Western Wednesdays: ‘The Undefeated’

“What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny’?  ‘Make yourself at home’? ‘Marry my daughter’? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know . . . morons.” — Blazing Saddles

But dang, did they cut a dashing figure in a gray uniform. I’m talking about you, Rock Hudson. Look at the rakish bend of your hat brim! Aren’t you just the handsomest Confederate I’ve seen since Bill Compton traded his uniform for a pair of fangs!

One of my new cinematic fascinations (if you’ll forgive such a pompous label) is the way Hollywood and pop culture imagines the Civil War. It’s not something I ever thought about beyond Gone With the WindFirefly, and True Blood, but it’s an intriguing subset of American culture.

Since no cannonball has been left unturned when it comes to the War Between the States, I’m sure there are already twelve books about this very topic. If there’s not, well, maybe I will write one when Western Wednesdays is through.

Hollywood’s predominate use of the Civil War is, not surprisingly, utterly romantic and surprisingly rebellious.   For the most part, filmmakers have little interest in victorious Union soldiers or carpetbaggers.  It’s all about the fallen Confederacy, and the mythology of the proud Rebels who were bowed, but not broken.

Sometimes they choose to go out West rather than surrender, where they carry on their own private wars like Josey Wales, Jim Lassiter of Rio Conchos, or space’s Malcolm Reynolds.  I expected The Undefeated to follow suit. And it does.  But it also laughs in the face of Johnny Reb, and suggests he’s a giant idiot if he holds onto the  Stars and Bars in a post-Appamattox world.

I can see why John Wayne liked it. Don’t go against America, sonny, or you’ll be sorry!   I’m sure it’s no accident that this was made in 1969. It’s the Summer of Love and protest, baby, but remember what happened to the “rebels” before you.

The Undefeated starts out poetically enough.   We meet the Union’s Col. John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) on the field of battle, where he grimly surveys the men who could have been saved if he’d just known Lee surrendered three days ago.  Under a flag of truce, he informs his Southern enemies that Lee has surrendered.  To his horror, they already knew, and wanted to go out fighting.

This sentiment is carried over to Col. James Langdon (Rock Hudson), a smoothly handsome Southern plantation owner who decides life serving Emperor Maximilian is preferable to subjugation by carpetbaggers. He burns down his plantation rather than sell it to Yankees, and goes South.

This is all presented to tragically swelling music, a stern jaw, and recently freed slaves who are sad to see Master Langdon go.  Southern romanticism always demands noblesse oblige, even if you’re about to make fools out of The Undefeated.

And that’s what happens. Langdon and his Southern company of men, women, and children look dashing in their preserved uniforms (there’s a good eye to detail here — most of them are wearing the midwar “butternut” uniforms of the later years, when the war outlasted the supply of gray fabric), and they’re puffed up with their principles.

But dreamy intentions can’t keep you safe, and they’re forced to accept the help of Yankee Thomas again and again.  Naturally, they become friends, and it’s a predictably sarcastic friendship with lots of “Remember when Sherman burned you out?”  and “You will never see me bowed, suh!” thrown in for laughs.

But wait! Wayne has his wrist slapped for thumbing his nose at the government, too. You see, he’s out West to round up wild horses to sell to the U.S. Army. They start haggling over his horseflesh, so he gets annoyed and sells them to Emperor Maximilian.

In the end, he loses every one of them to the Juaristas.   Of course, he just laughs it off and is the better man for the experience, but the message is clear: You don’t undermine the U.S. or its Army. Now, go watch The Green Berets again.

I laugh, but it’s true. The Undefeated sells itself as quite a piece of Rebel romanticism, but gleefully mocks anyone who whistles Dixie and eulogizes the place where chivalry took its last bow.  From that point of view, it’s fascinating and funny, particularly given the uncomfortable place the Civil War still holds in cultural and political discourse.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a very good movie.  It’s not terrible, but it’s quite campy and messy. However,  it may be the first Western I’ve seen that had a cat (Hot Bread) and two NFL players (Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen) in the supporting cast.  I’d like to think that says something about American history.

If the Union had not stood, we probably wouldn’t have had an NFL, and then where would our country be?  John Wayne wants you to think long and hard about that before criticizing your government ever again!

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