Tag Archives: Major Dundee

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.

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Major Dundee (1965)

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.