MAJOR DUNDEE —– “Pony soldier! I am Sierra Charriba! Who you send against me now?”
1864. The Civil War is still raging back East, while out West, in New Mexico, Apache warrior ‘Sierra Charriba’ raises enough hell that ambitious Union Army Major ‘Amos Dundee’ (Charlton Heston) takes it upon himself to go after the marauders. He does so with a slapped-together outfit: regular Army volunteers from his garrison, galvanized Confederate prisoners—led by Dundee’s former friend, Captain ‘Ben Tyreen’ (Richard Harris)—and a motley group of scruffy civilians. Their pursuit crosses into Mexico, then occupied by French troops. Ostensibly a rescue effort (Charriba abducted children), the mission becomes a clash of duty v. loyalty, glory v. survival.
Major Dundee hit this bugler boy like a ton of adobe bricks back in 1965, when I saw it on a double-bill with the fun Robert Mitchum adventure Mister Moses. Not many people did see it: a gross of $5,500,000 was 53rd place that year, and against a production cost of $3,800,000 that constituted a flop. Reviews were likewise negative. The 123-minute version that we saw had been blunt-whacked down by its producer and the studio from 160 minutes, and that had itself been eviscerated from its director’s intended epic length. Thankfully, in recent years, some restored footage brings it up to 135. At ten, the name of director Sam Peckinpah meant nothing to me, and all I knew of editing was that in those bosom-heaving ‘Sons Of Hercules’ movies from Italy the voices didn’t match the actors mouths. What I did know was this was the realest-looking western yet: the story was neat, the actors were cool, and, as I related to pals on the playground, this was “the bloodiest movie ever”. Plus, the theme song was made for whistling. *
The script, from Peckinpah and Oscar Saul, has structural problems, yet sports plenty of flinty dialogue. Whatever ultimate aim the scorpion-poking Sam intended was hamstrung a few days before location shooting in Mexico even began, when Columbia Pictures maimed the allotted budget. After the behavior-plagued shoot ended (those troubles mostly self-inflicted from Peckinpah), his relationship (as in crappy) with the producer and studio suits saw him barred from the editing process. The result was a jumpy and confused stew: some ingredients—the compelling cast, rich production detail and savage battle scenes—fresh, bracing and tart; others—character motivation and narrative clarity—missing in action. For sure the compromised end result isn’t the grand Americana epic the director hoped to craft (his own penchant for self-sabotage notwithstanding)—and since the missing footage is gone for good, we’ll never know if it would have been a ‘masterpiece’ or just a longer version of what’s available. Regrettably unfinished or not, so much of what’s left is so good those who’ve been fans from the start feel vindicated in their loyalty.
Though the sober-sided stickler Heston and decidedly un-sober Harris did not enjoy working with each other, their off-screen irritation transferred on-screen to strong dramatic effect, backed by a brace of arresting co-stars in James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr. and Senta Berger. Everyone does quite well, and the supporting players were particularly choice picks: what a crew!—Warren Oates, R.G. Armstrong, Brock Peters, Mario Adorf, Ben Johnson, John Davis Chandler, L.Q.Jones, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, Michael Pate. They all get a chance to shine.
The look and feel of the picture—costumes and makeup, props and settings, attitudes and dialogue—is steeped in a ruggedly authentic texture. The action sequences are superb (legendary stunt man Cliff Lyons directed the 2nd unit), with that furious and gory river battle at the finale one of the most exciting combat set-pieces of the era. Daniel Amfitheatrof’s original rousing score drew/draws mixed reactions, but we’ll sign up with those who think it’s dandy, trouncing the dead doornail dirge re-do that was inserted when the film had restoration work done in 2005. **
* The best reviewer around, Glenn Erickson, is THE authority on Major Dundee. “Forward ho” to his site CineSavant for his extensive and passionate dissections of the film and its tortuous history.
Heston, 41, who famously deferred his salary to help Peckinpah finish the picture, did class-act work in three other epics that year: The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Agony And The Ecstasy and The War Lord. 34-year-old hellion Harris (flush from getting an Oscar nomination for This Sporting Life), went on to seize attention in Hawaii, The Bible and Camelot. Their four co-stars were all in similar positive career momentum. Coburn, 36, hit the big-time next year with Our Man Flint. Charming in a Jimmy Stewart way, Hutton, 30, mounted up again for The Hallelujah Trail, an expensive cavalry comedy that also misfired. Anderson, 20, was flush with work—The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Sons Of Katie Elder and another big-scale ’65 cavalry western partially shot in Mexico, The Glory Guys. Peckinpah wrote the script on that one, but someone else directed, and not very well. It limped in at 97th place. 23-year-old Austrian beauty and Dundee alumnus Senta Berger featured in that picture, as did the indefatigable Slim Pickens. The estimable Senta would later turn up, with Coburn, in Peckinpah’s 1977 WW2 saga Cross Of Iron.
The brilliant-meets-loon Peckinpah, already in trouble over Dundee‘s battles, was subsequently fired from The Cincinnati Kid, and became basically persona non grata in Hollywood until resurrection in 1969 via The Wild Bunch.
** Someone, when Major Dundee was partially restored in 2005, had the enormously pretentious idea to take “artistic intention” upon themselves and insert a new music score. A shame that Ben Johnson’s ‘Sgt. Chillum’ or R.G. Armstong’s ‘Rev. Dahlstrom’ weren’t around to spit tobacco or box ears: Christopher Caliendo’s kill-the-mood work might be just the dullest soundtrack inflicted on a movie since Michel Legrand murdered Never Say Never Again. Much-scorned ‘sting-noise’ aside, we’ll take Daniele Amfitheatrof’s charging original any day. “Fall-in behind the Major…”