Monday, August 28, 2023

Major Dundee (1965)

Even Sam Peckinpah fans are rather divided over the merits of his 1965 western Major Dundee. It was a commercial flop and critics at the time were uncomplimentary. The legend became established that the movie would have been a masterpiece had it not been for studio interference although there is a dissenting view that Peckinpah found himself hopelessly out of his depth directing his first big-budget film and was himself responsible for its flaws. And it does have flaws.

In the later stages of the Civil War a US Cavalry troop and numerous civilians are massacred by Apaches led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate). Three young boys are taken away by the Apaches. In accordance with tribal customs they will be reared as Apache warriors.

Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) is in charge of a military prison. He is determined to rescue the boys and take revenge on Sierra Charriba. He will need a much larger force than the handful of men at his disposal. He raises a private army composed of cowboys, thieves and drunks. What he really needs are more real soldiers. Confederate prisoners would be ideal and he has lots of those but they are not going to join him without their commander, Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). That’s awkward because Dundee is just about to hang Tyreen.

Dundee and Tyreen were once friends. Tyreen blames Dundee for getting him cashiered from the regular army and Dundee considers Tyreen to be a traitor. Eventually Dundee’s private army is assembled, including the Confederate prisoners under Tyreen.

Dundee pursues Sierra Charriba deep into Mexico. Of course he has no authority to enter Mexico. Things start to go wrong. Heavy losses are suffered in an ambush. And most of their supplies are lost.

Dundee’s command is now short of almost everything. But there are French troops stationed in Mexico. Why not steal what they need from the French? This is obviously a crazy idea but the whole mission is getting increasingly crazy and Dundee is so obsessed that he’s willing to do anything rather than give up the whole mad scheme.

Dundee’s command is increasingly torn by dissension. The loyalty of the Confederate prisoners was dubious right from the start and it’s getting steadily more dubious. And Major Dundee is starting to unravel as well.

The real focus of the film is on Dundee’s obsession and on the uneasy relationship between Dundee and Tyreen. Both men have tangled motivations that are not entirely rational. Both men are to some extent deluded about themselves.

Tyreen sees himself as a southern gentleman but as Dundee points out to him he’s fighting a war on behalf of rich plantation owners but he doesn’t belong to that privileged class. He doesn’t own a plantation and he never will. His loyalty to the South is based on delusions. And Tyreen knows that he is fighting for a lost cause (the story begins in November 1864 by which time the South’s prospects were very grim indeed).

Dundee is driven by ambition and by dreams of glory. His plan to track down Sierra Charriba is unrealistic. He lacks the necessary resources and the mission (which was from the start a personal project with no official backing) is beyond his abilities. Dundee possesses some of the qualities of a good commander. He is prepared to make tough decisions and stand by them. He is energetic. His strategic and tactical abilities are however not as well developed as he thinks. Turning his motley command into an efficient reliable fighting force would require outstanding qualities as a leader and an ability to inspire loyalty which he doesn’t quite possess. He never does solve the problem of inspiring the necessary loyalty on the part of the Confederate prisoners. Dundee just isn’t the hero and military genius of his own fantasies. He’s ludicrously out of his depth and he makes terrible mistakes and he insists on pressing on regardless. He’s an extraordinary man but he’s a failure.

Charlton Heston gives one of his finest performances as the arrogant deluded obsessive Dundee. Richard Harris is excellent as the proud but equally deluded Tyreen. James Coburn as the scout Samuel Potts and Jim Hutton as the prim do-it-by-the-book Lieutenant Graham also give fine performances with Hutton being especially impressive.

Both Dundee and Tyreen are deeply conflicted characters. Their internal conflicts mirror the conflicts within the command.

This is certainly a flawed movie and most of its flaws were the result of two unfortunate decisions by Peckinpah. Firstly, due to his inexperience at making really large-scale productions, the locations he picked were widely scattered which led to logistical nightmares, chewed up unnecessary time and money and made the shoot more difficult and more exhausting than it needed to be. This exacerbated the other mistake, which was to begin shooting without a completed script. Peckinpah hoped to be able to complete the script on the fly but inevitably the movie ended up losing direction and focus.

There was also the studio’s insistence on having a romantic sub-plot. That sub-plot feels wrong and out of place and just makes an overlong movie even longer.

The first half of the movie is great. It totally falls apart in the second half. There are still superb moments in the second half. The fact that Dundee’s command ends up fighting a full-scale battle against the French adds a pleasingly crazed touch.

Visually it’s brilliant at times and it has a grittiness and grunginess that hadn’t really been seen before in westerns.

That legend that the movie would have been a masterpiece without the interference of the studio and producer Jerry Bresler seems to be just that - a legend. It seems more likely that Peckinpah, like Major Dundee, lost his grip as a result of inexperience and excessive ambition.

Major Dundee might be a failure but it’s an interesting and strangely impressive failure. It’s worth seeing in spite of its huge flaws.

Sony's DVD release offers the original extended cut of the movie.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the theatrical version on TV decades ago, but missed the beginning. When I saw the extended version a few years ago, I couldn't remember what wasn't in the one I saw on TV.

    It looks great, there are some good performances (although I thought Heston was merely very good, standard Heston, really, rather than great), but I agree with you - I doubt this would ever have been a classic film. It's a series of (often very good) set-pieces.