As I have said before, it is my belief that films are getting better. Not because the plots are any better, nor is it true to say that screen acting has improved since the Barrymores; you couldn't even claim that pictures or their dialogue are better written nowadays. But, progress being what it persists in being, the overall technical competence in picture-making can never cease to surprise me. I know it is sometimes hard to appreciate that those Doris Day/James Bond/Harold Robbins films are so tremendously well made, but you've got to admit that the people who make them certainly know what they are doing. Nor must we overlook the fact that an artistic film does have its effect on other-wise artistically uninspired directors. After seeing an original picture a director might be led to allow his cameraman to do a bit of back-lighting, or when a putrid line in the script comes up, murmur self-consciously to his leading man: "Brad, do you, er, think we could, er, possibly find another way of saying that?" Which means, by and large, broadly speaking, all things being equal, generally, and taking the long term view,films stand a goodish chance of getting better.
This thought came to mind quite strongly while I was watching Major Dundee. No-one could pretend that it was a great picture, but Sam Peckinpah did enough picking while he was on the project to stop anything ludicrous happening and so turned out a good and competent epic.
A film cannot be brilliant if the elements involved keep their beady eyes firmly glued to the box office, nor can it be great if the director feels inhibited by his artistic conscience.
But these two motivations combined can make a safe picture, and there-fore certainly not bad.Personally, and in parentheses, "safe films" annoy me: I had much rather see an adventurous disaster than a safe bore, but, you know, one can usually see what the producer is getting at. He doesn't want to lose his money, natch, therefore he tries to make a 'commercial' film, whatever that may mean, an he doesn't want to make junk, so he hires a director with a conscience. Sometimes these two considerations are diametrically opposed, and sometimes they work. Luckily, they come off with Major Dundee.
The story tells of Charlton Heston, all dressed up a a Northern Army Major, and chasing after an Apache chief through Mexico. The time is set during the closing days of The American Civil War. With the hero comes a Confederate officer and his band of renegades whom the Major has coerced into helping in the fight. The Confederate, played by a narcissistic Richard Harris, is having a kind of private tussle with the Major whom he wants to kill. Sensibly, Charlton Heston doesn't seem to take Harris too seriously, which is just as well since this latter lets himself get pointlessly killed at the end of the picture anyway. There is a sex element provided by a fleshy Senta Berger, and a well described relationship between young Michael Anderson Jr, as the bugler, and his first love. James Coburn, who must be allowed to star in his own pictures one day, plays a one-armed Indian scout, and there were assorted performances by good people in minor roles.
At times the film is realistic, almost Continental, in its approach, and Charlton Heston does all he can to avoid the 'epic' quality of Ben Hur. For only a short time, for example, is he allowed to wear his extremely flattering beard and he is scruffy, dirty, even slightly flabby, and not overly simpatico. This was made fulfilling for me when I recalled the maniacally adulatory article some French critic once wrote about Charlton Heston's physical beauty being enough to turn any film he was in into a work of art. By contrast, his co-star Richard Harris, who hasn't made as many films, still hangs on to a Brando impersonation and more than once I was reminded of Marlon's gestures and attitudes in One Eyed Jacks. But Senta Berger is real again. She and the Major have a very grown-up sort of soldier's romance, and when she is no longer there, his urges get satisfied by some unattractive Indian woman he has picked up.
The scruffiness of battle, whether it is with the French who are occupying Mexico, or with the Apaches, is excellently done. There is the right kind of efficiency plus crude romanticism not only in the fights but also in the love scenes and even in the more social comments of the film. Of course, there were moments one didn't care for, but it is to the film's credit that you don't feel these need poking out.
The music, composed by Daniel Amphitheatrof, was really very new, original and surprisingly very good. The photography by Sam Leavitt was both realistic in its lighting and at times strangely Daliesque in its compositions.
Thinking back about the film, I think my preamble was inordinately smug. A lot of thought has gone into making this epic new and different. It achieves that rarity of being integrated in its style and its story, the forme and the fond; it's nobody's fault that the picture is not a masterpiece, but just a good and well-considered, commercial piece of cinema.