Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.
If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident. And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.
That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.
There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.
In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.
Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.
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