A nice thing sometimes about actors from previous eras is that their sheer volume of work is almost overwhelming for those unfamiliar with it. I think I have seen, reviewed or am generally aware of more than a few John Wayne films in various contexts, but The Undefeated is another one of those that surprised me from a perspective of not knowing who was involved in the film, and now that Fox has released it on Blu-ray (under the "Studio Classics" banner), I have a little more insight into Wayne's filmography, which is always a good thing.
Based on the Lewis Patten novel that James Lee Barrett (Smokey and the Bandit) adapted into a screenplay, Andrew McLagen, who worked with Wayne on McLintock! and would go on to work on several other films with a now older Wayne, directed. The film is set at the end of the Civil War, where the Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (Wayne) is taking a group of horses to Mexico for a higher price than he would get from his American colleagues. On the opposite side of things, the Confederate Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson, Giant) has lost his home as part of the fallout from the end of the War, and he and his family are also going to Mexico for their own land. They are traveling separately from John Henry's group and have received the word of the Mexican government that they will be treated fairly on their arrival. The two groups eventually learn about the other's presence on their paths and there is distrust, but nothing like the distrust of other parties en route to their goal.
The film has some of the same beats that a Wayne film of this era, and working with McLagen lends itself to this. It found Wayne closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but while there is the same general sense of self-awareness or clever nods to this that McLintock! had, these notes are more half-hearted and without much conviction to them. Additionally, there is a general lack of a supporting actor to take the ball Wayne tees up and hits, if that makes sense. Sure, Hudson is on the other side of the Civil War and the two groups have a punch-out that is designed to be a humorous moment, and it is. But Hudson is doing his own scenes and has little substantial interaction with Wayne in the sense that Wayne would let Hudson shine. Hudson is already an established star by the time The Undefeated shoots, and it feels like two stars having fun with the story and scenes on their own terms.
If there is an attempt to give younger actors a chance to work off the marquee stars, it seems to be done by little more than casting them and dusting their presence into scenes occasionally. Football players Roman Gabriel and a pre-Father Murphy Merlin Olsen, with Gabriel playing John Henry's adopted Indian son Blue Boy, and Olsen playing the ironically named Little George. If their respective appearances were designed to elevate their Hollywood presence, Gabriel does little, and Olsen simply plays Mongo before Alex Karras did. Moving onto genuine acting ability, Jan-Michael Vincent appears as Bubba Wilkes, a Confederate soldier eyeing the hand of Langdon's daughter. But he is given little time onscreen to make much of an impact and his presence is squandered.
The questionable choices and/or poor thought process carries over to the film's production also, with at least two notable moments of poor editing on the back end of the feature. But the story throws up a couple of distractions that overcomplicate the film in general and make it run 10-15 longer than it should. Over the course of the film I felt like I was watching people do an impression of a late-period John Wayne western, but lacking better execution, ability or interest.
While I certainly appreciated seeing The Undefeated and was pleased, if not damn near stunned to see some of the people in it that I did (and if one looks closely, actors like a pre-Wild Bunch Ben Johnson and Wayne collaborators Bruce Cabot and Harry Carey Jr. to name a couple), it feels like few involved really had their heart in the movie and it shows onscreen. Not to say that the film could have been special by any means, but the apathy is palatable to some degree when you watch this film.
Fox presents The Undefeated with an AVC-encoded transfer for this film, presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and the high definition results are not shabby. While generally the image lacks any consistent detail, flesh tones appear natural and the film's color palette looks nice, whether it is the reds of the first few scenes in house brick and Confederate flags, or the browns of the Midwest. It all looks quite nice and better than one would expect.
You have a choice of two DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, a 5.1 surround one or a mono one, either one works well here. Dialogue is consistent through the feature and well-balanced, requiring little adjustment. The 5.1 track does not have a lot to do either for directional effects, channel panning or subwoofer involvement, making the mono a slightly better option. The action occurs generally in the front of the theater and sounds fine, without complaint. It is not reference material, just generally decent listening.
You get the trailer (3:01), repeated twice more with Spanish and Portuguese subtitles for good measure.
The Undefeated had a moment or two of fun, but longer, more consistent moments of fun have occurred in other, better movies that John Wayne has starred in. Technically, the disc looks and sounds better than expected, even if the extras are practically nonexistent. But I always like to hold John Wayne films up to the lens of my father, who is a larger fan of the actor than I. And if he is apathetic about this, I would expect other, larger scores of folks will be too.