Reappreciation Society: Major Dundee (1965): The Proto – Peckinpah Western

 

It was supposed to be third time’s the charm for director Sam Peckinpah. After two well received small westerns: The Deadly Companion, and Ride The high Country (which went down a storm in Europe and is now considered one of his greatest films), “Bloody Sam” was given a large scope, large budget Horse Soldier epic to direct, in Panavision, no less: Major Dundee. His attempt to do a gritty, sprawling obsessive quest loosely in the vein of Moby Dick foundered on the mantle of an incomplete script, Sam’s own fiery temperament and drinking, and difficult locations. Taken from him and cavalry sabred into a shadow of what it was, it has in recent years been recut into something approximating his original intent. It remains a fascinating, flawed film, where Peckinpah’s themes and obsessions began to evolve.

The story is a great one. Major Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston) is a Union cavalry officer transferred as punishment to command of a prison garrison in New Mexico during the last winter of the civil war. Coming upon the aftermath of a massacre of troopers and settlers at nearby Rostes ranch by the Apache warlord Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), he sees a chance to regain glory and a more fitting command. He asks for volunteers to hunt the Apache across the Mexican border and retrieve the settlers kidnapped boys, but must bolster his ranks from the confederate prisoners. To do this, he needs the cooperation of their leader and his former friend, Confederate captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris)…

What we have here is the potential for a great quest and morality play, where the glory hound Dundee’s dangerous obsession clashes with Tyreen’s honourable yet compromised duty. As mentioned earlier, the script by future Dirty Harry writer Harry Julian Fink, was mammoth, and unfinished. To keep Heston, who had another project lined up afterward, Peckinpah had to shoot then, redrafting the screenplay from what he had. Off in the wilds of Mexico in arduous conditions, the budget was slashed from under him. Peckinpah stubbornly carried on as before, shooting endless footage. Heston, desperate to prevent the film being taken from his director, offered to sacrifice his fee to cut costs. He didn’t really believe the studio would take him up on the offer. Interviewed later, when asked if he thought he’d set a precedent, he replied “I didn’t even set a precedent for me!”.

The first hour is very strong. No one could pose or dominate the screen like Heston. Here, he is the very epitome of a proud martinet, straining at the leash for renewed respect and glory in a punitive action that will fly in the face of legality – not only will he cross the border and relinquish his nominal duties, he’ll lead men in combat with occupying French Lancers, in Mexico to suppress Benito Juarez’s revolution. Even after the children have been recovered. “Until the Apache is taken or destroyed,” becomes his blinding mantra.

 Dundee has sentenced Tyreen and others to death for the murder of a guard during an attempted breakout. He offers them and any others an alternative:

“You thieves, renegades, deserters, you gentlemen of the south. I want some volunteers. I want volunteers to fight the Apache Sierra Charriba. I need horse soldiers-men who can ride, men who can shoot. In return, I promise you nothing. Saddle sores, short rations, maybe a bullet in your belly…and free air to breath, quarter pay…and my good will and best office for pardons and parole when I get back.”

Until Tyreen steps forward and supplies the men he needs, Dundee is stuck. He views the prisoners as rebel trash. Smoking a cigar on the roof overlooking the prison yard, he drops the butt and watches the ragged wretches scramble for it. The victor snatches it and looks up. Realising who it came from, he drops it with disdain and grinds it out beneath his filthy bare foot.

Harris has a ball as Tyreen , who models himself as the perfect southern gentleman. Incidentally, the name Tyreen is possibly a nod to Capt. Brittles southern ex-confederate scout Sgt Tyree in John Ford’s “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”. Peckinpah was making his own, more down and dirty tribute to Ford’s cavalry westerns here. Tyreen was cashiered out of their regiment at West Point for duelling before the war. He blames Dundee for casting the deciding vote. Dundee sneeringly dismisses him as “a potato farmer with a plumed hat, fighting for the white columned plantation house you never had and never will.” But without the charismatic, loyalty inspiring Tyreen, Dundee would flounder.

Peckinpah’s later themes of honour and duty, and how far a man will go to keep it, begin to be seen here. His love of Mexico, brotherhood and bickering, and the rogues gallery of colourful, memorable characters, are the films strengths. R.G. Armstrong as preacher Dahlstrom volunteers. “He that destroyeth my flock, I destroy.” Slim Pickens is a drunken horse thief / trader, who comes along for all the whisky he can drink. Peckinpah wanted Lee Marvin for Samuel Potts, the grizzled, one armed scout and Dundee’s conscience. James Coburn is a worthy substitute. Brock Peters is Aesop, the African / American sergeant who volunteers his men to prove their mettle, Glory style.

Narratively, the film tends to meander all over the place once the Mexican incursion begins, after a first disastrous ambush by the Apache. Some strong character led centrepieces just about knit the frayed pieces together. Rebel O. W. Hadley (Warren Oates) absconds with a weeks supplies, is caught and dragged back by Sgt. Gomez. Dundee has promised death for deserters. Hadley squirms and pleads as his rebel friends look on in tense silence. Finally, he draws himself up defiantly. “Hell Major, you’re just doing what you have to do. But goddamn your soul for it! And God bless Robert E Lee!” But the shot that brings him down is Tyreen’s (in the back, no less). He knows only he can execute the order and prevent the command imploding.

After the ambush, the dead are buried in a mass grave. In Ford’s The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) cuts short the homesteaders burial with a curt “Make an amen to it!”  He is impatient to seek vengeance. Here, Dundee starts to shovel the dirt before the hym is finished, but this is his penance for his mistake.

For a large segment of the film, one could almost forget about their quarry. Short on supplies, the column liberate a Mexican village from the French, and enjoy a fiesta. Theresa (Senta Berger), the widow of the local doctor tends to the troop and has a clumsily inserted and lately added romantic soujourn with Dundee. By this point Peckinpah was probably writing on the hoof. Dundee strays outside the picket and is wounded by an Apache arrow.

He is hidden in the occupied town of Durango and falls apart, drinking and feeling sorry for himself, possibly reflecting Peckinpah’s drunken wallowing in his own self pity at failing to nail a cohesive script. Another theory is that this incident (along with the Hadley shooting) is designed wholesale to reflect  Lawrence’s debasement at Deraa and subsequent withdrawal in the film Lawrence Of Arabia, an epic the makers of Major Dundee hoped to emulate. It can also be seen as a less polished dry run for Pike and co.’s moment of self-loathing before the bloody climax in Peckinpah’s next film, The Wild Bunch. Although Dundee doesn’t learn anything. When Tyreen returns for him, he says “You’re not worth killing.” Next moment Dundee is back in command, sober as a judge, as if nothing happened!

Landscape composition is quite strong and distinctive, and the art design too. This was Peckinpah’s first large scale film, and he adroitly fills the frame with foreground, middle and background detail, often all on the move – particularily in the excellent climactic river engagement. Unlike John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, limited to his beloved Monument Valley, Dundee’s band of not so merry men troop across a varied and rugged authentic Mexican landscape, convincingly becoming more grimy, filthy and bedraggled.

The successful entrapment and elimination of Charriba seems ridiculously easy, but in the light of the Delta Force execution of Osama Bin Laden, it now seems almost realistically anti-climactic. Bugler Ryan shoots him, almost accidentally, subverting the myth of both him and Dundee. “He seems so small now,” Ryan remarks afterwards.

Peckinpah shot thousands of feet of the river battle in slow motion in homage to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but he was denied the time to edit this successfully into the film. None of that made it into the final cut. Tyreen’s final fate is truncated too – it appears he is run through on horseback, when stills show he is unhorsed first.

After his unhappy experience with Dundee, Peckinpah was unceremoniously removed from The Cincinatti Kid, his next project. He directed in television, until he made The Wild Bunch, his return from the wilderness, four years later. The lessons learned on Major Dundee had coalesced into a triumph. “Bloody but unbowed” Sam was back.

 

Originally posted 2012-09-25 12:12:22. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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