Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 Western Major Dundee is a near-great film with a checkered history. The tale of its mangling by its studio, Columbia, which took it out of Peckinpah’s hands is as well known as the butchery that accompanied Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. That said, Columbia’s restored 136-minute DVD version really shines – even though some critics have still damned the film as a ‘noble failure’ and the like. That is unfortunate, since Major Dundee is likely the most gritty and realistic Western ever made, and having been made on the heels of Ride the High Country (1962) it showed Peckinpah as a director with a bright future.
Major Dundee is filled with great shots, a great lead performance by Charlton Heston as Major Amos Dundee – perhaps Heston’s best role – and terrific supporting performances all around. As the film’s protagonist, Heston is the epitome of intelligent machismo in a role that a John Wayne would have butchered, and that Kirk Douglas could never have gotten away with.
Dundee is frustrated, though we never know why. He had been sentenced to a job as a prison warden and we do get hints of his past troubles, but then we get this wonderful interlude – at the start of the film’s third act – where he falls in love with a Mexican prostitute, Melinche (Aurora Clavell), after being shot. Once he recovers, Major Dundee must face off his chief antagonist. He perseveres and survives.
Despite claims that Major Dundee loses its way, this is not so. Indeed, the fact that the film does not end in faux heroism is one of its virtues, making it relevant today especially in light of its many parallels with the ongoing Iraq War. The film’s only drawbacks are an obligatory – but thankfully brief – love angle the studio forced on Peckinpah, and Richard Harris’ a bit too hammy performance as Dundee’s long-time rival, the Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen, who is forced to accompany the major on a hunt for a band of Apache murderers. Compounding matters, Harriss’ English accent is all wrong as he is supposedly Irish (even if it is implied that he had an European education). That helps to make his captain the film’s least believable character.
Written by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, and Peckinpah, the screenplay – supposedly inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – is terrific. The film, looking glorious in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, has a sepia tinge that is just about right, for Major Dundee is no John Ford hagiography but a real descent into the shit of the Old West. This approach is aided both by the grit and realism of Sam Leavitt’s lenses and by the absence of Peckinpah’s stylized slow-motion violence, which tended to revel in violence for violence’s sake.
Leavitt’s cinematography is particularly notable in long master shots and in day-for-night shots that are among the most convincing I’ve seen on film. (In the original, unrestored version, they were rather banal.) That much of Major Dundee takes place in the dark is another interesting aspect of the film, for it provides an uneasy feeling to most viewers. Thankfully, there is only one or two brief moments of slow-motion shots. This was Peckinpah’s worst indulgence in later films, and its taming here – possibly by studio heads – is another unexpected benefit from studio interference.
Sony Pictures also replaced the original musical score by Daniele Amfitheatrof with one by Christopher Caliendo. (The DVD has the option of either track.) Caliendo’s is a better score – more apt, less pompous – especially as evinced by the remaining title song, the “Major Dundee March,” with lyrics by Ned Washington, and sung by Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang.
Then there are the many solid supporting players: Jim Hutton as Lieutenant Graham, the wannabe leader; James Coburn as the one-armed half-breed tracker Samuel Potts; Michael Anderson, Jr., as a bugler and Ishmaelian narrator; Tim Ryan, whose coming-of-age subplot – the first shave and the loss of virginity – is actually well developed and acted.
As Dundee’s ostensible love interest, the widow Teresa Santiago, Senta Berger is beautiful while managing to show some depth. Her character has been often criticized because Columbia imposed it on the film, even though Berger’s acting is quite good. The problem, however, is that the arc of the love story is not that well developed. Berger’s best scenes, in fact, take place when she finds an injured Dundee with Melinche, while he is recovering from an arrow wound following an ambush by Apache leader Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) – a stand-in for the historical Victorio. (Pate, by the way, does a convincing job, looking and acting like a real Indian in his few scenes). Heston’s and Berger’s shared look at each other, with the naked back of Melinche to the side, and the subsequent silence tell far more than any over-the-top argument would have.
As Aesop, the only black soldier with a speaking part, Brock Peters shines in his few scenes – especially the one where Confederate soldier Jimmy Lee Benteen (John Davis Chandler) taunts him to take off his boot, “like a good nigger.” It seems a mini-Civil war will erupt when Reverend Dahlstrom (R. G. Armstrong) says, “Let me take care of that son,” then grabs and twists Benteen’s leg over a campfire, finally tossing his victim onto the other Confederates.
Sgt. Chillum (Ben Johnson) pulls his gun and taunts the preacher. That’s when the Mexican Sergeant Gomez (Mario Adorf) interferes. That Dundee does nothing, while Tyreen ineffectually and condescendingly calms things down says much about the lack of personal and military grace in both men. Warren Oates is also pretty good as the Confederate who deserts, is sentenced to be shot by Dundee’s firing squad, but is then summarily executed by Tyreen. Slim Pickens even gets in a few lines as the obligatory Old West drunk.
Still, even if Dundee is only mildly effective as a leader, he is a great manipulator of his men to work together for their own selfish reasons. One night, Sam Potts (Coburn) and the Apache scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz) get into a fight. Dundee says, as Potts is losing, “I think he’s going to take you, Samuel. You know why? Because the artillery is betting on you. Did you know that Lieutenant. Graham bet five dollars on you? Ever hear of an artilleryman winning a bet, a girl or a war?” Potts asks, “Who bet against me?” Dundee replies, “Me.” And Potts starts to win the fight before it is interrupted by the return of the male children of the massacred family. Dundee is a superb manipulator of all about him, but not of himself.
The plot is simple but as in so many great tales in which what happens is less important than how it happens. Indeed, the complexity of the character relations more than makes up for the quasi-Moby-Dickian narrative.
Dundee heads a Union Army outpost in late 1864, as the Civil War nears conclusion. Located in New Mexico Territory, he first contends with an escape plot by the Confederate captives, led by Tyreen, then with the massacre of a local ranching family (as in Ford’s The Searchers and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) by Sierra Charriba, a renegade Apache chief.
Sensing a redemption for his career, which has stalled due to several (implied) reasons, Dundee gathers a motley troop of the Confederate prisoners, black Buffalo Soldiers, Indian scouts, and assorted military and local detritus, and heads into Mexico to pursue the Apaches. There, against directives, he does not have any real battles with the Apaches, but gets injured by the arrows of some who ambush him while with Teresa.
Following his recovery, the occupying French forces of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico pursue Dundee’s men. Despite heavy losses, the major holds them off at the Rio Grande, where Harriss’ Tyreen – after dissing the Union throughout the whole film – protects the Union flag and hands it to Dundee. Phony moments such as this one are the reasons preventing Dundee from achieving greatness, not any perceived narrative anomy.
Tyreen’s death is one of the weakest scenes in Major Dundee, though the film itself ends superbly, as Dundee’s men limp back to their outpost. There is a grim sense of realism, while Dundee never quite falls into an overtly Ahabian trap. Unlike Ahab, Dundee is not obsessed with the Apaches. They are just a convenient excuse for him to carve a name for himself in Western legendry. He is manifestly more akin to the real General George A. Custer, except that he is saved by a bit of realism at film’s end.
Dundee’s narrow escape from the French may change him – or not. The viewer cannot know for a fact, but considering the film ending, one is left guessing as to what will befall Dundee next. All that is certain is that Dundee will make himself go on. This straightforward power is one of the keys to Major Dundee, as is the turn from a simpleminded, jingoistic ending. Brute strength should never be devalued, especially in war. Major Dundee is almost a perfect distillation of, or argument for, the power of volition.
There are also problems with some of the other claimed Melvillean comparisons: Tyreen as Starbuck is too strained, Ryan as Ishmael is not strong enough, and the Apaches as the white whale are not given enough presence in Dundee’s mind, etc., but the basic framework has merit as a backdrop against which the narrative can play out.
Thus, Major Dundee is not an epic, but a seeming epic masking a detailed and incisive character study. The Dundee-Tyreen relationship is superbly written; from their first moments on screen one can surmise much of what has gone down before but remains unspoken. It shifts from friendship and respect to animosity and fear.
Ironically, while studio interference resulted in the flawed truncated version, that same action also led to a lack of extra material for Peckinpah or his acolytes to tack back on so as to create a conventional ending. That’s why it works. Peckinpah’s best film is his least conventionally structured, and since Peckinpah had a flair for the melodramatically banal – think The Wild Bunch – this is a good thing.
The Major Dundee DVD comes with commentary by Peckinpah historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. It is a muddled commentary – four people are just too many. They often contradict one another, speak over each other, and are so biased against the film’s excellence as to beg the question, why did the studio ask these jokers to provide commentary?
True, they all have enough factoids to spare on both Peckinpah and the film, but they think Major Dundee is a failure. Bad marketing strategy, to say the least. The few times the quartet actually pays attention to what is on screen – to offer real commentary – they just sum up the action, and then continue discussing the film’s failure, or the belabored Moby Dick aspects of the story. They also seem astounded that Peckinpah was more of a realist than John Ford or Howard Hawks in the depiction of violence, such as the viewer being allowed to see the dead women after the Apache massacre. Too often, the quartet talks less about what the film is than what they feel it should have been.
The DVD also offers some promo outtakes, and artwork for the original American posters – some of the ugliest stuff ever done. There’s a twenty-minute excerpt from Mike Siegel’s documentary Passion & Poetry- The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah and the original featurette “Riding for a Fall” in black-and-white 16mm and color Super-8 options. And some deleted scenes and the original and re-release trailers, plus a four-page insert booklet called “Peckinpah’s Wounded Masterpiece,” by Glenn Erickson.
Major Dundee succeeds because of its realistic subplots, great acting, and some terrific scenes. The gory aftermath of a battle, for instance, shows much scarring, ending with the men dying not in glorious battle but days after they suffered their wounds.
Major Dundee succeeds because he is a great survivor and one of Heston’s greatest roles. Just a couple of years later, Heston would apply many of Dundee’s signature traits to his Colonel George Taylor in Planet of the Apes, as well as to his other classic sci-fi characters in Soylent Green and The Omega Man.
Major Dundee is an unintended classic and a near-great film despite both studio interference and Peckinpah’s tendency to gild his cinematic lilies. What it might have been without either of them – better or worse – is anyone’s guess. What it is, however, needs no guess. Major Dundee is a hell of a good film, and far better than many other overrated Western classics.
© Dan Schneider
Major Dundee (1965). Director: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah; from a story by Fink. Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, Senta Berger, James Coburn, Michael Anderson Jr., Mario Adorf, Brock Peters, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, L. Q. Jones.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.