Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), reduced to commanding a prison camp for Confederates during the last days of the Civil War, sets out on a punitive mission against hostile Apaches. Accompanying the neurotic, inflexible Dundee is an odd assortment of volunteers, including Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), the Confederate captain who hates him.
Designed as a thoughtful epic Western by director Sam Peckinpah, the film was seriously truncated by producer Jerry Bresler but remains provocative and interesting.
MAJOR DUNDEE is a film of two wars. One of them is pictured in the film. The other war, between director and producer, occurred during the film’s production. As it stands, MAJOR DUNDEE is approximately one hour shorter than filmmaker Sam Peckinpah had originally intended it to be. Although the film’s principal star, Charlton Heston, returned his entire two-hundred thousand dollar salary to the producer as an act of good faith to ensure that the remaining scenes would be shot and director Peckinpah would have full control over the final cut of the film, the producer took the money but turned the film over to the editors. The producer won the off-screen war, and Peckinpah lost control of his film, but in the process, what might have been a great Western epic was turned into a severely truncated remnant of a very individualistic director’s vision of the West.
In spite of its butchered form, however, MAJOR DUNDEE remains an interesting film and an important work in Peckinpah’s career. It cannot be called a great film, however; many of the scenes that were meant to establish the motivation of the main characters are now missing. The heart of the psychological concerns, which were so important in fleshing out Peckinpah’s themes, have vanished for ever on the cutting room floor. What remains does, however, still show glimpses of the creative control of director/screenwriter Peckinpah, but the film has an over-all incoherence and lack of continuity that obscures the meaning.
As with most of his films, Peckinpah’s MAJOR DUNDEE is concerned with a world which violence is the rule rather than the exception. The film is set in the turbulent era of the final years of the Civil War. The opening scene was originally planned as twenty graphic minutes showing the Halloween night massacre of ‘B’ Troop of Fort Benlin, New Mexico, and a local ranching family, the Rostes’. With this scene in place, the structure of MAJOR DUNDEE would bear a great resemblance to that of Peckinpah’s later masterpiece, THE WILD BUNCH (1969), which is framed by two long and bloody battles, the first occurring during a bank holdup and the second involving the outlaws and Mexican Federales.
These two scenes, like the battle scenes in MAJOR DUNDEE, reflect Peckinpah’s preoccupation with violence as both a thing of appeal and repulsion. The famous choreographed scenes of violence in THE WILD BUNCH, are also revealed to have their technical forerunner in the battle scenes of the earlier film, which communicate the agonies, but also the perverse excitement and fascination of warfare.
The present version of MAJOR DUNDEE shows only the very final moments of the Rostes Ranch massacre, but this raid provides the obvious impetus for the action of the film. Major Amos Charles Dundee, commander of Fort Benlin’s prison camp for Confederates, leads a motley band of Union reprobates, black prison guards, Confederate prisoners of war, and civilian horse thieves and murderers across the Mexican border in an attempt to rescue the Rostes’ three boys from their Indian captors. Ironically, this obsessive pursuit is revealed to be motivated less by the apparent need to save the boys than by the Major’s own overriding need to escape his role as warden of a prison camp. The boys adapt well to their new lives as Apaches, but the Major cannot adjust to a role forced on him as punishment for his own disregard for authority at Gettysburg.
Dundee’s initial image is one of an authoritative, competent officer whose main interest is in rescuing the boys, but as the film progresses, he is seen as an inflexible, guilt-ridden man whose ramrod manner barely conceals a troubled, insecure soldier whose concept of self is assured only when he is embroiled in war. Heston offers a well-controlled performance as Dundee, and even though the dialog is sometimes inadequate in expressing character, director Peckinpah successfully uses Heston, and the other main characters, to create each character as a viable physical presence in a large-scale film that could easily have swallowed up lesser characterizations.
Dundee is given a personal and military rival in the dashing figure of Confederate captain Benjamin Tyreen. Tyreen’s roles in life have been many – Irish potato farmer, court-martialed Union officer and captured Confederate, but unlike Dundee, Tyreen’s identity appears securely rooted beneath his assumption of a flamboyant, posturing appearance. Tyreen has an eloquence and personal flair which Dundee lacks, but more importantly, he possesses an understanding of himself an intuitive knowledge of his fellows that make him a much more effective leader of men than his former friend, Major Amos Charles Dundee.
Although the other key roles of Sgt. Gomez (Mario Adorf), Samuel T. Potts (James Coburn), and Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) have suffered because of the massive editing, they are still important, as is Tyreen, in pointing out the deficiencies in Major Dundee’s failings, and his own, levelheaded, self-effacing professionalism contrasts sharply with Dundee’s chaotic leadership.
As the film details the command’s raid into Mexico, the duality of Peckinpah’s vision is apparent in his embrace of a romantic view of that country while creating a generally realistic portrait of war. The poor Mexican village that welcomes the American soldiers as liberators becomes a haven full of simple, generous people, including Peckinpah’s usual selection of generous women, among them Senta Berger as the widow of the town’s doctor. The command’s leave-taking from the village is clearly a model for the startlingly similar scene in THE WILD BUNCH. In contrast to this romanticism, Peckinpah treats the violence in MAJOR DUNDEE in a realistic manner that emphasizes the bloody action and aftermath of conflict; men writhing in pain from festering wounds, rows of leaking canvass bags containing the mutilated bodies of the first battle’s casualties, and Dundee’s strained shoveling of dirt into a huge mass grave.
The Rostes boys are ultimately rescued and the Apaches are destroyed, but Dundee’s command is decimated and the Major seems to have acquired little self-knowledge as a result of the costly foray. Our expectations of what a cavalry film should have been satisfied in terms of “action,” but Peckinpah turns the mythic expectations upside down.
The glorious of the frontier have been transformed into desperate, generally selfish men who, unlike the soldiers in John Ford’s cavalry films, are not bound together in a homogenous, lasting community. Only the figure of Captain Tyreen carries on the expected romantic tradition of the heroic cavalier. Tyreen dies in the final battle against the Emperor Maximillian’s forces, but his single-handed charge against the enemy is an idealistic gesture that enables the twelve survivors to escape across the river into Texas. Tyreen may damn Major Dundee and the Major’s flag, but Tyreen carries that flag into a glorious death as is possible in the world of Peckinpah.
MAJOR DUNDEE attempts a great deal, and in some measure succeeds, in spite of its mutilated form. Within its epic proportions lurk some of the techniques and creative impulses that later achieve full fruition in Peckinpah’s indisputable masterpiece, THE WILD BUNCH