Ride the High Country was a fairly low-budget film, but it was also small scale in the sense of having a tight focus on a few characters, and a small supporting cast. In Major Dundee Sam Peckinpah has taken the challenge of a virtually Fordian epic Western - the movement of some seventy men and horses through hundreds of miles of Mexican desert, in an apparently futile pursuit of a marauding Apache. Yet here too the real concern is with an intimate question of character. Where Wayne in The Searchers, for example, is after a real enemy to solve an objective (though hardly serious) problem, Charlton Heston's Dundee is like Ahab; his Indian is virtually a pretext for a fatal personal vendetta.
Oddly enough, Peckinpah succeeds easily with the logistical side of his epic. The frequent Indian fights, cavalry charges, river crossings, and so on are well handled, though there is one inexplicable lapse (for which penny-pinching is surely to blame) in the re-use of the same shot of Indians against the sky. And what he was trying to do on the personal side of the film is very interesting. The growing mania of Dundee is defined and given background through a series of encounters with a Confederate officer who is his captive in the prison-fort he has been sent to command; this is his old friend and fellow cadet, and his moral tormentor. Despite the somewhat theatrical tenor of Richard Harris's performance - complete with greenish bags under his eye - the scenes of confrontation between the two men have that curious tension which is Peckinpah's forte. This conflict between two obstinate strong men (who come from the ends of the Earth literally enough, Tyreen being an Irish immigrant) is handled with the same finesse that marked the scenes between Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Ride The High Country. And the exploration of the ambiguities of power and honor is subtle enough, with the exception of a scene bearing on the racism of the Confederate men.
Embarrassingly intertwined with this, however, is a ludicrous sexual appeal involving Senta Berger, a cow-like girl with no acting range to speak of, and sundry other luscious lovelies who seem to have been stuck in as commercial afterthoughts. Berger is so far from the plain but interesting women Peckinpah has directed in film and T.V. that I suspect she was forced on him for this picture; indeed she is not a woman at all, but what we call a sex symbol - someone who conjures up booby-fantasies. (So is the deep-cleavage girl with the guitar (Aurora Clavell), who appears briefly, but not too briefly enough to raise a laugh.)
Only one woman seems to be drawn in a manner not alien to the story; an Indian girl of stocky figure who comforts Dundee and is half-heartedly seduced by him. Even she may be a little unduly luscious under the circumstances, but at least she doesn't talk that much.
You can sometimes assume that a director has been coerced into having a little fun at his pictures expense; but what can you say when Senta Berger as Teresa, a young widow, emerges from her village to announce that they have neither the food or drink nor women for the troops - opening up her shawl as she does to proffer an unusually capacious bosom in a cocktail-party decolletage? Or when she leans against a freshly painted studio-built wall as the troops ride away, like the heroine of some nineteenth-century painting?
Unfortunately, these matters seriously undermine the central story; they are not irrelevant and possibly harmless decoration. The portrayal of Dundee was a very large and delicate task; and Charlton Heston's unwieldy presence may have made it an impossible one. Dundee is supposedly a man of immense talent and energy, gripped by growing obsessions and fighting stubbornly to regain his pride; he is a little mad. But we are led to this understanding chiefly by external evidence. (After all, he looks OK"). Hence the failure, for example, of a capital line when, having having enjoyed Teresa in a sylvan seduction scene, he proposes to her she come along with them. "The war won't last for ever," To which she replies "It will for you, Major" Now this should cap the scene; it should verbalize what we have already felt, in a large way without being pompous; it must be said wryly yet warmly. But since it is delivered flat, and by a woman who is a figure of conventional fantasy, it draws a deserved laugh, and a crucial moment in the film is destroyed.
On Peckinpah's behalf it must be said that this scene, like others, evidently suffered from severe studio cutting aimed at increasing the "action" appeal of the film, but which in fact destroyed its psychological credibility. (Its rather gruesomely bloody battle scenes came through this process all right.) As the picture was released, Peckinpah asked to have his name removed from it, stating that he had been denied the chance to edit his own version and preview it, as promised by the producer, and the arguments over the cutting led to his being in effect fired from the project - despite the hoopla of Heston returning his salary to the studio and Peckinpah deferring most of his own, reportedly to get the opening they wanted.
The music, incidentally, is a constant embarrassment - full of sloppy violins in the weak romantic scenes, over-insistant in the opening scenes in the fort, and nauseatingly would-be commercial in the title song, which is sung by "Mitch Miller and The Singalong Gang" and is totally forgettable.
What are we left with? A rather appealing failure; a film with some luminous scenes of confrontation, some relaxed but not pointless humor, some effective scenes of tension in the camp at night when the unseen Apaches are nearby, some charming scenes in the village dance. There is also an odd Peckinpah touch; the escape of Dundee from Durango - a short madcap sequence which makes one wish that he would next turn to comedy again. But these elements are not fused into any style - whether because there are too many passing defects, or because the basic structure (which means the personality of Dundee) with is not really strong enough to support such a long and expansive film. It is a film, whether it went through Columbia's electronic preview system or not, such as one would expect from the system; things on which viewers turn thumbs down can be cut out, but the subtraction of wrongs does not necessarily produce a right. Major Dundee will probably please a lot of people a little, but it will not please anyone enormously. And that is still the real challenge.