“Major Dundee” is a Sam Peckinpah film with a very troubled history. Peckinpah’s version of the film never made it to the theaters. The studio did some substantial cuts after a disastrous early screening. The film was cut 12 minutes for its run. Later, those minutes were added for the restored version that I have reviewed here. If Peckinpah had had his way the movie would have run 4 hours and 38 minutes! The film was shot in Mexico and it was an unpleasant production. Peckinpah was drunk most of the time and was very hard on the cast and crew. At one point, Charleton Heston actually charged at the director on horse.
The movie is set in 1864 during the American Civil War. Heston plays a Maj. Dundee who for unspecified reasons has been demoted to commandant of a prison camp in the New Mexico Territory. Not only is he guarding Confederate prisoners, but he is having to deal with Apache Indian raiders. The movie opens with Dundee coming upon the scene of an Indian massacre. The raiders are 47 Apache led by Sierra Charriba. They have taken four boys captive. Dundee becomes obsessed with rescuing the boys and more importantly for his career resurrection, harpooning Sierra Charriba.
|Dundee after cutting a rare steak|
Dundee needs the Rebel prisoners to volunteer for his hunt. The complication is that the leader of the Rebels is an ex-friend and now bitter enemy. Tyreen (Richard Harris) resents the fact that Dundee voted to court-martial him because of a dueling incident before the war. Dundee pardons Tyreen from being hanged in order to get his reluctant support. It’s agreed that Dundee and Tyreen will not claw each other’s eyes out until the mission is completed, but that does not keep them from evidencing their mutual dislike in every scene.
|Tyreen and Dundee watching Teresa bathing|
The motley unit of Yankees, Rebels, and even some “coloreds” march out on their quest. They head straight into Mexico. Wait, can they do that? (Ask Gen. Pershing) They get ambushed by the Indians while crossing a river and lose most of their supplies. Dundee decides to attack a French outpost to resupply and to get the French involved because the more the merrier. While sojourning in the town, Dundee hooks up with a feisty senorita named Teresa (Senta Berger). Guess who else is interested in her? The extended stay in the town is great, if you enjoy watching drinking and dancing. If you are watching for Peckinpah action, not so great. Finally they leave with the French in hot pursuit.
The external threat does not solve the unit’s dysfunctionality. One of the rebels (Warren Oates) is caught deserting and Tyreen executes him to deprive Dundee of the pleasure. Tyreen swears vengeance, naturally. Teresa arrives to have a tryst with Dundee. During one of their encounters, Dundee takes an arrow in the leg. Dundee spends another boring stretch in another village recuperating. He is nursed by a different beautiful senorita until Teresa discovers them in the act. Dundee goes on a bender because the toughest guy in the West is ashamed. Tyreen has to convince him to get over it and come back so the movie can continue.
The Indian problem solved, it’s just a matter of returning to New Mexico. Unfortunately, those pesky French are still on their tail and block them at a river crossing. Peckinpah violence ensues. Every time a body hits the water so does a gallon of blood. It’s redemption time. Do the French win? Do you know anything about history?
|the men get to|
look at Senta Berger
Speaking of history, there is a small germ of accuracy to it. During the Civil War, the Union did accept service from captured Rebels. These “Galvanized Yankees” were used in the West for Indian fighting. Most famously, they helped put down the Minnesota Sioux Uprising of 1862. They also were stationed along the Mexican border to deal with the Apache, Arapaho, and Navaho. There was no invasion of Mexico for them to participate in and there were no problems with their service.
Peckinpah meant to make an epic and blamed the studio for preventing that accomplishment. It is doubtful that his envisioned final product would have been a masterpiece. The truncated version has long sections that are boring and one can only imagine what a four hour version would have been like. The film got mixed reviews when it came out, but it has gained a following over the years. I feel the original opinions are more on target. The movie could possibly have been great, but even the restored version is far from great.
The acting is not as big a problem considering the two leads. These notorious scene-chewers keep themselves under control for the most part. The supporting cast is fine. There are lots of familiar Peckinpah faces. James Coburn has fun as a crusty scout and Warren Oates dies significantly. James Anderson, Jr. plays the narrator/bugler. As an actress, Senta Berger is lovely.
|women get L.Q. Jones|
The screenplay is a mash-up of “Moby Dick” and “Mutiny on the Bounty”. Dundee is the obsessed Ahab chasing his white whale. As far as the unit dynamics, Dundee is the martinet Bligh to Tyreen’s chivalrous Christian. The dynamic between Dundee and Tyreen does work in spite of the cat versus dog simplicity of it. Heston boldly plays the dislikable Dundee which certainly went against virtually all his other career choices. Harris is perfect as his more noble foil. He embodies the Southern spirit well.
The movie is competently made by the drunken Peckinpah. He takes advantage of the Mexican landscape for some awesome scenery. The action scenes are harbingers of “The Wild Bunch”, but only hint at where Peckinpah was heading. One technical flaw is the poor score. Unbelievably, the studio junked Peckinpah’s music for what we hear in the film. How bad could the original score have been?
Cracker? No, partly because it does not fit my definition of a war movie, but mostly because it’s just not that good.
grade = C