“The Undefeated” (1969)
The American Civil War has received relatively little serious attention in Hollywood, generally serving as a backdrop or as a passing reference point in the larger scheme of like period romantic dramas or westerns. The illiteracy of the studios in sidestepping history in favor melodramatic contrivance has left generations, who have mistakenly relied upon popular culture as a legitimate source of informational insight, ignorant of the complexities of history. Is it then any wonder that an even wider chasm in the awareness gap is present in the history of our neighbor to the immediate south? Despite the multiplicity of films which frequent tourist excursions through a national heritage immersed in recurring threats of revolutionary unrest, names like Villa, Zapata, Juárez, Diaz and Maximilian might as well be the propriety names on border town cantinas rather than major figures in both the War of the French Intervention and the Mexican Revolution. That a Hollywood film manages to flaunt cultural and historical ignorance in a multinational setting exhibits a genuine flair for promoting the shamelessly crass to an unsuspecting (and possibly uncaring, but that’s the subject for an entirely different time) mass audience. However, that’s exactly what Andrew V. McLagen’s “The Undefeated” delivers; an unsurprising, unexceptional and unnecessary western which manages to diminish the Civil War as an excuse for a running series of worn quips, false piety and a particularly unsavory and unsympathetic willingness to show, on several occasions, a disdain for national sovereignty.
Rock Hudson portrays Colonel James Langdon (based rather loosely on real life General Joseph Shelby), a Confederate officer who refuses to acknowledge the events at Appomattox, and forms a fugitive caravan with his men to penetrate their way through Mexico and meet up with the Napoleonic appointee Emperor Maximilian; an arrangement to which we are never privy to the important details (or any), but it must be assumed that they would act as a mercenary force against the legitimate president, Benito Juárez. Heroes indeed. The film’s portrayal of the Southern sore losers is entirely sympathetic to the point of depicting them as victims of heartless Yankee carpetbagging opportunists (a pair of land speculators clumsily attempt to low-ball a transfer of property, a scene lifted almost verbatim from “Gone With the Wind”) and bends over backwards to show that Langdon bears no ill will against his now freed slaves by handing one of them his heirloom gold pocket watch, the kind of generous parting gift that would surely lead to the poor recipient being lynched for theft in such a magnanimous political climate.
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