Silly fistfights were plentiful in John Wayne’s films, especially in the 1960s. Often but not always set in a bar, two guys start swinging away at one another over a perceived slight, and before you know it, everyone in the drinkery is letting their mitts fly. The background score is usually bouncy and lighthearted, and even includes humorous sound effects on occasion. Sometimes a body goes flying through a window, but more often the knockee simply stumbles backward and ends up doing a flip over a poker table, while the knocker smirks self-contentedly, only to have someone smash a chair over his head from behind. These fight scenes, to be sure, aren’t everyone’s cup of TKO, but in this edition of Sunday Shootout!, we’re going to compare two of Wayne’s later rumbles: The Undefeated (1969) and Hellfighters (1968). Have a look at the clips and descriptions below, then see if you agree with our verdict about which is the better (and funnier) slugfest.
HELLFIGHTERS Wayne and his team of oil-well firefighters head to “Malaya, off Penang,” to douse a petro-conflagration. Before starting work in the morning, they visit Madam Loo’s gambling den, where they meet the Australian team that should have been at the scene of the fire, not out drinking all night. Here are some of the highlights of the bar fight that ensues (numbers indicate the timing points in the video clip below):
:37 Bruce Cabot throws a punch, then pauses to take a swig from a handy bottle of booze before rejoining the melee.
:51 John Wayne makes duck lips after getting pounded in the jaw.
1:04 Edward Faulkner grabs an Aussie and shouts, “He’s all mine,” just before he gets twin fists in the mug.
1:18 Faulkner tries again, only to get another double whammy in the kisser without ever landing a punch of his own.
1:30 Wayne and Jim Hutton set up their opponents back to back, bust them in the jaw, then pull a decorative fishnet off a wall, throw it over their victims, and give them the bum’s rush off a balcony and into a canal.
1:36 Madam Loo yells at the dazed foreman of the Aussies, but Wayne jumps in to state that he’ll cover the damages. “The boss pays,” he says.
1:50 Yanks and cobbers smile and shake hands.
THE UNDEFEATED The Civil War has just ended. Two groups of former soldiers, one from the North and one from the South, team up against a common enemy in Mexico, where they’ve each traveled for their own purposes. But on their first social meeting, still uncertain of one another, a fight breaks out as the communal dinner is served.
:04 Wayne puts his hat over a Southerner’s face so a Union boy can slug the man.
:12 Dub Taylor hides from the fight under a picnic table, gobbling down some filched chicken and biscuits while he’s waiting.
:49 Gentle giant Merlin Olsen upends a massive wagon with his bare hands, spilling the three men fighting on top of it.
1:07 Jan-Michael Vincent loops a horse collar over his opponent’s shoulders and smashes the now-helpless man in the jaw.
1:24 Dub Taylor pokes his head up from underneath the table only to have an ex-soldier slam into him from behind, pushing his face into a bowl of grits.
1:53 Rock Hudson takes a swipe at Wayne, whose stunned, loopy expression is straight out of a Three Stooges short.
2:06 Wayne and Hudson wind up punch drunk in the dirt, next to each other, giving the impression that a beautiful friendship has just begun.
VERDICT In both of these well-directed fight scenes, each barely two minutes long, the comedy, joie de vivre, and happy endings take the sting out of the violence. Best bits in Hellfighters: Bruce Cabot’s quick nip from the bottle and Wayne and Hutton’s dunking of the nearly unconscious Aussies. Best bits in The Undefeated: the hat in the face, the priceless look on Wayne’s stupefied countenance after Hudson's knock-out left to the jaw, and everything with Dub Taylor, especially when wiping the grits out of his eyes, like something from a Keystone Kops pie-throwing battle royal in a Mack Sennett two-reeler. Both fight scenes are beautifully staged, but the nod in this case goes to The Undefeated, whose superlative choreography, comic timing, editing, and director Andrew V. McLaglen's pitch-perfect use of Dub Taylor can't be beat.