Starring: John Wayne, Rock Hudson
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Mood: If it feels like Friday but it’s only Wednesday and you need an uplifting movie but it still has to be a proper rugged Western because you’re still tough.
I didn’t start out my evening planning to watch The Undefeated.
I was super stoked to watch another movie. But when I opened the box – empty. The cashier at the thrift store specifically asked if I’d checked all the cases and I said yes. Apparently I was wrong.
So I picked out another Western, and put it into the DVD player (yup, still clinging to the past). Nothing happened. I grabbed my phone and checked Amazon and there it was, plain as day: the dreaded ‘Region 2’ DVD warning.
What the hell was wrong with my brain?! These two mistakes were made on totally different occasions, but I felt like a huge f*cking failure as a human being. Slumped on my living room floor, I literally crawled over to my unopened box set of John Wayne movies, pulled out The Undefeated, and heaved myself onto the couch in a very dramatic fashion.
This movie is lucky it turned out to be so light and funny. I don’t want to know what would have happened after failure number three…
The Undefeated starts with the end of the Civil War. Union Army Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) has just come out victorious in a bloody skirmish when he gets the news of General Lee’s surrender. He rides over to tell the Confederates that the war is over, but they got the news the day before. John Henry looks sadly around at all the dead Rebs who fought anyway.
The U.S. Army isn’t taking good enough care of the men who fought, so John Henry resigns and rides out with his remaining men – plus his adopted Cherokee son and men from his tribe – to round up wild horses and sell them to the army.
A group of those same strong-willed Confederate soldiers and their families, led by Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson), are ditching the States to join Mexican Emperor Maximilian. The two parties run into each other, and John Henry lets them know that they’re about to be ambushed by bandits.
Can these Union, Confederate, and Cherokee people set aside their differences to survive the Comancheros?
If that last line sounded a bit cheesy, that’s kind of the vibe of The Undefeated.
It’s a good Western, don’t get me wrong. It’s got some absolutely f*cking delightful one-liners and physical comedy, and tons of action. I mean, they’re pushing wild horses and getting attacked by the French AND the Comancheros – there’s tons of exciting stuff happening.
But there’s no denying that the plot is like someone melted ten pints of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream ice cream and funnelled it down your throat. It’s the most in-your-face ‘we’re all Americans at the end of the day’ narrative I’ve seen in a long ass time.
- Langdon finds out John Henry was leading the forces that killed his son, but still immediately trusts and befriends him – and not in a wary way, right off the bat they’re joking around and sharing drinks
- Only two Confederates have a problem with Blue Boy, John Henry’s Cherokee son, smooching on a white girl, but the matter is quickly squashed and everyone is cool with them as a couple
- The Union boys take only a moment of convincing to be unanimously in favour of giving up $87,500 to save a bunch of Confederates they don’t know
But this only gave me mild moments of “hmmm”, because The Undefeated is overall enjoyable weeknight fare. I can almost 100% guarantee that it would cheer you up enough to face another workday.
John Wayne is in peak John Wayne mode. This performance is a LOT like his portrayal of Taw Jackson in The War Wagon, which came out two years earlier and is seriously awesome. He’s more cheeky than gruff, and his energy is kind of ‘been there, done that, but I’m going to bring it to you every movie’.
Rock Hudson radiates an easygoing charm and dignity that make you like him, but it’s been less than 24 hours and I already can’t remember much else about his performance to comment. You do get the added bonus of Lee Meriwether (Catwoman in Batman: the Movie) as his wife, so there’s that.
Honestly, the one who made me laugh the hardest and stood out the most is Dub Taylor as grumpy old man McCartney. This guy delivers burn after burn on the men, he totes around a cat, and he’s f*cking HILARIOUS in the Fourth of July cookout-turned-brawl scene. Taylor’s career spanned six decades, including a gazillion Westerns.
The other standout is Ben Johnson as Short Grub. This is another unique performance for Johnson. It’s not as overt as his wily characters in Tom Selleck Westerns, yet he’s still able to draw your attention among a massive posse of rugged cowboys with a few lines and a specific character trope to fill.
The Undefeated does cast Filipino-American actor and NFL hero Roman Gabriel as the only Native American character with lines, which sucks. He looks like his naturally dark eyebrows were covered with greasy black shadow, and his wig is awful. And in an effort to really hammer the point home, the Cherokee, too, are shown all chummy with the Union boys – like they weren’t about to have their way of life torn up to make way for Oklahoma.
With that said, you probably aren’t watching a John Wayne Western because you wanted a movie that’s brutally honest about U.S. history. Wayne himself was sadly a racist homophobe, which makes it super surprising that he and Hudson became close friends while shooting The Undefeated.
- Fun Fact: Rock Hudson said in a 1980 interview that The Undefeated was “crap”, and only got its few successes from riding the coattails of True Grit’s release earlier that year. Bonus fact – Hudson also said that Wayne constantly put on lipstick while shooting, because apparently his lips were invisible on film without it.
Anyway. If you’re like me, you watch movies for the storytelling, not the personal lives of one or two people who were involved in the entire production. And if you’re in the mood for a cheeky, fast-paced Western, this one should be on your list.