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.

Pressbook: Sing, Jimmy, Sing – Shenandoah (1965)

Pressbooks (also known as Campaign Manuals) were notorious for coming up with all sorts of insane and inane devices in an attempt to entice the moviegoer. The extremely handsome 20-page A3 pressbook for Andrew V. McLaglen’s Civil War western Shenandoah (1965) was no different in that respect – “racetrack in your area – hold a Shenandoah handicap.”  Or how about this classic: “In Shenandoah the war stops for a cow that wanders between the fighting…a local dairy might be interested: Everything Stops While The Public Drinks Our Milk etc.”

Luckily, the marketeers had some better ideas, mostly based on the traditional folk song of the title which has a hymnal quality. So star James Stewart was roped in to cut a record, released on the Decca label, with special lyrics of that famous song.  For a start the idea of Stewart singing was a clever stunt in itself, but the main aim was not to garner some newspaper coverage but to attract the attention of radio stations and use the record’s cover as a means of encouraging music stores to set up window displays.

And never mind Stewart’s contribution to the canon of singers of the song, the marketing team identified more than 30 other versions of the song by the likes of Harry Belafonte (four versions), Jimmie Rodgers (three) and Guy Lombardo and instrumentals by British jazzman Acker Bilk of “Strangers on the Shore” fame and guitarist Duane Eddy. Decca was putting further promotional push behind an album entitled “The Blue and the Grey, Songs of the American Civil War.”

Theater managers were urged to suggest to radio stations they group some of these tunes together “for an interesting period of broadcast listening, perhaps in a musical segment of Civil War songs or a radio contest to identify the vocalist.”

In addition, the marketing team sought coverage in the television pages of newspapers since many of the supporting cast were small screen regulars – Doug McClure star of The Virginian, Glenn Corbett star of Route 66 and James McMullen a regular on Ben Casey – and newcomer Katharine Ross had been featured in a few shows. “You should take advantage of this away-from-the-amusement-section opportunity to pick up extra publicity space directed to the TV page reader!”  

Of course, the main purpose of a Pressbook was to provide the theater owner with the actual advertisements for the movie. He or she would cut these out and drop them off at the local newspaper which would use them to make up the ads that ran in the newspaper. These came in a variety of sizes from small single column black-and-white efforts to larger five-column full-color ads.

And they also came with an avalanche of taglines (note the varying use of capital letters) and images. The key tagline was “Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley…A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both.”

Or you might have come across these alternatives –“Like giants they stood in the path of two might armies…and with their fighting spirit challenged them both” or “James Stewart, A Giant Of A Man Who Fought For Shenandoah” and “When History Called for Men and Women Larger than Life…Charlie Anderson and his proud family answered the challenge – with courage mightier than guns – and with love that no cannot could ever shatter.”

And there were more: “They reached for their rifles in the name of love…not hate…to challenge two mighty armies” down to the simpler “Shakes The Screen Like Cannon Thunder” and “Where A Mighty Adventure Was Born.”  You might be led to believe from this fusillade of taglines that the marketing department could not make up its minds about which tagline was best and just chucked them all at the theater manager, leaving them to choose.

But that was not the case. The reason behind the disparate taglines was precisely to provide choice, to allow the theater manager to decide how best to market the picture to suit the audience he or she knew best.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.