John Wayne. Rock Hudson. I don’t know if its possible to have a more antithetical pairing than the most conservative straight-laced guy’s guy and the most closeted homosexual in Hollywood history. I wonder if some casting director took a look at the script and was all like, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we got a homophobe and a gay man to star in a Western together?” Based on witnessed accounts, John Wayne did not want to have anything to do with Rock Hudson when the cameras weren’t rolling on the set of The Undefeated. I guess Wayne must have been a much better actor than I thought because the two actors have great chemistry onscreen and I didn’t see a hint of animosity between them.

The Undefeated is a Civil War adventure film that has elements of the Western (i.e. John Wayne and a couple of shootouts). The Civil War has just ended for Wayne and Hudson. Wayne is a Colonel for the Union’s cavalry and Hudson is a Colonel for the Confederate army. Defeated, Hudson is unwilling to stick around for the post-Civil War Reconstruction and so he gathers his family, soldiers, and whoever else wants to come and treks 2,000 miles to Mexico. There he has been offered safe refuge by Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian. As for Wayne, he too feels a little unsettled after the war so he gathers up his cavalry men and they head out West to capture wild horses to sell to the U.S. Army for profit. As you can imagine, Hudson and Wayne’s paths are about to converge, but in unexpected ways.

I really enjoyed the plot of The Undefeated. It serves up an original premise and it creates a great setup for the characters. At first the progression of events might seem too predictable. Given the two main characters’ allegiance to opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, its inevitable their paths will soon cross. However, the story takes unexpected turns and thats what makes it so great. Unfortunately, there are also moments in the film that unnecessarily slow the pace down. For example, there is one excruciatingly long scene where all the characters gather to celebrate 4th of July. The festivities quickly turn into a brawlfest (as all men during that time apparently enjoyed getting into). I felt the filmmaker wanted to pander to general audiences who probably came out to see The Duke star in a typical Western. The Undefeated also suffers from sub-plots that feel undeveloped. Sub-plots involving a few relationships are introduced that at first seem to be headed somewhere. Although they get resolved in the end, they feel rushed.

Say what you want about John Wayne’s acting abilities, but I think he improved with age and The Undefeated shows him at his most likable. The Duke was hardly a Shakespearean-caliber actor, but he had presence and he had a lot of it. You can’t help but like his character in this movie and his level-headedness amidst all the craziness going on around him makes the audience trust and like him even more. As for Rock Hudson, he also wasn’t exactly known for his acting. Studios liked casting him because he got women to flock to the theaters to see him. In this film, he’s completely overshadowed by John Wayne and he doesn’t command the screen anywhere as near as Wayne does.

Something that really struck me as I watched The Undefeated was how they were able to accomplish some of the things that today would easily be resolved by adding CG elements. For example, John Wayne and his crew have headed West to wrangle wild horses to later sell to the U.S. Army. I was maybe expecting to see a few horses onscreen but no more than a handful. Instead, you will see MASSIVE herds of horses run across your screen. At one point during the film my father asked me how in hell was the production able to find so many horses. My point is that if you wanted to impress the audience with spectacle back when there were no computer effects, you had to do it the old-fashioned way and that required some considerable feats of skill.

The Undefeated is a great story that gets weighed down by slow pacing and badly developed scenes. I still managed to enjoy it for its narrative and beautiful cinematography. This film was directed by the same filmmaker who made the recently reviewed Shenandoah, which came out a few years before The Undefeated. What surprises me about that is the dramatic change in style between the two films. Shenandoah looked artificial and like it was obviously shot inside a sound stage. The Undefeated, on the other hand, looks much more realistic and the director takes full advantage of the wide vistas and dramatic landscapes provided by the locations.

For someone like me who doesn’t care all that much for John Wayne, I was quite surprised by how much I liked his character. His carefree confidence imbues him with a certain sense of cool that I had never noticed before in his previous films. I can now see why my father and many guys of his generation liked The Duke above the rest. So if you’re looking for a pretty good John Wayne movie, make sure you check this out.

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