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Monday, August 20, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1965)

3. Major Dundee

He was only two films into his career but Sam Peckinpah already had a reputation as difficult. On his first two films, he feuded with the producers and the stars. None of these kerfuffle would compare to the disastrous production of “Major Dundee.” Charlton Heston, impressed with “Ride the High Country,” brought Peckinpah on to direct. Supposedly, Sam frequently showed up drunk and treated the crew poorly, infuriating Heston. Heston became so angry at Peckinpah, he threatened him with a cavalry saber. The budget was slashed before filming began, causing Peckinpah to go over-schedule. When it was demanded the film be finished quickly, Peckinpah basically gave up. Heston directed the remaining days. Following a disappointing test screening, the resulting film was re-cut and re-scored against the director's wishes. In 2005, the Peckinpah's original vision of “Major Dundee” was restored and released on DVD.

The Civil War rages on. Major Amos Dundee of the Union army, following a mistake at the Battle of Gettysburg, has been sent to head a prisoner-of-war near New Mexico. Along the way, he discovers a group of ranchers and a cavalry unit that were massacred by an Apache war party. Dundee decides to pursue the Apache chief responsible. He recruits prisoners, Confederate soldiers, from the jail to help him on this mission. Captain Ben Tyreen, a Irishman who joined the Confederacy, is among the men recruited. The two factions argue and fight as they head on their mission, Dundee leading them to Mexico and certain doom.

Reoccurring themes continue to emerge across Peckinpah's early movies. Following “The Deadly Companions” and “Ride the High Country,” “Major Dundee” is another Peckinpah movie about men on a mission. As with both of those movies, their straight-forward quest is quickly complicated. Distrust and betrayal simmers between the men as they travel towards their destination. The movie even features another woman being misused by the men around her, as another example of how harsh the world can be. Peckinpah would more-or-less disown “Major Dundee” but he still rewrote the script, which is likely why his themes continue to reappear.

Another big difference between “Major Dundee” and Peckinpah's first two movies is the reasoning behind the conflict in the group. “Major Dundee” is loosely based on fact, inspired by an incident were Confederate prisoners-of-war were recruited by Union forces to fight Indians. In real life, despite being at war, the different sect of soldiers work together fine. In the film, there is conflict between the Yankees and rebels immediately. Dundee is reluctant to use them, threatening their lives frequently. As they march to battle, the Rebs sing “Dixie” while the Yanks sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This characterizes the conflict in a historical light. The eventual resolution, the soldiers fighting together despite their differences, definitely has some sort of significance.

But “Major Dundee” is not really a story about men learning to work together. Instead, it's a tale of a man on an obsessive mission of self-destruction. Both during production and in the years since, the film has been compared to “Moby-Dick.” Amos Dundee is a Captain Ahab-like figure. Both pursue their goal until it destroys them. The motivation is very different. Ahab is driven by revenge. Dundee is driven more by pride, by a need to prove his worth. The story eventually reaches the point where Dundee's original goal is all but forgotten, the leader marching his men towards death entirely because of mistakes he's made. In this light, “Major Dundee” reads as another Peckinpah story about the fragility of the masculine ego bringing death and pain down on everyone around him.

Apparently, the original screenplay for “Major Dundee” was more of a straight-forward adventure story. One of the few things Charlton Heston and Sam Peckinpah agreed on was the need to make “Major Dundee” more of a character study. Heston subverts his status as a heroic matinee idol to play the deeply unglamorous Dundee. He begins as a hard and ornery man, focused solely on his goal and pissing off everyone around him. Soon, his obsessive desire for glory becomes dangerous, leading more and more of his men towards death. Before the end, Dundee even collapses into an alcoholic stupor, forgetting his mission amidst the drink and women of a Mexican village. Heston certainly makes the most of his chance to play such an unrepentant asshole, creating a fully formed portrait of a man who constantly makes the worst decisions possible.

The historical setting of “Major Dundee” casts the typical western troupes in a more interesting light. Among Dundee’s soldiers are several black men. The Confederate soldiers treat the black men badly, as you’d expect, but Dundee isn’t much better. When they ask to join his march, he only allows it reluctantly, showing a clear disdain for the man. Other racial minorities are treated in a way that shows the prejudice of the time. At first, Dundee is similarly dismissive of the Mexicans before being accepted into their community. As for the Apaches, there are two Indian trackers that work with Dundee. Despite them showing their loyalty to Dundee repeatedly, even dying to help him, he and the other men still regard them suspiciously. “Major Dundee” isn’t quite a western that sets out to deconstruct the western setting but it goes further to show the casual racism and bigotry of the time than most.

“Major Dundee” is obviously a deeply inglorious story, about a hard and foolish man courting death for prideful reasons. Despite Dundee obviously being intended as an unlikable protagonist, the film still feels the need to give him a romantic subplot. While in the Mexican village, he meets Teresa Santiago, the widow of a killed surgeon. He’s obviously attracted to her and attempts to form a relationship. They even have a romantic date by a scenic lake. Eventually, he screws up the relationship by drunkenly sleeping with a Mexican servant girl. This subplot ends up contributing very little to the story, causing the film to drag quite a bit in its second half, despite the best efforts of the more than capable Senta Bergan.

Co-lead with Heston is Richard Harrison as Benjamin Tyreen, the Confederate captain that is dragged along on this journey. At first, Harrison’s Tyreen is deeply resentful of Dundee and resist his mission at every turn. As the story evolves, we learn that the Confederate soldier is more reasonable than his Union commander. Tyreen is the one ultimately responsible for dragging Dundee out of his drunken stupor. There’s definitely a subversion of historical perception here, by making the Confederate soldier the more reasonable of the two. What point the film is exactly making there, other than just working to make Dundee seem more unhinged, is murkier. Either way, Richard Harrison is very good in the part, charming and roguish as the world falls down around him.

The film has a large cast and most of the supporting characters don't get much of a chance to define themselves. Recognizable faces crop up in small roles. Slim Pickens appears as a drunken mule packer in just a few scenes. R.G. Armstrong has a memorable part as a minister who joins up with the cause. Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones appear as brothers in the Confederate army. It's nice to see these guys but they aren't given much to do. The rest of the supporting cast is harder to grade. James Coburn is quite good as Samuel, the one-armed Indian half-breed that assists Dundee in several scenes. Jim Hutton has an odd role as the film's comic relief, a bumbling artilleryman that is scorned by Dundee several times.

Supposedly, at one point, the script for “Major Dundee” was more explicit than what could have ended up on screen, with stronger violence and profanity. The film we ended up with was still probably more violent than most westerns made at the time. As Dundee and his company overlook the aftermath of the Apache massacre, we see multiple bodies covered with arrows. Including a dead child, the second such sight to appear in a Peckinpah film. Bodies are strug upside down, the implication being they were tortured before dying. In the later scenes, we see a river turned red with blood. Peckinpah was edging ever closer to making the kinds of bloodbaths he would soon be famous for.

“Major Dundee” is not as sturdily directed as Peckinpah's last two features. The film contains the same contrast between the intimate and the epic that characterized Peckinpah's films up to this point. The scenes of Dundee in his office, interviewing potential canidates for his march feel almost like stage plays. The battle scenes, meanwhile, play out in wide cinematic vistas. However, there are a few shots that are downright shaken, when violence brings out at a fort or on the battlefield. Considering Peckinpah didn't even finish directing the movie, ti's hard to say if he's responsible for these moments.

As I said, Peckinpah would essentially have “Major Dundee” taken away from him. The version that premiered in theaters in 1965 ran 123 minutes – a half-hour shorter than the director's cut – and would be poorly received by both critics and audiences. For years, rumors circulated that Peckinpah's version was a masterpiece, badly handled by a handsy studio. In 2005, most of the missing footage was found and an extended cut – running 136 minutes – was assembled. Considering Sam had been dead for 21 years at the time, it's likely the closest we'll ever get to his original vision. Even in this form, “Major Dundee” is a shaggy film. The cast is strong and the concept is interesting but, in execution, it's an aimless and unpleasant watch. The film is most important for featuring the embryonic forms of ideas the director would explore more freely on his next feature. [Grade: C]

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