1960s, 2.5/4, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Western

Major Dundee

#11 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

More than your typical Western, but less than the great, Civil War epic, Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is one of those movies I wish was significantly longer, like Anthony Mann’s The Furies could be improved in a similar way. By all accounts, it was much longer in Peckinpah’s original cut, and this restored version comes in at two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes in length, somewhat less than the minimum three hours I would imagine this kind of conflict of personalities amid a conflict of nations and masked by a hunt of obsession to take. Is there something at the heart of this film? I think so. I’m not quite sure what it is, though, since it feels like a giant helping of narrative meat has been cut out, leaving just enough to get us from point A to point B.

There are two major places in this film where it feels like a lot of stuff got removed in editing, and the first is the opening. Imagine Lawrence of Arabia where most of the early efforts to get the Bedouin tribes were covered in voiceover, and I think you get the sense of the clipped nature of the storytelling of the opening of Major Dundee. The titular major (Charlton Heston) has been given the assignment of jailor in 1864 way out west, far away from the action of the War Between the States. After Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) attacks a farmstead, leaving all of the adults dead and the children missing, Dundee becomes determined to be more than a jailor. He’s going to muster a group of men, whatever men he can find, and he’s going to go after Charriba.

Into this he ropes the leader of the Confederate prisoners, Captain Tyree (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant with whom Dundee has a past in the US Army before the Civil War where Dundee was one of three votes out of five that stripped Tyree of rank as punishment. The details of this ends up feeling frustratingly shallow and underexplained, the sort of thing that would, in a four-hour film, get something like a ten-minute long scene that really illuminated the two characters. Instead, we only get about a minute. Anyway, Dundee gets Tyree to agree, on his word of honor, that he will bring twenty Confederate prisoners under Dundee’s command until they’ve taken care of Charriba and no longer than that. Led by their guide, the one-armed mountain man Samuel Potts (James Coburn), they head south, marching for months until they reach Mexico.

Now, one aspect of this film that I was convinced was early evidence of the cut-up nature of the film was the narration done by Trooper Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.). Early, it’s used rather heavily, especially in one sequence where Ryan takes part in a pseudo-acquisition of arms for the initial effort south from an armory without official orders led by Sergeant Gomez (Mario Andorf). The action of the event is all told in voiceover while we see what seems like the beginning of what would be a large scene to explain the action and allow some second-tier characters a moment to shine. However, we often see Ryan throughout the film writing in his little diary, telling me that it was always planned to be there. Was the voiceover expanded when the studio kept demanding cuts to get the length of the film down? Maybe. The initial cut is said to have been almost five hours long.

The action heads south of the border, well beyond Dundee’s legal limit (really, his legal limit was the jail up north), and there’s an interesting moment right as they cross where the column spies some Confederate cavalry in the distance. Will Captain Tyree take his men and run to rejoin the Confederacy? No, he doesn’t, because he gave Dundee his word of honor. Tyree, especially in the first half of the film, feels really underserved by the storytelling. This film is often compared, fairly, to Melville’s Moby Dick with Dundee playing the part of Ahab and Charriba his white whale, but Tyree would be Starbuck, a Starbuck who started the story with a desire to kill Ahab himself. It adds an interesting wrinkle to the whole thing, and that wrinkle really needs to be given room to breathe, which this film could have really taken the time to do.

There is an interesting scene that gives Tyree a great moment where one of his men, Jimmy (John Davis Chandler) speaks haughtily and demeaningly towards one of the black Union soldiers, Aesop (Brock Peters), treating him like a servant rather than a fellow soldier. Dundee, being what seems like a terrible commanding officer, allows the tensions to run high, especially when the Reverend Dahlstrom (R.G. Armstrong) intervenes on Aesop’s behalf. Dundee just watches until Tyree steps in, offers up some respectful words to Aesop, and chastises Jimmy. It’s Tyree honoring his word, and it makes me think that in a movie titled Major Dundee it is Captain Ben Tyree who should have been the main character.

The column chases Charriba’s men through the Mexican countryside until they fall into an ambush at a river, leaving them destitute of supplies. This leads to an extended sequence in a small Mexican village where they meet Teresa (Senta Berger), the widow to the town’s Austrian-born doctor. There’s something of a light competition between Dundee and Tyree for her affections, a contest that Dundee wins, but their presence in the town is meant as bait for a French force six hours away which will lead to a feint in order to steal supplies. The effort is a success, but when they pick up the villagers from the town, including Teresa, Dundee gets shot and has to spend weeks recovering undercover. This reveals further flaws in Dundee’s character, most notably his materialism regarding his treatment of women, furthering this idea of him as removed from the concerns of the present, his mind firmly fixed on his quarry. I think I get this whole episode, but it’s the second major part of the film that feels noticeably shortened.

Tyree picks Dundee back up, and they head out, but it ends up that the French are on their tails about the same time that Charriba decides to stop running and face Dundee’s force. It becomes a race to the border, an effort to choose their battlefield. The final battle is interesting visually. It takes place in the waters of the Rio Grande, and it’s obviously been shaved a bit down to deny Peckinpah the violence he obviously wanted. That’s most obvious in the pools of red blood that appear around dead bodies, an effect obviously not pursued in earlier western fights all that often.

So, why do I find Major Dundee somewhat frustrating? The first part is the clipped nature of two major parts of the film. The opening undercuts investment in most of the supporting cast, starting with Richard Harris’ Tyree, in particular. I really feel like this is a film designed for a very extended running time of four hours, and when you have scenes that just feel missing or cut down heavily, it affects the whole picture. This also appears in the dropping of certain little subplots, like the conflict between Aesop and Jimmy. This is most apparent around Tyree, though. There’s so much that feels hidden and underexplained around him and his relationship with Dundee, and the central contrast of the film is supposed to be the contrast between the crazed, Union officer and his honest Confederate prisoner and second-in-command.

However, this is a really ambitious work by a young filmmaker. He apparently let the production completely fall out of control, creating a lot of fear in producers who shut down production early. Chastised, he went off back to television to make a couple of short, television movies before he regained the cache to make The Wild Bunch, but there was real promise here. There’s something about honor in extreme circumstances, about finding brotherhood even among your enemies. This is a rough and tumble vision of the west during the Civil War, and it really needed more time to flesh things out.

Rating: 2.5/4


5 thoughts on “Major Dundee”

  1. Sam Pekinpah’s works are not my thing, so I must admit I read this review mostly just to see if you would include the “Charlton Heston threatened him with a cavalry sabre” anecdote. 🙂


    1. I have failed you!

      It’s the first behind the scenes story chronologically I know of about his aggressive behavior on set. O’Hara called him disgusting on the set of The Deadly Companions, but not antagonistic.

      Peckinpah seemed like a really mean drunk.

      Liked by 1 person

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