expecting a western rather than a historical film in the adventure vein. But it’s elevated by the intriguing narrative, the questionable hero, Quinn’s performance and the introduction to a new-look Bronson.
Frenchman Henri Verneuil (The Sicilian Clan, 1969) does well to probe so many issues for an audience probably expecting something more straightforward. James Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) wrote the screenplay based on novel by a William Faherty, a Jesuit priest. In the book, the hero was a soldier who became a priest rather than an atheist opportunistic outlaw.
Starts and ends as a rootin’-tootin’ western but sags badly in between. The chance of turning it into The Magnificent Four or even The Dirty Pair go a-begging and it’s both revenge- and redemption-driven without either taking enough precedent. And there’s a curious dynamic in that the murderers are clearly smarter than the soldiers. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s engaging enough but too episodic and far short of a classic.
Lassiter (Richard Boone) kills Apaches with brutal efficiency in revenge for losing wife and child to them. But there’s no law against murdering Native Americans, not even when they form a harmless burial party, and when arrested by Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) it’s for buying a stolen rifle, part of a consignment of 2,000 feared to be heading into the hands of the Apaches and a rogue Confederate Col Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), under whom Lassiter once served.
Charged with going undercover to get the weapons back is Haven, who lost the cargo in the first place, and another soldier Franklyn (Jim Brown), posing as gunpowder salesmen. Lassiter is freed from jail along with exceptionally vain murderer Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosca). From captured Apache Sally (Wende Wagner) they discover the Apaches are hooking up three days hence with Pardee in Rio Conchos in Mexico.
Mostly, it’s tension between the soldiers and their captives-turned-colleagues. There’s an incident with a dead baby at a house attacked by Apaches, Lassiter shooting the tortured mother. Lassiter attacks a saloon keeper for refusing to serve Franklyn. Pardee is building an army to re-start the war. There’s a brutal scene of the men being dragged behind horses. While Haven plans to use the gunpowder to blow up the Apaches and/or the rifles, Lassiter and Rodriguez nurture plans to steal the cargo.
Lassiter is pretty smart, twice outwitting the Apaches by using fire as a distracting device, easily getting the better of Haven and more than a match for the duplicitous Rodriguez. But there’s a powder keg waiting to explode in more ways than one, the chances of Lassiter toadying along to Apaches seeming remote.
Richard Boone (Night of the Following Day, 1969) coming off Have Gun –Will Travel (1957-9163) and The Richard Boone Show (1963-1964) is impressive as the wily renegade. Here’s one of those actors you never quite know what he’s going to do and that unpredictability adds continuous tension, but it would probably have helped if the audience was fully filled in on his intentions, rather than being surprised all the time. Given he was the star here, he was allotted time to be seen making up his mind in various situations, something he would be denied as a later supporting actor. So when there’s not really much going, he creates tension.
Stuart Whitman (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) doesn’t really have enough to do what with Boone’s character always being one step ahead and clearly more attuned to danger. Anthony Franciosca (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) has a gem of role, adding to his characterization withlittle bits of scene-stealing business, sharpening a knife on a wagon wheel, recovering a knife from the stomach of a victim being dragged away by a horse, snaffling a packet of cigarettes, and never ceasing to admire his attraction to women.
Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) makes a solid movie debut, offering more by his presence than in action terms since for the most part he is just the sidekick. Wende Wagner (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969) has more screen time but mostly just smolders or looks sullen apart from a nice scene mourning the baby and another defying her tribe. Look out for Edmond O’Brien (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) and silent child actor Warner Anderson.
The action sequences are well done and director Gordon Douglas (Robin and the Seven Hoods, 1964) also deserves credit for allowing Boone such scope while the opening scene and the death of the unseen woman are exceptional. He has a great gift for the widescreen, but the movie could have done with more clarity. It’s not his fault the poster was misleading and led me into the picture with different expectations. The screenplay by Joseph Landon (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Clair Huffaker (The War Wagon, 1967).was based on the latter’s book.
Blame Robert Wise for falling behind on The Sand Pebbles (1966), otherwise John Sturges would have pressed ahead with Steve McQueen pet project Day of the Champion (later resurrected as Le Mans, 1970, though minus Sturges). Needing another hit after the consecutive box office failures of The Satan Bug (1965) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Sturges fell back on an equally favoured project, The Law and Tombstone, a revisionist and darker look at the Wyatt Earp legend, with “a few liberties taken so it doesn’t become a documentary.” Despite the failings of the last two films, Mirisch had just re-signed Sturges, expanding his current deal from two to four pictures.
“It seemed like a first-rate idea,” recalled producer Walter Mirisch, who had worked with Sturges on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). In his memoir he said, “If there was still a market for Western pictures, John Sturges was certainly the ideal director to test it.” (Mirisch’s memory is a bit hazy here regarding the commercial prospects for westerns – 1966 had seen box office success for El Dorado, Nevada Smith, The Professionals and The Rare Breed while 1967 would usher in The War Wagon and Hombre among others). The initial idea was to re-team Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to which this was a sequel, but Paramount, which had made the original picture, nixed the notion.
James Garner came on board in the main because he still owed Mirisch, marking a decade in the business, a picture. He had originally worked for Mirisch in The Children’s Hour (1961). He was hired for “not much,” a straight salary, but credited Mirisch with kick-starting his career after his battle with Warner Brothers. Mirisch had also funded By Love Possessed (1962) in which Sturges had directed Jason Robards, “a brilliant actor though one with problems” (something of an understatement).
There was some surprise in Hollywood when Sturges returned to Mexico after the difficulties – censorship, threats to boycott the film, union issues – he had encountered shooting The Magnificent Seven there. Having vowed “never to make another picture” in that country, “one of the reasons we’re back here is because they’ve eased up on regulations.” Having expected to import most of the cast from Hollywood, the producers were delighted that “six of the ten other featured parts” went to Mexicans, as a result of extensive auditions. Although Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, 1969) remained director of cinematography, a Mexican camera crew was hired with Jorge Stahl in charge.
Shooting began on November 9, 1966, at Torreon, “a quiet little agricultural town with a single hotel and bar,” where a fake town had been built at a cost of $100,000. Filming shifted to Churusbusco Studios in Mexico City on December 20 and four weeks later production wrapped after exteriors at a hacienda near San Miguel de Allende for the face-off with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan in the film).
James Garner (The Great Escape, 1963) was keen to be reunited with Sturges. “I was happy to play the character,” reminisced Garner, “because John always knew what he was doing. He would take five, six, seven factions in a story and bring them together.” Garner saw Earp as “a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy.”
Jason Robards, as Doc Holliday, with a well-known wild side, was difficult to manage. Assistant directors were dispatched every morning to find out where, bar or brothel, the actor had ended up the night before. Sturges rounded on him when Robards turned up at lunch for a scheduled 8am start. He was perfect after that. Unusually, Sturges would invite the cast to watch the dailies. Producers Mirisch were not happy with the title which was eventually changed to Hour of the Gun.
“My mistake,” rued Sturges, “was that I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees…I got preview cards that said of all the stories told about Earp and Holliday this was the dullest. They (the audience) considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.”
As Variety pointed out in its review: “Probing too deeply into the character of folk heroes reveals them to be fallible human beings – which they are of course – but to mass audiences …such exposition is unsettling.”
There were clearly reservations about the project. Mirisch announced it was “ready for release” at the end of March 1967 but it did not see the light of day for another seven months. Although the film was budgeted at just over $3 million – $1 million more than In the Heat of the Night (1967), another Mirisch project – and received tremendous support from the industry-wide “Fall Film Fair” promotional campaign (“commended…for excellence in entertainment”) it was a huge flop in the U.S. bringing in a miserable $900,000 in rentals (the amount studios receive once the cinemas have taken their share of the gross). It did better abroad with $1.5 million but the total was nowhere near enough to recoup the costs.
“Also playing a large role in the reaction to the picture was the continued loss of interest by audiences in Western pictures,” said Mirisch. “I was again guilty of thinking that this trend would reverse and that Westerns, led by a hit picture, would return to favour stronger than ever. I was wrong. As a new generation arose, their interest in westers had been satiated, probably by television, and they now embraced the so-called Easy Rider era of movie-making.”
This is another piece of faulty memory. The year after the release of Hour of the Gun commercial success was enjoyed by Bandolero!, Hang ‘Em High and The Scalphunters to name a few and Will Penny and The Stalking Moon, both revisionist westerns, won critical favour. And, apologies for harping on about it, but, as I showed in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that year proved a box office bonanza for westerns despite Easy Rider.
SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p257-262; Walter Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), p259-260; United Artists Archive, Appendix II, University of Wisconsin; “Mirisch, Sturges Revamp Pact for Two More Films,” Box Office, July 25, 1966, W-1; “James Garner Moves from Actor To Future Producer Status,” Variety, October 5, 1966, 5; “Director John E. Sturges Returns to Mexico for Law and Tombstone,” Box Office, November 7, 1966, pW-2; “Mirisch Schedules Five Major Films,” Box Office, March 13, 1967, p10; “Film Title Changes,” Box Office, April 24, 1967, p18; Advert, Box Office, Aug 28, 1967, p4-5; Review, Variety, October 4, 1967, p16.
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.