Friday, September 23, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee (1965) *** ½  
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah.
Written by: Harry Julian Fink & Oscar Saul and Sam Peckinpah.
Starring: Charlton Heston (Major Amos Charles Dundee), Richard Harris (Captain Benjamin Tyreen), Jim Hutton (Lieutenant Graham), James Coburn (Samuel Potts), Michael Anderson Jr. (Trooper Tim Ryan), Senta Berger (Teresa Santiago), Mario Adorf (Sergeant Gomez), Brock Peters (Aesop), Warren Oates (O.W. Hadley), Ben Johnson (Sergeant Chillum), R.G. Armstrong (Reverend Dahlstrom), L.Q. Jones (Arthur Hadley), Slim Pickens (Wiley), Karl Swenson (Captain Waller), Michael Pate (Sierra Charriba).

Sam Peckinpah’s films are filled with violence, and complex ideas about the conflict between values and ideals. They have a very definite idea of what it means to be a man, and his films may be the most misogynistic of any great director. His female characters are most often prostitutes, or sluts, and they almost all drag the male “heroes” of his movies down – getting them into trouble. Major Dundee was his third film as a director – and at that point his most expensive. He started to shoot the movie before a script had been finished, and he ended up going over schedule and budget on the shoot. He edited the film together, and the studio didn’t like it. They took it away from him, cut it down, added a score Peckinpah hates, and released it – to bad reviews and poor box office. It would take Peckinpah four years to make his next film – The Wild Bunch – which would make him a legend. After the success of that film, the studio offered Peckinpah a chance to re-edit Major Dundee, but he declined. He had the idea in his head that Major Dundee was his lost masterpiece, and didn’t want to go back and simply rediscover a failure. In 2005, years after his dead, someone did it for him – adding 12 minutes of footage (bringing it up to 136) and advertising it as only 7 minutes shorter than Peckinpah’s original version. But if Film Comment is to be believed (and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be), than Peckinpah’s cut was actually more like 161 minutes – and he thought that he had taken too much out, and wanted to go back and add another 20 minutes or so. None of that really matters though – the 136 minute version is the closest we will ever get to Peckinpah’s original. What emerges is certainly a flawed film, and yet one that I have a feeling could have been a masterpiece had the film had more time to flush out its themes and characters. So perhaps the original version really was the masterpiece Peckinpah had in his head.

The movie stars Charlton Heston in the title role. He is a Union Officer, who has been sent to oversee a jail in New Mexico, because he has a tough time following orders. The jail contains common criminals, and Confederate POWs, including Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), who went to West Point alongside Dundee, but ended up fighting for the Confederates. The film opens with a massacre of a small village at the hands of the ruthless Apache leader Sierra Charriba, who kills everyone in the village except for three young boys. Despite the fact that they know Charriba will be headed for Mexico, Dundee is determined to go after him, rescue the kids and kill Charriba. But he cannot take his whole Garrison – that would irresponsible – so he asks for volunteers from the prisoners. Eventually, Tyreen and his men agree to participate – but “Only until Carriba is killed or captured” – then Tyreen plans to kill Dundee.

The film is a odyssey in many ways – much more about the journey itself rather than the destination. Peckinpah initially didn’t want to show Charriba in the film at all, and end the film without a conflict between the two sides, which may well have made for a more complex film, but it isn’t quite what he ended up making. Dundee is not unlike Captain Ahab, going after his white whale long after everyone else thinks he has gone insane, or perhaps like Conrad’s Marlow, who is drawn ever deeper into the darkness by his search for Kurtz. Like Heart of Darkness, Major Dundee is more complex than it initially appears to be – giving a complex portrait of it’s major characters, including Carriba and the Apaches, instead of making them into savages, and also including the few African Americans soldiers who also come along with Dundee. They are tired of sitting on the sidelines waiting to fight.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Major Dundee is the two main performances. Charlton Heston could be effective when he played his straight forward, square jawed protagonists in films like Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur and Planet of the Apes, but Major Dundee is a complex role – and one I’m not sure he was up for. Dundee is supposed to be on the edge of madness for much of the movie – especially when he gets injured and has to spend time recuperating – but Heston doesn’t quite get to the level he needs to. Richard Harris was a better actor than Heston, but I had a hard time believing him as a Southern officer. Yes, near the end of the movie they mentioned that he was an Irish immigrant, but his accent was distracting (like Michael Caine, Harris seems to be an actor who doesn’t bother to change his accent no matter where his character is supposed to be from). Dundee and Tyreen are both terrific roles, and some of that complexity comes through, but it’s almost in spite of the performances.

As a Western, Major Dundee seems to be caught between two worlds – the classic, John Ford type Western, and the more modern Western, that Peckinpah mastered in The Wild Bunch. There are moments that deliberately echo John Ford films (and he did cast Ford regular Ben Johnson as one of the Confederate soldiers) – in particular a funeral scene where the men sing “We Shall Gather at the River”. Of course, to a certain extent, the plot outline even resembles Ford’s The Searchers – with his conflicted hero pursuing a Native tribe to try and get back white children before they are corrupted. But just as Ford’s Westerns got more complex as they went along (and he tried to make his Native apology in Cheyenne Autumn), Peckinpah’s ideas about race and Native relations is more complex than the classic Western. When an old Apache is asked why he hunts with Carriba, he answers “Why not? All this land is ours”. There are so major Native characters – like James Coburn’s half breed tracker, and their scout who they distrust right up until they have definitive proof that he is loyal to them (and of course, by then its too late). Yet all of the connective tissue of the movie – whether it be between Dundee and Tyreen, or the ideas about Native identity or racism, even European colonialism (they clash with a band of French soldiers in Mexico) – seem to be somewhat strained, or under developed. Perhaps had Peckinpah been able to make his film 3 hours long like he wanted to, they would have come off better.

And yet, despite all of Major Dundee’s flaws, I couldn’t help but be drawn into it – couldn’t help but be fascinated by it. It is quite clearly the work of Peckinpah, and seeing where this themes explored here are expanded and perfected in films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), simply makes Major Dundee all the more fascinating. We will never know just what Peckinpah’s version of this movie would have looked like. Studio interference and his own stubbornness have made that impossible. But what we are left with is a fascinating artifact by a great director.

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