Villa Rides (1968) ***

Best viewed as Charles Bronson’s breakout movie. Yes, he had played supporting roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, but these had all been versions of the same dour, almost monosyllabic, persona. Here, though somewhat ruthless, he steals the show from the top-billed Robert Mitchum and Yul Brynner with many of the best lines and best situations with an extra slice of humor (make that first-ever slice of humor) to add to the mix. He is the most interesting of the three main characters, in part because he does not have to spout any of the “good revolution/bad revolution” dialog that falls to the other two.

Villa (Brynner) is fighting the Colorados but his superior General Huertas (Herbert Lom) is planning to overthrow President Madero (Alexander Knox). Mitchum is an aeronautical gun-runner from El Paso, initially against the revolutionaries, stranded in Mexico when his plane breaks down. He has just about time to romance a local woman Fina (Maria Grazia  Buccello) before the Colorados arrive, take over the village, start hanging the leaders and raping Fina. Villa saves them, Bronson slaughtering the Colorados with a Gatling gun on the rooftop. Faced with the one-man firing squad that is Bronson, Mitchum turns sides. His  plane comes in handy for scouting the enemy, then bombing them.

The actions sequences are terrific especially Villa’s attack on a troop train. To get Villa out of the way, Huertas puts him in the front line in a suicidal attack on a heavily-defended stronghold which turns into another brilliant set-piece with cavalry charges.  The plot is constantly interrupted by politics of one kind or another and comes to dead stop when Villa is arrested by Heurtas and Villa demands a proper trial. It’s kind of hard to take when a murdering bandit, no matter how legendary, decides that he has been hard done by in the justice department.

That aside, there are interesting attempts to build up his legend. He doesn’t want power for himself, but to give it to the people, although he has sat back and let the first village be attacked so that the people there learn to hate the Colorados enough to join the fight. There’s not really any good guys – Brynner and Bronson are stone-cold killers, Mitchum a mercenary. But Brynner does marry Fina in order to prove that a raped woman should not be treated with dishonor, though he has a tendency to marry other women as well.

Bronson’s unusual one-man firing squad involves him laying on the ground with a pistol in each hand and giving prisoners the opportunity to escape before he shoots them. After all that hard work, he bathes his hands. Then he decides he can kill three men with one bullet, lining them up exactly so he can drill them all in the heart. But he’s also the one who shoots a molester in a cantina, then delivers the classic line: “Go outside and die, where are your manners?” He is at the heart of some well-judged comedy – continually sending back his meals and trying to get out of getting into a plane with Mitchum. Without him, there would be too much justification of slaughter (Brynner) and arguments against (Mitchum). This is the first time in the kind of action role that suits him that he has an expanded characterization.

Brynner did not like Sam Peckinpah’s original script so Robert Towne (Chinatown) was brought in to present Villa in a more appealing light.  Jill Ireland (Mrs Bronson) has a small part and you can also spot Fernando Rey.  

The links below seem somewhat dodgy but you could try the Talking Pictures channel which is free.

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.