The search for unmitigated wildness is a constant theme in Westerns, from Cormac McCarthy’s novels to John Wayne’s movies. And frequently, Mexico represents the promised land of wild abandon and utter lawlessness, providing Americans a backdrop in which they could work out their issues, without any pesky rules or lawmen to worry about.
Such is the case in the The Undefeated, set just after the Civil War, and starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson as colonels on opposite sides of the divide. The pair end up in Mexico, portrayed as a land of opportunity; the two men slowly learn that they share the same values and code of conduct, despite their past differences. Robert Aldrich’s 1954 movie Vera Cruz turned on a similar plot, with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster playing two Americans trying to make good on the opportunity of a wide open country in the aftermath of the Civil War, with Cooper as a former Confederate trying to make enough money to buy back the family farm and Lancaster as an opportunistic sociopath with a gleaming grin.
So what was is about the Mexico of the era that seemed so appealing?
The country was ruled by Emperor Maximilian I, of the Austrian Empire,
who was basically a puppet of Mexican monarchists. And the country was
bogged down in its own civil war, with Republican forces calling for a
representational government instead of a European monarchy. So really,
Mexico under Maximilian is the perfect setting for a Western: A
war-torn countryside without a clear system of order, offering plenty
of opportunities for rugged individualism to shine.