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Saturday, May 28, 2011

New Republic Review by Stanley Kauffman 4/17/1965

  During the last months of the Civil War, a small band of Apaches led by Sierra Charriba attack a cavalry post in New Mexico, massacre almost the entire force and then escape across the border into Mexico. Stationed nearbt at an isolated fort is Major Dundee, little more than warden to over 400 Confederate prisoners, Union deserters, murderes and thieves. Determined to wipe out Charriba's Apaches, Dundee augments hissmall force with volunteersfrom the ranks. Leading the group, who have agreed to fight rather than face murder charges for killing a prison guard, is Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen, an old enemy of Dundee's who swears to kill himafter the mission is completed. Once in Mexico tension between the two men increases because of their opposing loyalties to North and South as well as Dundee's faltering command of his men. When they arrive at a village, which they free from occupying French soldiers, they become rivals for the attentions of Teresa Santiago, a [Mexican] widow whose husband was hanged by the French. Although wounded during an Indian attack, Dundee leads his men into a last battle with Charriba's Apaches. A trap is set and the chief is killed duing the defeat of his braves. With the mission accomplished, it now remains for Dundee and Tyreento settle their own differences. But when a large French force attacks, Tyreen makes a daring lone charge and dies gallantly on the battlefield. The fighting ends and Dundee and his eleven survivors head back across the river to the safety of their own country.

"As wars recede in time, they become entertainments; rather, as the immediacy of the suffering fades, the entertainment that is imminent in war can be more clearly perceived. Major Dundee's war is the one between the States. Familiar and welcome ground..John Ford and others have happily accustomed us to the cavalry troop as dramatic arena, with some nice primary color polarities to keep matters humming in between Indian battles. This script begins traditionally and therefore well. Later, when the authors feel that romance is overdue, the story gets wobbly and slow, and only belatedly recovers. In its divagation we meet Senta Berger, who is precisely the widow of a Mexican doctor whom anyone would expect to meet, tending the wounded in a low-cut dress in a remote Mexican town. The producer's wish to include Miss Berger is very understandable, but credibility is is not a component of her role. There is also a long drunken interlude while the major recovers from an arrow wound while in another town (Durango), all of which seems to have been filmed and included by mistake. But most of  the picture is dashingly done, with that always appealing combination of realisic detail and romantic sweep. Sam Peckinpah, who directed, was praised for a Western of several years back called Ride The High Country [FF '62, p 137] which I missed. But from this film it is easy to believe that the earlier one was good. He has an eye for action and tension, and enough for imagination to ring changes on the cliches of both veins. In addition he seems to have some understanding of actors. Charlton Heston, as Dundee, gives a much more accepatble performance than usual; Richard Harris - an amusingly long way from Antonioni and The Red Desert - plays the captain with cavalier panache. If his voice had a better timbre and range, his future might be bright. All the male parts are aptly cast, and, because of the leatheriness of the leather, and the gritiness of the grit, mention ought to be made of the art department, costume man, and property master respectively, Al Ybarra, Tom Dawson, and Joe La Bella.

Note from ed. Tom Dawson was to be replaced by his own son, Gordon. Peckinpah fired the father, hired the son who became a regular on future Peckinpah movies. He was asked to smuggle in a Panavision lens on his first visit to the much-troubled set.

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