Sam Peckinpah’s career was filled with great Westerns: we all know of Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). He revitalised the genre, helping forge a fresh perspective on the Western in its twilight phase. However, this overview omits the flawed, fascinating Major Dundee (1965), an underrated, thought-provoking vision of Unionist-Confederate tensions and private wars.
Charlton Heston plays the titular martinet, running a prisoner-of-war camp full of Confederates during the American Civil War. After a family of ranchers are killed by a band of Apaches, Dundee assembles a rag-bag troop of soldiers, prisoners and scouts in an attempt to redeem himself after prior misdemeanours and gain glory. Within this party is a run-down of some of the finest actors of the 1960s: Richard Harris as a proud Southern captain, James Coburn playing a wily scout, Brock Peters, an African-American soldier, along with Jim Hutton, Mario Adorf, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens… The list of great character actors swells the ensemble, creating a vivid patchwork of performances. Combined with the dialogue written by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul and Peckinpah, it comes together to form a salty, tough piece of cinema.
Heston delivers one of his best performances, sparring against Harris, and offering a view not of a paragon of army know-how, but a dictatorial glory-hunter. Peckinpah’s direction is also remarkably assured, juggling the large cast ably and in first half, providing a relentless, thrilling momentum. So why is the film less well know within his filmography?
Sadly, it is due to the film having no second half. The script bogs down in a Mexican village and never recovers coherence; Peckinpah fell out with the studio and the producers leading to the picture being taken away from him, resulting in savage cutting, particularly to the latter half of the film. Even the restored version from 2005 only improves things slightly. The fundamental problem was that Peckinpah, unlike with his next film The Wild Bunch, never figured out how to resolve the character of Dundee himself. Only with the final, climactic confrontation between the colonial French army and Dundee’s men at the U.S.-Mexican border does the movie regain its spirit, but it’s too late to provide a satisfying finale.
It ends on an uncertain note, perhaps appropriately for a film which grapples with the thorny issues of military hubris and intervention, the complex themes contained within the film reflected by the behind the cameras drama. This results in the film being consistently intriguing even if it never congeals into a coherent whole. Peckinpah had a strong, unique vision of the American West, mixing nostalgia with penetrating insights into the U.S. in the nineteenth-century, facing up to the often poisonous brew of tensions within the nation. When combined with an intuitive sense of creating mesmerising cinema, even Peckinpah’s lesser films reward keen attent.