Duel at Diablo (1966) ****

Action-packed and plot-jammed revisionist western with fresh performances from James Garner and Sidney Poitier caught up in an Apache uprising. Tough-as-teak ex-cavalry scout Garner has dispensed with his glib smart-aleck persona in favor of world-weariness and Poitier is a revelation as a cocky cigar-smoking ex-cavalry sergeant horse-dealer. Racism here concerns hostility towards Indian squaw Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966), Garner, who had married a Commanche (now dead) the only one to treat her with any decency.

Returned to “civilization,” Andersson wants nothing more than to escape, back to her baby it transpires. Her crime is staying alive after Apache capture when she should have done the “decent thing” and killed herself rather than living as a squaw. But prejudice is leavened by husband Dennis Weaver (minus trademark moustache) who retains tender feelings towards her and, eventually, her baby. Apache chief John Hoyt is equally redeemed by his care towards the baby.  

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, 1963) handles the action with aplomb but it is the Apaches who prove the masters of battlefield strategy, deftly maneuvering the cavalry into an ambush and cutting them to shreds. His biggest problem is delivering logical reasons for all the principals – Weaver is an arms dealer, Garner and Poitier no longer in the army – to join up with Bill Travers’ (Born Free, 1966) cavalry troop. However, rather than slowing the story down, the various complications add further tension.  

Nelson never reins in reality. The cavalry are raw recruits, hardly able to control their mounts. Garner and Poitier don’t buddy-up, there is no camaraderie, and Andersson is an outcast in both worlds. And the good guys are constantly out-smarted by the Apaches, Poitier’s mistake leading to initial ambush, the Apaches targeting water supplies to derail the enemy and resorting to bow-and-arrow in case a stray bullet ignites the ammunition wagons. But it is still a duel, Poitier, Garner and Travers each in turn coming up with brilliant ideas to retrieve what looks like a desperate position trapped in a box canyon.     

We might be more sympathetic towards the plight of the Apaches, shoved into a “hell-hole of a reservation,” had Nelson concentrated less on their brutality, the picture opening with the corpse of a mutilated man, the cavalry under siege at Diablo tortured by the screams in the night of a man being tortured, Andersson told that she will be buried alive. But when any Commanche woman can be killed and scalped just because she married a white man and Andersson viewed as fair game for rapists because she lived with Apaches, you can see how little regard the Native Americans have for their oppressors.

Garner and Poitier are superb and top marks for a rounded performance from John Hoyt, savage one minute, gentle the next. Scotsman Travers and Swede Andersson should have added to the authenticity since immigrants such as these provided the mass of settlers, but Travers seems quite out of place and Andersson never quite delivers the angst required of her situation.  William Redfield (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) can be spotted. Nelson has a cameo and if you look closely you will see a fleeting glimpse of Richard Farnsworth. Western specialist Marvin H. Albert (The Law and Jake Wade, 1958) co-wrote the screenplay from his novel.

You might be able to catch this for free on Sony Action Movies, but otherwise here’s a DVD link. You might get it on Amazon Prime but last time I posted a link for that, it didn’t work.

Major Dundee (1965) ***

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.

Senta Berger was the cover girl for “Showtime,” the monthly magazine for the Odeon cinema circuit in the U.K. and there was also feature inside on the film’s star Richard Harris.

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.

Virtually the entire marketing program for “Major Dundee” was based around the military. The film appeared on the centenary of the ending of the Civil War. The movie most likely to take advantage of that anniversary – Gone with the Wind – was in cold storage, having already taken advantage of the centenary of the start of the war for its umpteenth reissue. So exhibitors were encouraged to put on displays of battle flags sourced from a museum or collector or to arrange a parade with buglers enrolled from youth groups or the church. A horseman dressed in Union colors could ride through the streets to raise awareness and the cinema lobby could be decorated with military equipment and both Union and Confederate flags. Any local person named Dundee might be rounded up. On a different note, Charlton Heston had rustled up his own version of Mexican chili and the recipe was being offered to newspapers. Harry Julian Fink had novelized his screenplay so there was the possibility of bookshop displays and Columbia Records had issued the “Major Dundee March” as a single. Unusually, there was an 8mm film about the film’s stunt men which was intended for sale in cinema lobbies.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.