DVD Review Of Major Dundee

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/07


  Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 western Major Dundee is a near-great film that has a checkered history. The tale of its mangling by the studio that took it out of Peckinpah’s hands is as well known as the butchery that accompanied Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch Of Evil, or Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed. But, Columbia studio’s restored 136 minute long DVD version of the film really shines. Yet, some critics have still damned the film as a ‘noble failure’ or the like. This is too bad since the film is likely the most realistic and gritty Western ever made, and on the heels of Ride The High Country (1962) showed Peckinpah as a director with a bright future.

  It is filled with great shots, a great lead performance by Charlton Heston as the lead character, Major Amos Dundee, and terrific supporting performances. Heston’s Dundee is a great character, and may be Heston’s role. 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, but we never know why. Yes, he had been sentenced to a job as a prison warder, and we get hints of his past troubles. But, then we get this wonderful interlude, at the start of the third act of the film, where he falls in love with a Mexican prostitute, Melinche (Aurora Clavell), after being shot and diving into drink. Then he recovers, to face off against his main antagonist, and perseveres, and survives.

  Despite critical claims that the film loses its way, this is not so. In fact, the fact that the film does not end in faux heroism is one of its virtues that makes it so relevant today, especially in light of its many parallels with the ongoing Iraq War. The only negatives the film really has are an obligatory- but thankfully brief, love angle forced upon Peckinpah by the studio, and a bit too hammy performance by Richard Harris as Dundee’s main antagonist, a Confederate soldier and longtime rival of Dundee’s, Captain Benjamin Tyreen, who is forced to accompany him on his quest to track down and kill an Apache band of murderers. Harris agrees, but only ‘until the Apache is taken or destroyed.’ Harris’s British accent is all wrong (even if the film implies he had a European education to explain it away by his stating, ‘Never underestimate the value of a European education’), as he is supposedly Irish, and his character is probably the least realistic of all the ones in the film- something more out of a swashbuckler film.

  The screenplay was written by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, and Peckinpah, and it’s terrific. The film also has a sepia tinge to it that is just about right for the film, and is glorious in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is not a John Ford hagiography, but a real descent into the shit of the Old West. This is not only aided by the cinematography’s grit and realism, but also by the lack of Peckinpah’s later stylized slow motion violence, which tended to revel in violence for violence’s sake. Then there are the many good 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 bugler, and Ishmaelian narrator, Tim Ryan, whose coming of age subplot (a first shave and losing his virginity) is actually well wrought and acted. Senta Berger as Dundee’s ostensible love interest, the widow Teresa Santiago, is beautiful, but does show some depth. Her character has been often criticized because of Peckinpah’s objection to her being forced into the film by the studio, but without that knowledge her acting is quite good, even if the story arc is not that well developed. Her best scenes come when she finds an injured Dundee with Melinche, while recovering from an arrow wound after being ambushed by Apache leader Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate)- a stand-in for the historical Victorio, who does a convincing job of looking and acting like a real- not movie- Indian, in the few scenes he’s in. Heston’s and Berger’s shared look at each other, with the naked back of Melinche to the side, and subsequent silence, tells far more than any over the top argument would have.

  Brock Peters, as Aesop, the only black soldier with a speaking part, shines in his few scenes- especially one where a 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 the leg over a campfire. He then tosses Benteen onto the other Confederates. Sgt. Chillum (Ben Johnson) pulls his gun and taunts the preacher. This is when the Mexican Sergeant Gomez (Mario Adorf) says, ‘You Southern trash better sit down!’ That Dundee does nothing, and Tyreen ineffectually and condescendingly calms things says a lot about the lack of both personal and military grace in both men. Warren Oates is 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.

  Yet, 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  Apache scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz)- who later ends up dead, killed by the Apaches he was suspected of aiding, 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. Unfortunately, Dundee is a superb manipulator of all about him, but not himself.

  The plot of the film is simple, but as in so many great tales- where it is less important re: what happens than how it happens, that is no hindrance, for 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 The Searchers and 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. After he recovers, the occupying French forces of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico pursue Dundee’s men, and Dundee holds them off at the Rio Grande, despite heavy losses, including an over the top death scene by Harris’s Tyreen, who- after a film filled of dissing the Union, and everything about it, protects the Union flag, and hands it to Dundee. It is the few false moments like this that prevent Dundee from greatness, not any perceived narrative anomy.

  Tyreen’s death is one of the weakest scenes in the film, even though the film, itself, ends superbly, with Dundee’s men limping back to their outpost. There is a grim sense of realism portrayed, and Dundee never seems to fall into the overtly Ahabian trap his character could have. 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, save that he is saved by a bit of realism at film’s end. His narrow escape from the French may change him, or not. The viewer cannot know, but with the film ending as it does, it leaves the viewer guessing as to what will befall Dundee next. All that is certain is that Dundee will will himself to go on. This straightforward power is one of the keys to the film, as is the turn from a simpleminded and/or jingoistic ending. Brute strength should never be devalued, especially in war. The film is almost a perfect distillation of, or argument for, the power of volition. There are also some 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.

  Major Dundee is, thus, not an epic, but a seeming epic that is masquing a detailed and incisive character study. The Dundee-Tyreen relationship is superbly written- as from their first moments onscreen one can surmise much of what has gone down before, but remains unspoken. It shifts from friendship and respect to animosity and fear. The screenplay is excellent, despite claims that it was never truly finished. Ironically, while studio interference led to the truncated version, and its flaws, that same action also led to the film’s not having too much extra material for Peckinpah or his acolytes to tack back on and bloat to a conventional ending. Yet, 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 cinematography by Sam Leavitt, is excellent, especially in long master shots and in day for night shots, that are amongst the most convincing I’ve seen onscreen. In the original, unrestored version, they were rather banal. That much of the film 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 the studio interference. Sony Pictures also replaced the original musical score by by Daniele Amfitheatrof with one by Christopher Caliendo. It’s a better score than the older one- more apt and less pompous- especially as evinced by the still remanent title song, the Major Dundee March, sung by Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang. Yet, the DVD has the option of either track to listen to with the film.

  The DVD of the film comes with a commentary by Peckinpah historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. It is a muddled commentary, for four people are simply 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? Yes, they all have enough factoids on Peckinpah and the film to spare, but they think the film is a failure. Bad marketing strategy, to say the least. The few times the quartet actually pays attention to what is onscreen, 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 seeing the dead women after the Apache massacre. Too often, the quartet discusses less about what the film is, than what they feel it should have been. There are also 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 Major Dundee’s original featurette Riding For A Fall in B&W 16mm and color Super-8 options. There are also some deleted scenes and the original and re-release trailers. There is also a four page insert booklet called Peckinpah’s Wounded Masterpiece, by Glenn Erickson.

  Major Dundee, the film, also succeeds because of its realistic subplots, great acting, and some terific scenes, such as an early comic scene involving Dundee trying to teach Graham how to smoke, and the gory aftermath of a battle that shows much scarring, and ends with the men dying days after their wounds, not in glorious battle. Yet, Major Dundee, the character, succeeds because he is a great survivor, and one of Heston’s greatest roles. Just a couple of years later, Heston would use many of the signature traits he developed in this role and apply them to his great role as Colonel George Taylor, in Planet Of The Apes, as well as his other classic sci fi characters in Soylent Green and The Omega Man. The film is an unintended classic and a near-great film, despite both the studio interference and Peckinpah’s tendency to gild his filmic 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.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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