Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and John Wayne (uncredited)
Union Army Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), weary after a bloody and unnecessary (the Civil War having ended three days prior) battle, leads his men out West to round up and sell wild horses. But events in Mexico and shadows of the Civil War threaten to derail his plans.
John Henry Thomas comes off as almost indifferent to the whole Civil War from the get-go. He is tired of the fighting and just wants to be a civilian again. The war is over, and Thomas seems to look at things as settled. He is a great man who has earned the fierce loyalty of his men. Wayne as Thomas gets in quite a few very funny one-liners in this movie.
Confederate Col. James Langdon (Rock Hudson) is still fighting the war. He refuses to give up the fight which is part of the reason he leads his group to Mexico to act as reinforcements to Emperor Maximilian in his fight against Benito Juarez where he feels they will be able to start anew. Langdon is partially based on Confederate General Joseph Orville Shelby and his escape to Mexico after the Civil War and his attempt to join with Mexican forces. Langdon is all Southern gentleman and stoic holdout. He has no desire to concede defeat to anyone.
Blue Boy (Roman Gabriel) is Thomas’s adopted Cherokee son. Where he came from is never really explained. He just seems to have popped up from the ether. I am not sure how he and Thomas crossed paths exactly. There is a little bit more complexity to him than I expected. The unfortunate part is that the character and the events of his story in the film feel disconnected to the rest of the narrative.
Langdon has a daughter named Charlotte (Melissa S. Newman). She and Blue Boy have fallen in love. It is not a badly done romance, but it feels like a bit of an addon to the rest of the movie. It does not harm the film, but it does nothing to advance the narrative.
And that is something this movie has a bit too much of: characters or narratives that serve little purpose. Col. Langdon’s wife Margaret (Lee Meriwether). Margaret’s sister-in-law Ann (Marian McCargo). Confederate blacksmith Little George (Merlin Olsen). Jan-Michael Vincent as Confederate Lieut. Bubba Wilkes. Unusually Bruce Cabot who is never in a John Wayne movie appears as Confederate First Sgt. Jeff Newby. All good actors who play characters that ultimately serve little to no purpose with narratives that are the same for the story at large but at the same time do not hinder it in my opinion.
Despite this, The Undefeated is a fun Western. The dynamic between Hudson and Wayne is fantastic. The animosity between Wayne and Hudson can best be described as a friendly animosity. They were and more or less still are on opposite sides of a conflict yet have a respect for one another. At least that is Langdon’s perception. Thomas’s view is that the war has been fought and with one side having surrendered everything is now settled.
The majority of the story is set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. Thomas is delivering approximately 3000 wild horses to Mexican Emperor Maximilian who is fighting the forces President Benito Juarez. His original intention was to sell them to the United States Army who he assumed was going to buy them all, but they only offered to buy the best 500.
This provides the element of danger for the film. Thomas must contend with bandits as well as revolutionaries in order to survive the trip down. He is aided in his journey by his some of his former Union subordinates who were largely introduced in the opening battle scene. I am not sure it was necessary to show any of his time in the army. It did nothing to add or even take away from the movie itself. There we go with that again! It was more of a prologue than anything, but all the information communicated in those opening scenes was reiterated in one form or another during the course of the rest of the film.
The climax was anti-climactic for me. At the end of the film Langdon must come to Thomas and ask him to deliver the horses to Juarez. Langdon had shepherded his people safely to Mexico but was double crossed by General Rojas (Antonio Aguilar) who is holding Langdon’s entire party hostage and will kill them unless he returns with the horses.
I did not think Thomas would raise a middle finger and ride off into the sunset, but I expected a little more action than a simple delivery. Maybe some double dealing that forced an exciting fight when all three were together? I do not know but it just kind of ended and then all the Confederates who had been wearing Confederate uniforms through the entire film rode off in civilian clothing. I guess it was to symbolize they have finally stopped fighting and were becoming Americans.
The Undefeated is an enjoyable film that is hampered by a less than exciting climax and addled but characters that do nothing for the film one way or another. Do not get me wrong. I did enjoy it, but I perhaps would have a better impression with a more action-oriented finale and either trimming of characters or connecting them better to the resolution. Despite that I still like the movie and I would recommend watching it for fans of John Wayne and entertaining Westerns. Not the best of his work but it is a good film.