MOVIE REVIEW: “The Undefeated” (1969)

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This is not a great film. It’s also not science fiction. Not even remotely. Why am I reviewing it? Well, primarily it’s because Joss Whedon once said that “Firefly” was largely based on (A) the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, and (B) this movie. So while it’s not SF in and of itself, it had some unexpected impact on SF, and is worthy of a look-see just out of curiosity.

Secondarily, though I’m a yankee through and through, I admit to a fascination with Southerners. Superficially they and us Midwesterners are more-or-less identical, and have been forever. In fact, if you ever wondered why so many boys from Ohio, Illinois, and Michigain died so early in the Civil War, it’s because Washington was afraid the cultural similarities between Midwest and South might hamstring the ar effort. We were both basically protestant, white, agricultural, independent, and largely anti-industrial in those days. D.C. thought it might be best to stir up some bad blood between us before my people had a chance to say “Screw it, let ‘em go,” and there you have it. That said we were right and they were wrong, and my granddaddy shot your granddaddy, and we won, so get over it.

But, again, I’ve always had a fascination for Southerners because, though they’re just like us, they’re sexy, somehow, you know? It’s hard to nail down. It’s the difference between, say, 19-year-old Brittany Spears, who’s oozing with sex appeal, and 19-year-old Paris Hilton, who’s basically a mannequin. It’s the difference between Sean Connery in his prime, and myself. I’m not sexy, despite the fact that I actually look pretty much just like Sean Connery, only with a full head of hair and more striking eyes. I think I’m a shade taller, too. But the point is: He’s got ‘it’ and I don’t, and on the whole Southerners have ‘it’ and Midwesterners, on the whole, don’t. Dunno why, but it fascinates me, so I’m a sucker for Civil War stuff.

PLAY BY PLAY

Anyway: This movie starts out in a battle, and immediately after it ends, John Wayne (Union) is informed that the war actually ended a couple weeks ago. The Rebels already knew it, but kept fighting anyway, and intend to keep fighting. Now that the war is done, Wayne decides to resign, and he takes his men with him (He’s got ten, including a full-blooded Cherokee Indian named “Blueboy” that he adopted as his son decades earlier). They decide to head out west and catch wild horses, which they’ll then sell to the Army. They head to The Indian Territory (Eastern Oklahoma) and rendezvous with Blueboy’s tribe. Then they catch horses.

Meanwhile, in some unspecified part of the south - probably Eastern Texas - Rock Hudson and his unit from Confederate Army decide to burn their homes rather than let them fall to carpetbaggers, and head south into Mexico rather than admit defeat. They have been assured that once they make it to Durrango, they’ll receive and escort from Emperor Maximillian, who’ll take ‘em to Mexico City for some unspecified purpose. There’s about ninety confederates, including fifteen kids and twenty or thirty women. They head south, and are intercepted by an Union border patrol, but they drive across the Rio Grande (Which appears to be somewhat easier to cross and shallower than the Wallmart parking lot when it’s raining), and they’re away.

Having collected 3000 horses, John Wayne’s gang gets screwed over by federal agents who want to only buy 500, and pay bottom dollar for ‘em. Wane makes an agreement with agents of Emperor Maximally (I should mention he was ruler of Mexico at the time) to buy the horses at $35 US a head, provided the duke can get ‘em down to ‘em. The federal agents attempt to block the sale, but Wayne’s men, and the Indians, manage to get across the border.

Blueboy spots the tracks of the Confederates, and he spots the tracks of another group shadowing them. He and Wayne quickly realize that bandits are preparing to attack some kind of civilian convoy, so they quarter the horses, and ride up to warn the civies. They’re very surprised to find a Confederate army unit, but they warn them anyway. Rock Hudson is grateful, despite misgivings, and invites them to stay the night. But, y’know, not in a creepy Rock Hudson way. Blueboy takes a shine to Rock’s daughter, and John takes a shine to Rock’s newly-widowed sister. Blueboy rides of to do something mysterious. The next day the Bandits show up early. Rock’s people circle the wagons, and Wayne suggests arming such women as know how to use guns. The bandits attack and seriously outnumber the rebs, but the rebs drive ‘em back anyway. Then, while the bandits are regrouping for another attack, Wayne’s people attack ‘em. While they’re running from Wayne’s people, they run headlong into the Cherokee, who kill ‘em all. Not a bandit left alive.

The rebs thank the yanks for their help, they go their separate ways, and that, friends, is where the movie should have ended. Alas, we’ve got another hour to kill.

We burn time by having the Rebs invite the Yanks to a 4th of July party, which results in an overlong drunken brawl (The two guys fishing and beating each other was funny, though). Then they go their separate ways again. Then Wayne finds Maximillian’s messengers to the Rebs killed, and warns them there’ll be no escort. Wayne meets up with his own representatives, and sells them the horses, and is just waiting for payment.

Meanwhile, the rebs get to Durrango, and are treated great until it turns out that the town is loyal to Benito Juarez, and they’ve all been trapped. They want horses. So: Rock will go and beg the Yankees for the horses, or Juarez’ people will kill every one of the rebs, women and children too. (Though they’ll probably have sex with all the latter first). Blueboy rescues Rock’s daughter, and Rock reluctantly agrees to grovel. This he then does. Wayne asks his men if they’re up to having the whole movie be a fool’s errand, and one of ‘em says “Well, I ain’t no Christian, but my mother was,” and agrees to give the horses to Juarez. So they screw over Maximillians’ agents, get in a fight with the Mexican army, then give the horses to the rebels. No, not those rebels. The other rebels. You know, the rebels that are holding the other rebels hostage? The Mexican rebels. They give ‘em to the Mexican rebels.

“Okee dokee” say the Mexicans, and let everyone go. Union and Confederate, they all ride back up to the states. Rock decides to run for the House of Representatives. Blueboy gets a haircut and hooks up with Rock’s daughter. The end.

OBSERVATIONS

Well that wasn’t very good, was it?

I mean, yeah, Wayne was good, and Rock is good and does a serviceable Southern accent (Though he tends to drift off and forget it in the middle of sentences), and the idea of bitter enemies becoming allies of desparation in a foreign land is a good one. The idea of veterans of the Civil War stupidly riding headlong into ANOTHER civil war (Juarez vs. Maximillian) is a good one, too. The idea of the brotherhood of war bonding people regardless of which side they fought on is pretty neat, and the idea of folks who simply won’t lie down and admit defeat is a great one. And yet the movie manages to blow every one.

And really there’s only half a movie here. The second half feels like they made it up as they went along, the climax defines anticlimax (“We knuckle under to your demands! Hooray cowardice!” “Thank you cowards, you may now go without any personal gain that might validate the telling of this story!”) There’s never even any attempt to figure out which side is the right one or the wrong one. Both Rebs and Yanks are working for Maximillian, who does nothing bad in the movie. In the end, they seriously help out Juarez’ forces, who are utter murderous bastards in the film (And they make it very clear they intend to rape the women), and yet no one seems to feel bad about that. The implcation - clod-footedly told - is, I think, that both sides are equal, and it isn’t really our guys’ fight, but in fact all we see is bad stuff from Juarez’ folks. We’re told Maximilian’s French mercinaries have done some atrocious stuff, but we don’t see it, and have no reason to believe it, even if it’s true. The moral, if there is one, is probably an allegory to Vietnam: It’s their fight, and we ain’t got no bidnez in it.

In fact, we’re never even entirely sure why the Rebs are being invited to Mexico anyway. I presume it’s so they can act as mercinaries, but no one ever actually says. The idea that they continually have to be bailed out by Union cowboys (Horseboys?) is probably pretty galling. It’s a little vague as to what flavor of Southerners we’re dealing with, too. In the start of the movie, they’re all wearing “Western Department” uniforms (Butternut, not grey), but later on all the major characters are wearing the greys, and all the extras are in butternut. Also: the uniforms are way too clean and fit way too well. They’re cut like modern mens’ suits, when in fact clothes from the 1860s were kinda’ baggy. Odder still, the rebs don’t wear their belts, gunbelts, or swords, which is both weird AND it makes their uniforms look just goofy.

I really like the odd way Rock plays it when Wayne shows up at the 4th of July party. He’s trying to restrain himself, but he’s clearly almost brimming over with excitement (But not in a creepy Rock Hudson way) that Wayne is there. He really likes Wayne, and I think it’s just because they both had the same job in different armies. Wayne’s the only one on hand who’s likely to understand Rock, and Rock is thrilled at finally having a friend. Clearly, he’s not close to any of his own people. The way he scampers around and almost starts hopping at one scene are infectious. His character is a lonely man, despite all the people around him. Well played, if only briefly.

The movie gets high marks from me for being pro-Indian, though. Indians are treated like people, their general privation is admitted to, one of them is a major character, and he even gets the girl in the end, which I didn’t think was gonna’ happen. (I figured he’d take a bullet). The girl’s daddy doesn’t even seem to mind. Granted, there are no *actual* Indians in the film, but this is the ‘60s, and Indians weren’t considered worthy of appearing in their own stories in those days. Yeah, I don’t get it either. Despite that: the movie has its heart in the right place.

In fact, that’s what makes this film so infuriating is that it *does* have its hear in the right place. It really wants to say and do the right thing, and it comes really close sometimes, but then they just get confused and wander off without really knowing what they’re doing. Even on simple stuff, like the romance angle, they blow it. John Wayne gets a really great scene talking about his ex wife (“I guess she’s happy. She’s got a cat, she lives in Philadelphia giving piano lessons”), but everything else is just random noise and no chemistry. Blueboy and Rock’s daughter have no chemistry whatsoever, but at least she’s got some good lines (Melissa Newman, who went on to be the voice of Dana Sterling in Robotech, by the way). There’s even less chemistry between Ms. Newman and a very young Jan Michael Vincent, who presents a barely-there romantic tension, and then just disappears 3/4ths of the way through the movie.

Blueboy, the Yankee Cherokee, is played by a half-Philippine Southerner: Roman Gabriel of the LA Rams. Little George, the somewhat slow-witted gentle Confederate giant, is played by yankee Merlin Olsen of Utah, also playing for the LA Rams at the time.

Cinematography is nice, but not glorious. The real attraction here are the horsedriving scenes, which are astoundingly vast. In modern times, it’d be CGIed, but remember: this was 45 years ago: if you see a horse on screen, it’s a real horse. I’m sure they didn’t really have 3000 horses here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a thousand. There’s a LOT of animals here, and the drive scenes are impressive.

Music is by the always great Hugo Montenengro, who did most of the episodes of I Dream of Jeanie, and a few Matt Helm movies, and a ton of other things as well. Not his most inspired piece here, and a bit too influenced by The Magnificent Seven style of soundtrack (Rhythm continually + melody coming in over the top of it, same every time, repeat ad nauseam) but it’s nice enough if not particularly memorable. And it’s got the 20th Century Fox orchestra playing it. There’s just something about their horn section in the mid-late 60s that I love.

And that’s it. A curiosity, not a complete failure, but kind of a waste.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS FILM?

It’s kind of a muddle.

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