Westerns in March: Major Dundee (1965)

major dundee poster

Made between his more traditional western Ride the High Country (1962) and his revisionist one The Wild Bunch (1969) Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee works as a kind of bridge between the two styles.

It stars Charlton Heston as Major Dundee a Union officer who is relieved of his command and transferred to run a prisoner-of-war camp in New Mexico territory. When an Apache war chief slaughters a family of ranchers and steals their children Dundee gathers a rag-tag group of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, thieves, drunks, and a small group of black soldiers to hunt him down.

They say Peckinpah was drunk for most of the shooting causing all sorts of difficulties with the studio and with Heston (rumors have it Heston once threatened the director with a saber). His original cut was over 4 hours long, the studio took control of the film after that and knocked it down to just over two hours. Some of that has since been restored but the bulk of the “director’s cut” is now lost to history.

What’s left is a bit of a mess, but there is enough there to make it worth watching.

The film is less interested in what normally would be the main story – that of these men going after the Apache – and more interested in the rivalry between Dundee and Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) an Englishman turned Confederate officer. The two have a history together and Dundee can’t understand why Tyreen would betray his country in this war, and Tyreen can’t fathom how Dundee would raise up arms against people he knows, his friends and family members.

Tyreen regularly tells Dundee that once they’ve captured or killed the Apache he’s gonna turn his sights onto him. Dundee says he’ll be ready for it and the two square off throughout the film while maintaining an uneasy alliance.

There is a version of this film in which Dundee is a megalomaniac in the vein of Captain Ahab, hell-bent on his mission all other considerations be damned. From what I’ve read that is exactly what Peckinpah was reaching for. But Heston is too likable an actor to make that come across. His version of Major Dundee comes across as a decent officer, trying to make the best of a difficult command.

In the end, the film never quite satisfies. Oh, it is watchable enough. Peckinpah is too good a filmmaker not to make things unwatchable, even when he is half in the bag. Heston does some of his best work here, too. But it never coheres into something truly good. One wonders what that 4 hours version would have been like. If Peckinpah’s original film was an epic masterpiece or an incoherent mess.

We’ll probably never know. What we’re left with feels like an interesting transitional film for the director. One where he’s leaving behind the influences of classic western auteurs like John Ford and Howard Hawks and creating something new and modern. But he’s not quite there yet.

Counterpoint (1968)

counterpoint blu-ray

There are a lot of boutique labels putting out all sorts of movies on Blu-ray these days. All the recent blockbusters get releases, of course, and the certified classics. Companies like Arrow Video and Severin and releasing cult films and old schlock horror movies. Kino Lorber continues to do a magnificent job of releasing what I like to call Almost Classics. These were mainstream movies with A-list directors or actors that were aiming for greatness and somehow fell short. They usually aren’t bad, sometimes they’re even quite good, but for one reason or another they never quite attained classic status.

I’ve reviewed quite a few of these over the years and Counterpoint is one such example. It stars Charlton Heston and Maximillian Schell and has an interesting WWII era plot. But it has largely been forgotten and with good reason, as it isn’t really very good. Anyway, you can read my full review here.

Khartoum (1966)


One of the fun things about going to the library is that you never know what you are going to get. They have a wide selection of DVDs, but very few are available at any given time. I was surprised this last time when I actually had a choice to pick from. Albeit it was a choice between 2 films (the few others available were either foreign films translated into French or straight French films). The choice was between the Gary Cooper version of A Farewell to Arms and an unheard-of by me Charlton Heston/Laurence Olivier adventure called Khartoum. Not in the mood for Hemingway, I decided a Heston/Olivier picture might be a treat.

To say this is a Laurence Olivier picture is to say too much. Though he gets top billing, and his character plays an important part in the picture, his actual screen time is minimal. He plays a part known only as The Mahdi, who is a Muslim that rose out of the desert to claim his place as the chosen one. I believe Olivier is an African Muslim like I believe Heston is a Mexican cop. But we suspend our disbelief and all that for the sake of the story.

As it is the story is a grand one. Based on historical events, of which, sadly, I’ve never heard a lick of until this film, where the Mahdi attempts to take control of British ran Sudan. The mysterious General Gordan (Charlton Heston) is sent down to help things along. A standoff evolves and it is wit against wit.

It is not a bad film, but neither is it a great one. There are some truly beautiful shots of the scenery. Heston plays Gordan without as much conflict as the character requires, but with enough gusto to make it believable. Olivier is, as always, near perfect. With simple facial expressions, he carries the convictions of a man who believes himself a prophet. The scenes between Olivier and Heston, though historically inaccurate, add a much-needed emotional punch. The direction is a bit plodding, nothing particularly bad, but nothing exceptional either.

When watching historical films such as Khartoum, having some connection with the actual events helps bring meaning to the picture. Films based on the holocaust are often forgiven some of their cinematic sins due to the weight of the history behind the story. Yet, historical films that are not as well known can also entrance the viewer through the weight of their story. Knowing that the events actually happened often stir the viewer to greater emotional depths than a depiction of completely fictional events. It is here that Khartoum failed for me. As I said there was nothing particularly wrong with the production, but it never really captured my emotions. Admittedly I know very little about British history or the struggles of the Mid East beyond the years of my own life. This is a fault of my own, yet a film should be universal in its undertaking. If it fails to move an audience unfamiliar with its history then it will likely fall into obscurity. For those familiar with this particular history, the film may bring more to you than it did me. As for me, it was a mostly entertaining, and an interesting couple of hours in my life, it will be one that will largely be forgotten in time.