This three films box is an occasion to discover three interesting and atypical westerns with John Wayne, at a very reasonable price. Below, more about the films, with some limited SPOILERS.
This is a 1969 western, distantly inspired by real events, watchable, but less good than most of John Wayne films. It certainly has its moments, but the weakness of scenario becomes with time embarrassing. SPOILERS ahead!
1. The real story of general "Jo" Shelby and "The Undefeated".
Before the War Between States, Joseph Orville "Jo" Shelby (1830-1897) was one of wealthiest landowners and most successful businessmen in the South. Born in a rich family, he lost his father at the age of 5 and was raised by his stepfather. Once of age, he quickly increased family's wealth by clever and daring investments and at the age of 31 he owned propriety (including a large number of slaves) and businesses all around Kentucky and Missouri.
In 1855, long before the War Between States began, young "Jo" Shelby became involved in the "Bleeding Kansas" armed fight between Northern anti-slavery militants and their Southern slave owners opponents. He raised a Southern militia squadron with his own money and rode at the head of it - it cost him a lot, as in retaliation pro-Northern radicals burned some of his businesses in Missouri. In 1857 he married young Elizabeth Nancy Shelby, a relative.
In 1861 the state of Missouri, even if it ultimately didn't join the Confederacy, was almost evenly divided between pro-South and pro-North partisans. With his own money Shelby raised a company of volunteer cavalry with himself as its commanding officer with the rank of captain. The war in Missouri turned badly for the Confederates who were ultimately forced to retire to Arkansas, but many thousands local volunteers followed them there. In 1862 Shelby, having proved himself on the battlefield, was promoted to full colonel and took over a regiment of Missouri volunteers fighting in Arkansas. Later that year, with more Missouri volunteers arriving, his command expanded to a cavalry brigade - it quickly earned quite a reputation and became known as "Iron Brigade".
Between 22 September and 3 November 1863, Shelby led his Iron Brigade of Missouri volunteers on what was to be the longest cavalry raid of the war and is since known as Shelby's Great Raid. With his 800 men, twelve wagons and two light field guns, he rode 1,500 miles through Missouri, inflicting over 1,000 casualties on Northern forces, and capturing or destroying an estimated $2 million worth of Federal supplies and property. This raid took place after many defeats suffered by the CSA and therefore was a welcome morale for Confederate soldiers - it also dragged a lot of Union troops away from the main front. After the successful conclusion of the raid Shelby was promoted to brigadier-general on December 15, 1863 and was celebrated as a popular war hero in the South, but in the same time he became also an object of much hatred amongst Northern politicians and generals - and they were not going to forget or forgive him...
In 1864 and 1865 his Iron Brigade accomplished more exploits, but their detailed description would take too much place. Anybody interested in reading about Shelby and his men can try one of the many books devoted to this topic - my personal recommendation would be "General Jo Shelby: undefeated rebel" by Daniel O'Flaherty.
In June 1865, once Confederation was destroyed by invading Northern armies, Shelby and 1000 of his men refused to surrender and instead rode to Mexico, intending to become a mercenary foreign legion in service of embattled Emperor Maximilian. Before joining with Maximilian forces, they had to fight their way through Benito Juarez troops and local bandits.
The ruler of Mexico was at that time losing the war against the forces of Juarez and was initially thrilled to welcome reinforcements of such battle hardened veterans - however strong diplomatic pressure from US government forced him to ultimately decline the offer. On another hand he refused to disarm or expel Shelby's men and instead granted them and their families abandoned land near Veracruz, to become civilian settlers and form a Southern exiles colony. However in 1867, once Maximilian was defeated and executed, victorious Benito Juarez, bowing to renewed pressures of US government, expelled Shelby and his men and confiscated their propriety. Arriving on the border Shelby threw the flag of his brigade in the waters of Rio Grande, so no Yankee hand ever touches it...
Although granted amnesty by US government, Shelby and his men returned in 1867 to Missouri penniless and in rags - but still undefeated... Starting from nothing, they went into farming and other kinds of trades and with business skills of their former commander and a lot of hard work they quickly rebuild their lives and took active part in retaking the destinies of their native state from post war carpetbagger/scalawag abusive administration. Shelby became soon once again a wealthy farmer and businessman and he did a lot to help former Confederate soldiers - as well as the last Southern partisans, like Frank James (he witnessed for defense at his trial in 1883, helping him avoid death penalty). Still very popular amongst his fellow countrymen, he secured an appointment as US Marshal for west Missouri in 1893, helping to eliminate last Wild West bandits from this territory. He died in 1897 surrounded by children and grand children, as a rich man, an important local political figure, a widely known folk hero - and still "Undefeated".
2. The film
After the end of War Between States, northern cavalry Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) leaves the army and with a group of survivors of his command goes to southern Texas. Their plan is to capture mustangs, with intention of selling them to US Army. However, once this deal doesn't pan out, they accept an offer from the representatives of emperor Maximilian of Mexico and go south to bring 3000 wild horses to Durango. On their way there, much to their surprise, they find a convoy of former Confederate soldiers under Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson), who, together with their families, travel to join Maximilian army. Those groups will have then some considerable interaction, one with another and also with some Indians, Juaristas, bandidos and French cavalry from imperial army...
This film was made in 1969, soon after Duke finished "True grit". It was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, an experienced director who in the past made some really good movies ("Shenandoah", "The way west") and was going later to make the very brutal "Last hard men" and especially the legendary "Wild geese", the best film about modern mercenaries made until now. Son of Duke's old pal and partner (and great actor in his own right), Victor McLaglen, he already worked with John Wayne on "McLintock" and "Hellfighters" - they were going later to make two more films, "Chisum" and "Cahill, US Marshall".
Other than John Wayne and Rock Hudson, some veteran actors were cast in this film, like Ben Johnson, who plays Short Grub, an old friend of John Henry Thomas, comic and western actor Dub Taylor, who plays the cantankerous Yankee cook and also Bruce Cabot (who in 1933 played Jack Driscoll in "King Kong") and Harry Carey, Jr., a veteran of John Ford westerns. Some young talent was added, with Jan Michael Vincent, who plays a young Confederate lieutenant, as well as some more unusual performers - two huuuuuge professional football players, Roman Gabriel, who plays Blue Boy, a Cherokee Indian and John Henry Thomas adopted son as well as Merlin Olsen, who plays the Confederate soldier Little George, a gentle giant and blacksmith by trade in more peaceful times.
3. Good points
The introduction scenes of the film, from which the title of the review is taken, are REALLY good and the scenes in which the "Undefeated" say goodbye to their land and propriety and leave to Mexico are also VERY good. At that moment, colonel Langdon seems to be really a character as strong and impressive as general "Jo" Shelby.
John Wayne plays here his usual character and he is of course a pleasure to watch as always, as he dispenses smart one-liners and common sense speeches, punches people who need punching and shoots people who need killing.
There are also two attractive, available and not-unwilling ladies, Ann Langdon, played by Marian McCargo (who soon after married and retired from acting) and young Charlotte Langdon, played by Melissa Newman, a young debutante, cute like a button but whose career never really took off.
There is some nice humor, some of it centered around the nasty, incompetent Yankee cook, Mr McCartney and his mangy cat, inappropriately named High Bred. Most of moments with the gentle giant Little George are fun too - the guy is so huge that he "outnumbers any opponent"...))) The monumental 4th of July fistfight between "Yanks" and "Rebs" is also a nice moment of cinema.
4. Weaker points.
The Confederates, although shown initially as strong, proud warriors, are quickly turned into a completely hapless outfit, more and more lost, more and more incompetent and more and more desperate. The fact that, instead of Shelby's powerful "Iron Brigade" the whole Confederate expedition counts a rather pathetic 40 soldiers, 50 civilians and 18 wagons, doesn't help. The character of James Langdon, which begins the film as a powerful warrior, keeps getting pussified with every minute of the film, until his total castration.
Other than the short martial introduction this film contains only two action scenes and if one is acceptable, the other (a fight against French cavalry) must be amongst the most laughable combat sequences I ever saw.
This film tried desperately to show that former bitter enemies can lay aside their differences and reconcile - and this effort was made with all the subtlety a sledgehammer carrying gentle giant is capable of...))) No, seriously, in fact here the kumbaya is violently forced into our throats without any mercy and therefore this film by moments is actually quite embarrassing... Me for one, I absolutely refuse to believe that a proud Southern belle, who lost her beloved husband of many years at war and is still devastated by her loss, falls immediately for the first enemy officer she can set her eyes on and that notwithstanding the fact that this guy actually WAS very much involved in the same battle in which her man was killed... The only guy who actually seems to have some resentment left (and we are supposed to be here in 1865 - very soon after the war ended) is of course a Confederate - and he is of course shown as a totally lame, incompetent, bulling moron...
There is also the fact, that, in his desperate efforts to reconcile those two groups of people, the director decided to give them a common enemy - and as result we can actually understand, that blues and greys CAN forget hatred and war and reconcile in peace and love, AT THE CONDITION that they are (almost) all white and that they get some browns they can kill together...)))
I was also not fully happy with the only Indian character in the film, Blue Boy, who is a full blood Cherokee adopted by John Henry Thomas and therefore also a veteran of Northern cavalry. The reason of my unhappiness is the fact that if Cherokees indeed fought (and very bravely) in the War Between States, most of them actually did it on the side of Confederation, as a great number of them owned slaves and didn't want to lose them... In fact the real "Jo" Shelby fought together with a great number of Cherokee Indians against Yankees at the battle of Pea Ridge in 1862 and in some further occasions too...
WARNING! SPOILER ALERT: so if the director really wanted to show an interracial romance between a hulking full blooded Indian and an underage daughter of a proud Southern aristocrat AND make it plausible, he had ample opportunity to make Blue Boy a young dashing Confederate officer and therefore Langdon's brother in arms - and that would be historically acurate as there were hundreds of Indian officers in Confederacy (including at least one general, Stand Watie). It would also make more plausible all the star crossed romance between Charlotte and Blue Boy - such a union certainly would not be enthusiastically accepted, but at least it would remain in the domain of remotely possible. But there is absolutely no way that an aristocratic proud Confederate colonel could have accepted his daughter marrying a low born full blooded Indian, who actually FOUGHT FOR THE YANKEES during the war!
Finally, I absolutely hated the ending of this film - the scene in which two honorable men (Thomas and Langdon) have a drink and shake hands with a hostage taker (who even threatened to kill women and children) and an enthusiastic mass murderer, simply disgusted me.
For all those reasons, I cannot rate this film more than three stars. It actually is another proof that when you try to make a film with a heavy message and too much good intentions, you just get a not so good film. For John Wayne's greatest fans - otherwise not a necessary viewing.
This is a 1961 western, very watchable, even if it contains some enormous anachronisms and the ending was a little bit weak. Still, it was fun to watch. Some SPOILERS ahead.
Texas, 1843. For some time already people living near Comancheria territory (today's western Texas and eastern New Mexico) are targeted by particularly daring raids by the Comanche, who not only have modern weapons, but are also helped by some mysterious white renegades. Indians seem to get their weapons from a secretive, extremely well organised gang of gunrunners - who also may or may not be the same people who ride with the Comanche during their murderous forays... But nobody knows for sure, because no gunrunners were ever captured or even identified and the mysterious white renegades don't let themselves be taken alive...
In the same time, on a steamer on Mississippi, a gambler named Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) meets Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), an enigmatic and VERY liberated young woman, travelling on business of her own... What Pilar ignores however, is that Paul Regret is wanted for murder in Louisiana - and therefore their romance is soon interrupted as arrives a certain Jake Cutter (John Wayne), a captain of Texas Rangers. Cutter takes Regret in custody and this is the beginning of a travel, which will take both men to places neither of them ever expected to visit...
The title and part of the plot of this film come from real life Comancheros, mostly Mexican or American-Mexican traders who from 1785 (peace treaty between Spain and Comanches) to 1885 (surrender of last Comanche tribes to US government) made business with Indian tribes (Comanches, Pueblo, Kiowa, Navajo and Apaches) in today New Mexico and Texas. The Comancheros created some settled communities which lived in the middle of nomadic tribes - and also intermarried with Indians. When USA and Comanches started to fight, the Comancheros not only supplied the latter with guns and munitions, but many also joined the Indians on the battlefield.
This film is of course a western and therefore contains a lot of westerny thingies: cowboys, Indians, Texas Rangers, shootouts, fistfights, saloons, saloon girls, John Wayne, whiskey, cigars, poker games, horse riding, six-shooters, hats, campfires (with obligatory coffee, beans and bacon), rattlesnakes, buxom chiquitas, John Wayne again, ruined haciendas (in a western every Mexican building must be ruined), tequila, derringers, gambling, a young attractive widow struggling to keep her ranch, etc.
But as some other reviewers already noticed, "Comancheros" actually looks a lot like a James Bond movie, even if it was made before the first 007 film ("Dr. No" in 1962). It was adapted from a novel written by Paul Wellman in 1952, one year before the first 007 book ("Casino Royale" in 1953). Still, you will find in this film a lot of things which made the success of James Bond movies (I mean the real ones - not those Daniel Craig abominations). WARNING - some SPOILERS ahead:
- an almost superhuman superhero
- a megalomaniac demonic secretive larger than life villain
- extravagant, outlandish and quite large henchmen of the villain (but no, they do not have iron teeth or steel ringed bowler hats - which actually is a pity)
- a hoooooorrrrrrible, evil plan of the villain
- the secret base of the villain
- superhero going undercover to infiltrate the army of the villain
- the cleverness of the villain who knows from the first moment the true identity and intentions of the superhero
- the idiocy of the villain who doesn't act on this knowledge
- the long-winded ranting of the villain who reveals all his plan and all his weaknesses to the hero
- the death of some expendable sidekicks of the superhero
- an absolutely impossible final victory of the hero against the evil hordes of the villain, which, albeit numerous and heavily armed, couldn't shoot an elephant in a corridor...
- the secret base of the villain explodes at the end
- etc, etc.
As you can see, this actually is a James Bond film - with John Wayne! Which makes it an AWESOME thing!
However it is the complex relation between Cutter and Regret that is the greatest treasure of this film. It involves quite a lot of twists and also a shovel and therefore I believe that Sergio Leone found in it the inspiration for the relation between Blondie and Tuco in "The good, the bad and the ugly".
Lee Marvin appears briefly in this film as Tully Crow, a guy who was born angry and got meaner and meaner every year he lived - and having been scalped alive at one moment didn't help his condition... He also has a very special relation with alcohol as the more he drinks, the more sober he is - and he REALLY doesn't like being sober and therefore needs somebody to pay for this, if possible with his life... Tully Crow is a really, REALLY scary dude and I believe playing him was for Lee Marvin a useful rehearsal for the role of Liberty Valance - although, when compared to Tully Crow, well, Liberty Valance was a rather nice gentleman...
Another character who makes a short appearance is chief Iron Shirt. There actually really was such a Comanche chief, who in real life was killed in a fight with Texas Rangers at the battle of Antelope Hills in 1858. The man was greatly feared because he seemed to be bullet-proof. His ability to survive being shot even in the middle of the chest was attributed to a magic shirt he wore - but once he was killed (by a lucky shot which went through his armpit) it was revealed that under his "magic" shirt he wore an old but thick armour plate, which his ancestors took from a dead Spanish commander somewhere around 1700...
The one thing which I didn't like a lot was the ending, which seemed rushed and poorly executed. Maybe the reason was that director Michael Curtiz (of "Casablanca" fame) became very sick before he could end the film - sadly, he ultimately died the same year. In order to finish the film on schedule (and therefore on the attributed budget) John Wayne stepped in and directed the last part, but refused to be credited, by respect to the old dying master... Now, the Duke knew how to direct (anybody says the contrary, I answer "Remember 'Alamo') but here he was clearly in a terrible hurry - and things didn't work well. Because of this weak ending I cannot rate this film more than four stars.
There is one HUGE anachronism in this film. Even if the story happens in 1843, almost everybody uses... Winchester 1866 lever action rifles and Colt 1873 "Peacemaker" pistols! This is almost as disturbing as making a film about WWII and giving to actors AK-47s, RPGs and Stinger missiles...
But all this notwithstanding, this is a good, funny, interesting western and I enjoyed watching it. ENJOY!
NORTH TO ALASKA
If Jack London has written the scenario of "Pretty Woman" and made it into a western, well, it would be this film...))) I liked this 1960 western comedy and I spend a really good moment watching it. SPOILERS ahead
Somewhere around 1900, during Nome gold rush (1899-1909), three men hit the jackpot - they find a really huge gold deposit and open a gold mine. Those three partners are Sam McCord (John Wayne), George Pratt (Stewart Granger) and George's much younger brother Billy Pratt (Fabian). Now that they are rich, George can finally ask his fiancée Jenny (Lilyan Chauvin) to come from Seattle and marry him.
But as somebody has to watch the mine, Sam McCord, who must go to Seattle anyway to buy some heavy equipment, is charged with the task of bringing Jenny to Nome. Things will not go as planned however and at one moment another woman will enter the picture and make the life of all three partners quite interesting - stunningly beautiful Michelle Bonnet (Capucine), a.k.a. "Angel", one of most popular hookers in the night club/brothel "Hen's House" in Seattle...
Other than those already described two more characters are important - a con man named Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs) and Clancy, a wise, old, huge, terminally fluffy dog with a bathtub fetish...)))
Directed by Henry Hathaway this is a merry, old style western comedy, which doesn't try even for a moment to take itself seriously - for our greatest pleasure! This very entertaining film reminded me pleasantly of some of the merriest Jack London's short stories about Alaska gold fever adventurers (even if they described the earlier Klondike gold rush from 1896-99). All actors clearly had great fun playing in this film and we can see that the director too enjoyed making it.
This film contains all necessary elements of a western, including some shootouts and A LOT of fistfights, the quite obligatory saloon and saloon girls, nice wilderness, log cabins, etc. The one thing which is not entirely canon is that whiskey is largely replaced here by champagne. Also, as this is a light hearted comedy, nobody dies in this film - not even the most insignificant rascal...
The scenes in which Pratt brothers successively court Michelle are wonderful. John Wayne's character drinks a lot, frequent brothels a lot and hits a lot of people in this film - and as he is a former woodcutter he has a quite unique war cry when he begins the next brawl...)))
But the greatest treasure in this film is Capucine, the stunningly beautiful French model/actress, who plays a role somehow similar to that of Julia Roberts in "Pretty woman" - just with a sexier accent (sooo French!) and without the hyena-like laughter...))) And she certainly could act too - every scene with her is a pleasure to see.
The one thing which I found a little bit weaker, is the slapstick humour of the two epic brawls (both of which remodel large parts of the Nome) which play an important role in the story - it certainly aged a little and also I never was a great fan of this kind of burlesque chaos. On another hand, introducing Salvation Army and a savant sea lion into a fistfight is certainly something you don't see every day...))) Still, as this is really not my kind of humour, this is the reason that I rate this film only four stars.
But this point notwithstanding I liked this film and I spend a quite pleasant moment watching it. A recommended viewing. ENJOY!
CONCLUSION: three interesting film to discover and enjoy at a limited price. It is a great bargain! ENJOY!