(1969) Directed by Andrew McLaglen
JOHN WAYNE MADE TWO westerns in 1969—he should have stopped with True Grit. Instead, he costarred with a hilariously miscast Rock Hudson in The Undefeated, a mediocre film inspired by Confederate General Jo Shelby’s quixotic post-war trek to Mexico with 300 of his troops. Shelby sought to rekindle the Southern lifestyle south of the border by raising an army of former Rebels for Emperor Maximilian, France’s puppet head-of-state, who was waging his own civil war with Mexican President Benito Juárez.
The movie opens with various tried-and-true Lost Cause shibboleths. Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (Wayne) is forced to charge a band of ragged Confederates determined to uphold their honor even though both sides know Robert E. Lee has already surrendered in Virginia. Cut to a column of well-mounted Yankees singing “John Brown’s Body” passing worn-out Confederates who strike up “Dixie” as a sign of their defiance and you get the idea.
Colonel James Langdon (Hudson) is a proud Southern officer and gentleman who returns to his impoverished family and decides to burn his plantation rather than sell it to Yankee carpetbaggers. He gathers his meager possessions and a hardy band of like-minded neighbors and heads for a new life in Mexico. (The real Shelby, it must be pointed out, took no women or children with him.)
On the way, Langdon’s wagon train encounters Thomas and his former troops now rounding up horses to sell to the highest Mexican bidder. A friendly Fourth of July fistfight and a budding love affair between Langdon’s daughter (played by Marian McCargo) and Thomas’ adopted son (who also happened to be Los Angeles Rams starting quarterback Roman Gabriel) symbolizes that sectional reconciliation has taken root and foreshadows a blue/gray alliance against bandits and unscrupulous Mexican army officers.
McLaglen is no John Ford when it comes to location filming. James Lee Barnett’s script is shallow. Add a host of wooden character actors and you get a cliché-ridden horse opera that lacks any true grit.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.