Sunday, December 6, 2009

Max Mex Movies Post III: Major Dundee

"Major Dundee" was released in 1965, directed by the late, great Sam Peckinpah and stars Charleton Heston and Richard Harris. Usually cited as an example of a "flawed masterpiece" the movie had a great many troubles and Peckinpah broke many of his own rules in making it, such as starting filming without a finished script and thus having to 'make it up as he went'. He was also hamstrung by the big shots at Columbia and himself became quite literally over-intoxicated with Mexico while shooting on location that he was out of action for a while; an episode which manages to make it into the movie. Nonetheless, having Peckinpah's name attached to it alone would be enough to warrant the film a second look.

Major Amos Dundee, the title character, played by Charleton Heston who is at his best, is a southern-born Unionist officer in the American War Between the States. Because of some trouble at the battle of Gettysburg he is cast off to command a prison-fort on the remote New Mexico frontier where one of his prisoners is a former friend turned bitter enemy named Captain Benjamin Tyreen, an Irish Confederate cavalryman played to great effect by Richard Harris. When Apaches attack a Union column at a nearbye ranch, slaughtering the adults and kidnapping the children, Major Dundee hopes to win glory and the good graces of his superiors by bringing the Indians to heel. To do this he takes volunteers from his own command, recruited outlaws and renegades as well as a large number of Confederate prisoners -obviously not a command born to operate efficiently or with great esprit d'corps.
The Apaches have gone to Mexico and Dundee and his mixed column pursue them where they are bound to become embroiled in the on-going war between the French and the Juaristas. James Coburn makes a good appearance as a grizzled scout and many other familiar faces will be noticed from the western genre, even Slim Pickens showing up. As with all Peckinpah films it has a gritty realism about it and plays out as a sort of "Moby Dick" type story on horseback. The plot does tend to wander off from time to time and we must endure a slight romantic subplot that seems to exist for no other reason than to have a woman in the picture. All the while enduring the tensions within their own command Dundee and company pursue the Apaches, liberate a Mexican village from the French, living off the enemy for their supply and the "good guys" do not always win.
There are some inaccuracies as usual and like many of these types of movies "Major Dundee" shows the conflict in Mexico in nationalistic terms as Mexicans vs. the French. The only mention of Emperor Maximilian is his name on the infamous "Black Decree" which is displayed next to some executed Mexican villagers. Dundee loses heart at one point and it takes his enemy Tyreen to motivate him to continue on with his expedition. Because of the way the story wanders off course occasionally some might be let down by the final confrontation with the Apaches after which the troops must only deal with the French in order to get back to Texas. It does have its flaws, but for me, the erratic nature of it tends to add something of the surreal nature of the conflict on the fringes of the second Mexican Empire.
"Major Dundee" is not an excellent movie, but it should be kept in mind that this was only Peckinpah's second major film effort and he learned alot from it. There are things I don't like about it but the shooting is great, the main players give great performances and it has a rough realism that many of the classic "cavalry" pictures lack. So, on the whole, I would recommend it for those interested in the Mexican Empire period, the western genre and Peckinpah fans have probably seen it already. I would suggest viewing the new extended version which, even if not correcting all of the flaws at least has a much better score to offer.


  1. WELL, You DID it! You showed Mile and the Bots! They'd be Perfect for a lot of Olsd Movies! I've never seen or even heard of this one though.

  2. Sam Peckinpah is known for homages to other filmmakers in his movies and probably none so much as 'Major Dundee', so I thought I'd add a little homage to Joel, Mike & co on the SOL. lol


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