North to Alaska (1960) / The Undefeated (1969) Blu-rays Review: The Duke Finds a Duchess and Gets a Piece of the Rock

While his own personal range as a performer may have left something to be desired for many a graduate of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the one and only John Wayne nevertheless managed to leave a rather eclectic filmography unto the world. From his early days as a bad actor in B-Westerns up until those last few films he made following that disaster of a Genghis Khan biopic, The Duke reigned supreme – in just about every fashion of fiction (from non to highly fabricated) possible. And 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s latest pair of Blu-ray discs – North to Alaska and The Undefeated – just so happen to provide us that wide stretch of variation from the late Mr. Wayne’s résumé (and both are said to have been co-ghost-directed by the star himself).

By the time North to Alaska was made in 1960, John Wayne had already achieved international stardom a good twenty years prior, and there were many producers out there who were darn well convinced attaching Wayne to a project would be a surefire way to produce something. In the case of North to Alaska, they did just that: they produced something. While hardly a box-office stinker, the movie nevertheless managed to further alienate the folks who had already been estranged by Wayne’s previous picture that year – a modestly budgeted little ditty called The Alamo. But of course, in this case, any disaffection on anyone’s part was just deserved.

And why is that? Well, for starters, North to Alaska finds the macho-manly he-man man’s-man Wayne cast as just another sap with a weakness for the ladies. But not any ol’ particular lady in general, mind you: here, he happens to have a fondness for a lady of the night! After he and his gold-mining partner George Pratt (second-billed Stewart Granger) strike it rich up in the Southern Californian part of Nome, Alaska circa 1900, Sam McCord (Wayne) sets off to retrieve Pratt’s fiancée in waiting down in Seattle (Okay, California). Trouble is, Pratt’s one-time lady-pal didn’t bother waiting for him, so Sam instead decides to pick out a prostitute (a grossly miscast Capucine) to take her place, dubbing her “Angel”.

After a long and nearly completely unedited return trip via boat, wherein whatever was supposed to have passed for chemistry between our male and female leads is ignited and quickly fizzles away, Sam and Angel reach Point Mugu, er, Alaska – wherein Sam takes Angel to the charming honeymoon cabin George has built for his now ex-fiancée. Of course, George has not yet learned his now ex-fiancée is now his ex, and decides to excise his pent-up sexual frustrations and anger at having a limited presence in the film by continuing to be off-screen until the last part of the picture shooting it out with a big bunch of claim-jumper extras who also demand to be taken seriously.

And so, Sam leaves Angel to fend for herself against the oversexed anti-charms of George’s kid brother, Billy: who hounds the woman mercilessly by sporting an amazing pompadour that was decades ahead of its time – something that could easily be attributable to the fact that Billy is portrayed by none other than fourth-billed Fabian himself. Surprisingly enough, Fabian did not perform the movie’s forgettable theme song; that honor was bequeathed unto Johnny Horton – died after his speeding Cadillac was plowed into by a drunken truck driver eight days prior to the release of this film. (Of course, after viewing Fabian’s performance in North to Alaska, you almost wish he had sang the theme song – only in the vile, morose, and not-at-all-nice hope that the same fate would have been bestowed upon him for singing it!)

Third-billed Ernie Kovacs appears as a shady trickster in the film, who points out about midway through the flick that Angel may be a con-artist herself – something the writers of North to Alaska seemed genuinely uncertain of. But then, what do you expect from an early ’60s romantic comedy/northern adventure starring John Wayne that was shot in Southern California and based on an idea that was in-turn inspired by a presumably unpopular Hungarian play? And if that or any other cheaply written-in ploy doesn’t convince you, just check out the first few minutes of the film during the required opening fistfight in a bar: yes, they’re actually using cartoon-esque sound effects, people!

I could go on (I really could) about several other undesirable elements here, kids – namely the element of misogyny found in North to Alaska – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll ask that you look back several paragraphs and do the math in order to ascertain where Capucine – who was not only the producer’s mistress at the time, mind you, and who was indirectly responsible for the film’s previous director getting sacked (because he didn’t think she was convincing enough as a woman of ill-repute) – who is seen in the film even more than John Wayne himself, falls into place in the credits. But then, that’s what the beginning of the ’60 were all about, right?

Well, fortunately, things changed quite a bit by the time The Undefeated rolled onto screens at the very conclusion of that same decade. For starters, The Duke had won an Academy Award for his performance in the groundbreaking western True Grit. Additionally, something called the Civil Rights Movement began to make certain people around the nation realize all men were brothers – and a very loose adaptation of real-life Confederate General J.O. Shelby’s plight to Mexico following the end of the Civil War was formed. But of course, there’s still next to no black folk in the damn movie with the exception of a scene wherein Rock Hudson (as Confederate Colonel James Langdon) abandons his property and slaves, handing down the only real item of value in his possession – a watch his father handed down to him – to his former plantation overseer.

But I’m getting ahead of myself slightly there. The Undefeated begins with the final battle of the Civil War – well, for Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (Wayne), that is. In fact, his last hoorah in the name of God and country occurs several days after the war ended – but the news doesn’t reach him until just after he conducts a massacre upon Rebel soldiers. Somewhat disillusioned and even more just plain tired of it all, John Henry recruits the last of his faithful ol’ regiment of aging character actors extraordinaire to deliver 3,000 head of horses into Mexican territory for Uncle Sam’s men (or something like that).

Likewise, Langdon has assembled his crew of still-flyin’-the-flag soldiers and their families to journey south of the border so they can join forces with the invading men of French Emperor Maximilian. Confused yet? It really doesn’t matter here, kids – the premise is really only there so that we can enjoy some mindless entertainment, late ’60s western style. More importantly, however, it gives us a chance to witness The Duke and The Rock (Hudson) fist fight each other and become unlikely allies as well. We witness two tribes of people – both of which have either abandoned or been abandoned by what they believed was right in lieu of a new life elsewhere. But in the corrupted, near-lawless, war torn land of mariachi music, Yankees and Rebels alike must band together in order to defeat the one true evil out there in the universe: the French.

While the movie itself (much like that last one I covered) didn’t exactly grab the entire nation by the throat (or even hamstrings), it did succeed in bringing two acclaimed leading men together for the first time – to wit both men became good friends off camera as well as on. And their solid camaraderie can literally be felt as they share the screen with one another. Moreso, director Andrew V. McLaglen (yes, the man who brought us Mitchell and The Wild Geese) paints an enjoyable (if incredibly unrealistic and flawed) picture overall – squeezing in a venerable buffet of character actors past and future such as Antonio Aguilar, Lee Merriwether, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor, Royal Dano, Richard Mulligan, Paul Fix, Harry Carey Jr., Bruce Cabot, athletes Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen, and even John Agar.

Regrettably, most of the footage containing the latter actor wound up on the cutting room floor. It’s most tragic, too, since – purportedly – the six-time Wayne co-star is said to have given one of his best performances ever as a dying Union man in the beginning of the film. As it stands (it stands awkwardly, lemme tell you), Agar is only seen very briefly at the beginning of the feature, is never heard uttering a single line (unless you count coughing), and received prominent billing over most of the other supporting players. But that’s how it goes in Hollywood, right? In the end, all one can do is hope that the new Blu-ray release of The Undefeated contains that exact excised scene for all to finally marvel over – so that we can truly, once and for all, appreciate John Agar for the neglected actor he really was.

Wait. What’s that? Nope, no deleted scenes here, sorry. Damn it all. Well, what we do get out of these two HD upgrades are just that: two HD upgrades. Those of you who might still be holding onto that double feature DVD from 2006 containing both titles in one release might just as well start using it for a coaster – because the video improvements for these catalogue entries are much better than anything we’ve seen to date. Both movies are presented in 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfers, in their original scope aspect ratios, and feature remarkable depth, color, and detail. For my money, The Undefeated is the best of the bunch (in every way), but both titles are beautiful to behold in terms of visuals.

Audio-wise, each release features an assortment of English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian language options – presented in either DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS 5.1, and.or Dolby Digital Mono. Optional subtitles are also present in those exact same five languages, with Dutch subtitles also being made available. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, there aren’t any deleted scenes to be found here; in fact, there isn’t much in the way of bonus materials for either Blu-ray. North to Alaska features a very fleeting Fox Movietone News clip regarding the premiere of the film that runs a whopping fifty-seconds, and the original theatrical trailer. The Undefeated, on the other hand, gives us a handful of theatrical trailers from several different countries. All of the special features are presented in 480i, so don’t go saying Fox didn’t give you anything for Christmas this year.

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Luigi Bastardo

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