Disconsolate, brooding, jangled, U.S. cavalry officer Amos Charles Dundee finds himself, toward the end of the Civil War, in the military doghouse because of his undisciplined performance at Gettysburg. Relegated to the role of prison warden, he schemes to get back into action; he will lead a renegade army of impressed Confederate prisoners and other outcasts into Mexico in pursuit of a renegade band of Apaches, led by his own mirror-image, Sierra Chariba, to retrieve the three white boys they have kidnapped during a raid. Captain Benjamin Tyreen, the leader of the Confederate contingent, pledges loyalty until Chariba is captured or killed, whereupon he pledges to kill Dundee, his former friend-turned-nemesis.
Major Dundee, Sam Peckinpah’s third feature and the first to go over-budget, announces at the outset the tragic outcome of the mission that the film portrays: Everyone loses his life, except for the young bugler whose record of the mission is contained in his diary. The death of Sierra Chariba signals Dundee’s end as well; ironically, it is by accident that the kidnapped children turn up alive. And yet the film’s final image, of the troop heading back from Mexico to Texas, shows Dundee among the survivors; killed, Tyreen is no longer a threat to him. What then happened? Has the film passed entirely into the alternate American “reality” of myth? Were Dundee and his men court-martialed and executed for “going off the reservation,” with the bugler perhaps spared because of the account of the escapade that his diary provided? The final shot indeed pulls tantalizingly against our foreknowledge of the outcome. It makes for a puzzling, provocative finish.
Immediately preceding it is a well staged confrontation between Dundee’s troop and a force of French soldiers occupying Mexico—one of several touches alerting 1965 audiences that Peckinpah was taking aim at colonialism and colonialist attitudes and comparing U.S. military intervention in Vietnam and France’s earlier role in what was called French Indo-China. (Serendipitously, the colors of France are the same as those of the U.S.) However, not all that many “got” Peckinpah’s point way back then because Major Dundee attracted relatively few patrons.
The film became something of a legend as a “troubled” production. Harry Julian Fink’s original story and screenplay was overhauled by Peckinpah and Oscar Paul. As stated, Peckinpah kept shooting and shooting, perhaps in search of a through-line of sense. The producer balked and slashed the director’s cut; the studio, Columbia, made further cuts. In 2005, the latter series of cuts, adding up to fifteen minutes of material, was restored. The version we now have is all we can ever hope to see.
It isn’t worthless, but it is disjointed, somewhat fanciful, and not well acted. Charlton Heston as Dundee is better than Richard Harris as Tyreen, but not much better. The visual style is “soft”; Peckinpah’s shots lack definition, unlike the brilliantly sculpted ones in his upcoming The Wild Bunch (1969).
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