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.