The comedy that should have won an Oscar in 1970. Today it is more relevant than ever!
1970 was clearly a great year for cowboy movies.
At the academy awards, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wins a well deserved Oscar for best cinematography.
Midnight Cowboy makes history by becoming the first X-rated movie to win an Oscar.
John Wayne, after a lifetime career dedicated to the Western genre, finally wins best actor for his atypical anti-hero role in True Grit.
These are the classics that we remember in pop culture history. The rest that came out around that time are destined to be forgotten and then rediscovered when the time is right.
Today I am blowing off the dust of two 1969 movies worth watching : The Undefeated and Viva Max.
As someone who is producing a podcast on Davy Crockett, I did my best to watch every single Alamo movie ever produced. I believe I am almost there, but there are a couple I am having a hard time getting my hands on.
One particular Alamo movie that proved to be elusive was "Viva Max." This is an irreverent comedy that portrays a tyrannical yet oddly lovable general who attempts to reoccupy the Alamo Mission one hundred and fifty years after the Texans win their independence from Mexico.
The concept truly intrigued me. While I love the Alamo mythology, I had been watching a lot of duds just for the sake of having the honor to say that I saw every Alamo movie known to humanity. To be honest some of them were hard to get through and way overpriced on iTunes.
Thirteen Days to Glory starring a young Alec Baldwin cost me a whopping 3.99 to rent. I basically paid money to Apple to teach myself perseverance.
I rented Two for Texas, a TNT original, that I really wanted to watch as a kid when it was playing on TNT. That was worth it to satisfy my 13 year old soul, but for my 31 year old self I was indeed struggling. Why? Because these movies tend to get tied up with the so called "facts" of the narrative. They try to satisfy history buffs while also giving the story some pizazz. That’s not impossible to do, but very difficult which is why I think there still hasn't been an Alamo masterpiece to this very day.
Viva Max is different. It diverges from all other Alamo movies. That becomes clear when doing a google search for "Alamo movies" and even comparing posters.
Look at it! It's just pure chaos and so is the actual movie.
The story begins with a parade of Mexican soldiers trying to cross the US border. They are all on foot, but leading the way on horseback is the protagonist, the generalissimo — Max.
They are questioned by border security about their intentions of entering the country. They tell them that they are there for George Washington's Birthday. Apparently in 1969 the border wasn't so tight and the "Special Unit" gets across. Eventually we learn that none of the soldiers know of the general's intent to re-occupy the Alamo. They think they are there for a parade, so they neglect to bring any bullets. The rest of the day will prove to be interesting…
Watch : Clips from Viva Max
The general disguises himself as a tourist and investigates the Alamo premises. He sneers at a poster of John Wayne's The Alamo (1960) which came out a decade earlier.
While watching this scene I couldn't help, but wonder if there was more to this reference. While John Wayne won an award for his acting in True Grit, he also starred in another blockbuster Western. The Undefeated received mediocre reviews. I also thought it was pretty whatever, but the concept is interesting.
The Undefeated, in contrast to Viva Max, follows the narrative of Americans crossing into Mexican territory after the Civil War. You have a unit of Confederate soldiers who refuse to surrender and seek refuge in Mexico. And then you have John Wayne, a veteran of the Civil War, who tries to make a profit by selling horses across the border with his gang of ranchers.
While these two groups of Americans cross the border they are destined to come in conflict with each other. But the chaos of the Mexican frontier forces the Northerners and Southerners who formerly despised each other to join forces.
While watching Viva Max, I couldn't help but wonder if it was a response to The Undefeated and John Wayne movies in general.
Developing plots from the enemy’s point of view can be uncomfortable to audiences. But there is great value in being forced to humanize the individuals who were “on the other side” in history.
Hollywood movies tend to pit heroes against villains without any real in between. Some would say this is necessary for audiences to focus. I don't think so. Just read an old classic like the Iliad and you will see it is possible to compose a narrative that shows both 'us' and 'them' as human beings. I think Viva Max tried to do this by depicting both sides as silly and ignorant.
And so in an era where people have such strong love hate feelings toward each other, a movie like Viva Max is worth re-exploring.
In 1970, Viva Max did not win an oscar. Neither did The Undefeated. But the latter has John Wayne's legacy to preserve its popular distribution. The former was extremely hard to find.
I challenge you to dig it up, watch it, and then ask ourselves what movies we might be overlooking in this year's Academy Awards.