Major Dundee may be the threshold Sam Peckinpah crossed to get from amateurish filmmaking to successful, mature directing. His breakout (in terms of “mainstream” filmmaking in the way we’d deem such international success today) came later with The Wild Bunch, but Dundee is every bit as impressive when held up against Peckinpah’s earliest film effort The Deadly Companions and his follow-up Ride the High Country. Less tangentially: Major Dundee is the first Peckinpah film that’s truly worth revisiting.
Charlton Heston stars as the titular Union Major, disgraced after an unspecified maneuver and forcibly removed from his position close to the end of the Civil War. When he and his troops happen across a camp ravaged by brutal Apache, Dundee swears to shift his personal war onto the native tribe. Captured Confederate prisoners from the opposing side – best represented by Richard Harris’s Captain Tyreen – and a few drifting recruits with no allegiance in the actual War – best represented by James Coburn’s mountain man Samuel Potts – round out the field and unite under Dundee’s cause.
What ensues is essentially “Moby-Dick on horseback”, as some have labeled Dundee before with good reason. Dundee’s cause is not dissimilar from Captain Ahab’s in that his vision is singular and unshakeable, no matter the cost or danger to those under his command. Tyreen is a near-perfect analogue for Starbuck, questioning Dundee’s motives and his methods. The young bugler Ryan provides narration for the film and is a sort of Ishmael for the journeyers, while the Apache is largely absent from the film and thus fills the whale-sized shoes of Moby-Dick himself. Analogues aside, Dundee also captures the epic spirit of such Great American Tales in rare and exciting way.
As mentioned in our opening segment of the Peckinpah Director Series on The Deadly Companions, it was not uncommon for the sets of his films to be characterized by chaotic scheduling, mass firings, and no small amount of alcohol consumption on the part of the director himself. Heston famously stood by Peckinpah and all but saved his involvement with the project, while simultaneously claiming that Peckinpah would often wander off and leave Heston to direct in his absence. The difference here is that Dundee is a great film, while Companions really isn’t – at a certain point, the reasons why become unimportant.
Still, another unfortunate thing that characterized Peckinpah’s films (and specifically Dundee) was the tendency for his original cuts to be massively edited and chopped by studio executives. The runtime of Dundee is fairly long, but it’s nowhere near as long as it would have been if Peckinpah had had his way. Regardless, even the shortest cut available is worth a watch.
The triumvirate of Heston, Harris and Coburn is a major driving force of the film, and the character of Amos Dundee is certainly one of Heston’s most underrated roles. Odds are some moron will deem it wise to remake Major Dundee someday in the near future, updating it for the modern age by setting it in a postapocalyptic wasteland and casting Mark Wahlberg as Dundee. The Apache will be replaced by CGI’d robots. Actually, everyone will be replaced by CGI’d robots.
Until then, check out Major Dundee for an early look at a filmmaker on the cusp of international success.