A routine western with patriotic overtones that is presented as a homage to John Ford. It was overshadowed by the immensely successful True Grit, released earlier the same year. The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the script is sprinkled with human-interest stories and colorful peripheral characters, most of them played by familiar western actors such as Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor and others. And of course it stars the Duke, for the occasion paired with Rock Hudson.
The film opens with a remarkably violent and bloody charge, led by Yankee Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) against a confederate regiment. Overlooking the tragic results of the carnage, the news is brought to the Colonel that the war is over, that the surrender terms were actually signed three days earlier. Thomas is the type of man who will always do his duty, but who also abhors violence and therefore cannot understand why anybody would keep on fighting when the war is over. Hudson's Confederate officer Langdon is almost his direct opposite: he is stubborn and self-righteous, not willing to give up the fight and therefore rather torches his ranch than leave it to Northern carpetbaggers.
Shortly after, both men cross the Rio Grande, Thomas to sell horses to Emperor Maximilian, Langdon to join the Emperor's forces with the survivors of his regiment and their families (*1). Their paths cross on different occasions: together they fight off a gang of Mexican bandits, they relive the hostilities during a drunken brawl at a 4th of July party, there's an interracial love story (involving Thomas' adopted Cherookee son and Langdon's daughter) and eventually they all decide that it's time to go 'home'.
The film's patiotism may feel a bit simplistic today, but in 1969 the country was entangled in anti-war and anti-imperialist demonstrations and Wayne and McLaglen clearly wanted to make a statement. The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but the theme of reconciliation is well-handled and the large-scale action scenes are quite good, if not always believable: Mexican bandits would of course not attack entrenched Americans in 'Indian' style, but such an attack offers ideal material to fill the widescreen and William Clothier's widescreen cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful. The natural charm of the actors will give you the idea that you're back in the good old days, when heroes were tall in the saddle and solid as a rock. The Duke seems to have a great time, but in reality filming was a difficult, painful experience: he broke three ribs when he fell from a horse and later tore a ligament in his shoulder
* The charactor of Col. Langdon was most probably based on the historic Confederate officer Joseph Shelby, who crossed the border with around 1,000 of his men after the end of the war to seek asylum in Mexico. For their unwillingness to surrender, they were called 'the undefeated'
Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen, John Wayne (uncredited) - Cast: John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Roman Gabriel, Ben Johnson, Lee Meriwether, Antonio Aguilar, Dub Taylor, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr, John Agar, Marianne McCargo, Merlin Olsen, Jan-Michel Vincent