Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Undefeated

The Undefeated posterThe Undefeated (1969) tells the story of ex-Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (played by John Wayne) and ex-Confederate Colonel James Langdon (played by Rock Hudson) as they cross paths in Mexico and become caught up in the Franco-Mexican War (1862-1867).

The Civil War (1861-1865) stripped many wealthy Southerners of their estates, including ex-Confederate Colonel James Langdon and his community of about four dozen men, women and children. With nothing to loose in the United States, Langdon accepts an offer from Emperor Maximilian to lead his people over one thousand miles to the Mexican state of Durango, where an escort will await to take them to Mexico City. Meanwhile, Colonel John Henry Thomas is resigning from the United States Army, taking ten loyal men with him. Thomas plans to take the men to capture wild horses to sell to the army, which will enable them to restart their post-war lives. After an impressive round-up of three thousand horses, Thomas meets with United States Army purchasers who make him a poor offer. Thomas smells a scam and sells the horses instead to representatives of Maximilian, who promise to make payment upon their delivery on the Durango plains. Both Langdon’s wagon convoy and Thomas’s herders cross the border into Mexico.

The parties become aware of each other when Blue Boy, Thomas’s adopted Cherokee son, spots the tracks left by the Confederates as well as a group pursuing them. They approach the Confederate camp and despite highly-strung Civil War tensions stay the night. Surely enough, they are ambushed they next day by Mexican bandits demanding that they surrender their supplies and women. The Americans dispel their attackers with the Confederates shooting from within a tight circle of wagons and the Yankees delivering a surprise attack on the flanks. The battle results in an incipient brotherhood between Americans divided by Civil War allegiances, a theme developed to a greater extent in the Fourth of July party that follows, and a secretive crush begins between Blue Boy and Langdon’s teenage daughter Charlotte. However, the mood turns ominous as the French cavalry escort to the Confederates is found dead, murdered by Juaristas, and Blue Boy is beaten up by a bigoted Confederate captain.

Matters worsen when the Confederates are received in a Durango town with great fanfare, but once trapped inside a court yard find themselves the victims of an elaborate Juarista ambush. General Rojas singles out an astounded Colonel Langdon to explain that the Maximilian-affiliated Confederates are considered Juarista enemies. He explains that because Maximilian could not acquire any more European soldiers to support his reign, he is bringing down Confederates after the Civil War. Rojas demands that Langdon go to Thomas, who is awaiting payment for the herd nearby, and tell him that he bring the horses or the Confederates will be shot. Though Langdon is loathe to ask anything of a Yankee, he duly meets with Thomas. Though Thomas’s men will lose their payoff, their Christian mercy and American brotherhood lead to a decision to help the Confederates. As Langdon’s men are being selected for execution, Thomas and his men rally the herd into motion with guns blazing and break through a line of French cavalry that attempt to impede them. Horses pour into the plaza just in time and Rojas halts the firing squad. In an unconventional conclusion to an armed hostage situation, the three men drink together, each toasting to his political affiliation: Mexico, the United States, and the Confederacy.

The Undefeated offers a good piece of advice for any traveler: know the political climate of the country you are about to visit. John is savvy about the dangers of Mexico from the beginning. When his men ask if he is expecting trouble, John replies sardonically, “We got Maximilian on one hand and Juarez on the other, and bandits in between. On top of that, we’re Americans in Mexico taking a cavy of horses to a very unpopular government. Why should we expect trouble?” Langdon, on the other hand, did not realize his role in this geopolitical mire until held at gunpoint. Many Western movies portray American cowboys blundering into Mexican wars and coming to the aid of the morally righteous underdog; in The Undefeated, Thomas surrenders the horses badly needed by the Juaristas, but he had to be coerced into doing so as he was closing the deal with Maximilian. Even though the Americans to not extend their moral responsibility to the Mexicans, nor do they change the course of foreign political affairs unless made to do so, the Juaristas are nobly portrayed. It is notable that despite having ambushed the Americans, General Rojas is portrayed as dignified and not cruel; he is visibly relieved to call off the execution.

Above all, the core theme of The Undefeated is unity. The toast given at the end between Rojas, Langdon and Thomas is symbolic of pan-American unity, a favourite theme in United States history since the Monroe Doctrine which called for the U.S. to be vigilant for European incursions into “its” hemisphere. If Mexicans and Americans can unite against the French, so too can the Confederates and Unionists unite against the Mexicans. The extended scene of the Fourth of July party during a hiatus from attacks from Mexican bandits and Juaristas shows how a body politic can be brought together despite its diversity both by symbolic national events and a common enemy threat. Also, Blue Boy and Charlotte make their mutual affection public, and this is well-received by both of their fathers. This union between Native American and white Southern youths seems to celebrate diversity and the coexistence of cultures, however in the final scene we see that Blue Boy has cut his traditionally long hair to the shortness of a typical Anglo-American boy, turning him from a symbol of positive inter-racial relationships to the power of white American cultural hegemony.

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