Movie Review: Major Dundee (1965)
“THE EPIC STORY OF THE GREAT SOUTH-WEST!”
Major Dundee (1965)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton
Synopsis: A union army officer illegally leads a group of his soldiers and Confederate prisoners-of-war into Mexico in pursuit of a tribe of marauding Apaches.
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The pungent whiff of testosterone hangs heavily over Sam Peckinpah’s mid-1960s Western, Major Dundee. Not only is it imprinted on every shot of every scene, it’s there, behind the scenes. Just look at the cast: Charlton Heston (The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Awakening), granite-jawed and steely-eyed, Richard Harris (Unforgiven, Gladiator) – drunk and surly, and contemptuous of Heston’s professionalism, Jim Hutton (The Trouble With Angels)– another drinker and a womaniser, and Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, 1941), a favourite of Peckinpah’s, who could match the alcoholic director drink for drink. How could a film of any worth come out of that unholy collision?
As always, Peckinpah was fighting with the studio when he wasn’t treating his cast and crew like dirt. He began filming without a completed script, and as the film began to spin away from him, he withdrew into the bottle and counted the days until Columbia fired him. But Heston – the man who, in a rage, had charged at the director with his sabre extended – offered to forego his entire salary if they kept him on board. He’d seen Ride the High Country and liked it, and he believed Peckinpah could still deliver a good picture. What he actually delivered, with the help of Heston when he was too inebriated to function, was a movie that is lumbering and unwieldy, but which possesses flashes of the brilliance of which we all know Peckinpah was capable.
Heston plays Dundee with typically stoic solemnity, and is a brick wall against which Harris buffets ineffectually. Dundee has a past; he’s committed some unspecified act that has resulted in him being given the ignoble responsibility of managing a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. While there, he witnesses the aftermath of an Apache massacre of an entire fort which was to provide the film’s opening scenes, but which, due to budget cuts and studio meddling, are now confined to one scene in which a Cavalry officer is roasted to death by the fire over which he has been hung by his ankles.
Dundee decides to bring the marauding Indian’s exploits to an end, but there’s something self-serving about his mission, and one suspects he views the capture of Apache leader Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate – PT109, The Great Sioux Massacre), as a means of redemption in the eyes of his superior officers. Curiously, that suspicion never goes away: Dundee seems to emerge from the arduous mission largely unchanged from the man he was when he embarked upon it. Because the war is in its final days, and most soldiers have been transferred to the front, he is forced to recruit a number of Confederate prisoners to fight alongside a handful of his own men. That’s where Captain Tyreen (Harris), an old comrade of Dundee’s comes in. Tyreen switched sides when he was drummed out of the Union army, and believes Dundee was one of those responsible for his enforced departure. He has a score to settle, and his promise to Dundee that it will be settled when all the Apaches are dead becomes a constant refrain.
Major Dundee is surprisingly violent for a film made in the mid-1960s; in addition to that roasting, it shows an Indian stabbed in the neck, and another crucified on a tree for aiding Dundee as he goes after the offending tribe. But the violence in Peckinpah’s movies is in keeping with the authenticity of his vision of the Old West. He might romanticise his characters, but never the conditions in which they could be found. Most directors of the time might film the bleached bones of some long dead animal to illustrate the violence of the climate and the probable fate of those who faltered, but, in Major Dundee, Peckinpah shows us a pair of starving dogs pulling what meat remains from those bones. But atmosphere will carry a movie only so far, and Major Dundee begins to come apart somewhere around the halfway mark. You can almost see on the screen the moment where the lines of the prepared script end and those from the ad-hoc one begin. All momentum is lost, and the film lumbers laboriously to an anticlimactic skirmish with the Apaches. This is followed by a confrontation with the French army, into whose Mexican territory Dundee and his men had ventured in pursuit of their quarry, which is only marginally less disappointing, and which sees Tyreen undergo a patriotic change of heart which will leave most viewers incredulous.
Major Dundee is not a great movie, but it could have been, and it’s one of those movies that any self-respecting movie buff will want to see, if only to mourn over what might have been if Peckinpah had taken it on later in his career, or found some way to maintain his artistic vision while conforming to the wishes of his employers.
(Reviewed 5th November 2016)