Major Dundee: Charlton Heston gives a towering performance in Sam Peckinpah’s epic civil-war Western

 Major Dundee(1965), starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris, was Sam Peckinpah’s first big studio film. But the studio took it away from him in post-production, and was ultimately released in a version which he never approved. But whatever is left in this version still makes for a near-great film with some great themes, moments and performances.

Of all the great directors who had endless feuds with movie studios, Sam Peckinpah was in a league of his own. Directors battling movie studios is nothing new, it started from the silent era. Maverick directors like Erich Von Stroheim, Joseph Von Stromberg and Orson Welles had their movies cancelled midway; or had them replaced by another director; or had the editing of the picture taken away from them; But all that was on account of their obsessive yen for perfection, the grandiosity of their vision or even for the fact that they were taking their films in a direction that was going to be unpopular with the audience and hence the studio was bound to loose a lot of money. But with Peckinpah, it was mainly alcohol and drug addiction, apart from his highly volatile and confrontational nature that would make him a pariah in the business. Some say that it was the ill treatment he got from the studio establishment- who systematically destroyed his pictures- that drove him to self-destruction; others say that it was his self-destructive nature that led to the studios taking over his pictures. Anyway, the fact remains that, apart from one or two, all his movies were taken away from him and released in versions that Peckinpah never approved. Unlike other directors like Welles, who had a highly artistic bent, and was considered commercially unviable, Peckinpah mostly made movies in the popular genre of Westerns. He was well qualified to handle the western genre as both sides of his family had migrated to the American West by covered wagon in the mid-nineteenth century. Peckinpah began auspiciously enough as a director. He entered the scene with the little remembered 1961 western The Deadly Companions and then made his first real impact a year later with Ride the High Country, starring aging cowboy actors Randolph Scott and Joel McRae. The film was shot, edited and released exactly the way Peckinpah imagined, and, without any hiccups either from the studio’s side or from Peckinpah’s side. This would be the last time that this would happen in Peckinpah’s career; because starting with his very next film things would start going wrong for him. His next film happened to be Major Dundee: an ambitious epic western that was supposed to elevate Peckinpah to the level of an A list auteur would end up tarnishing his reputation forever. Peckinpah was chosen to direct Major Dundee thanks to some lobbying from star Charlton Heston, who was a big fan of Ride the High Country.  The studio, Columbia pictures, at the time, was coming off the huge success of David Lean’s mammoth roadshow epic Lawrence of Arabia and they had envisioned Major Dundee as a  roadshow version of a John Ford western. And to this end, Major Dundee was budgeted at more than four million dollars, had a schedule of three months and was to have a running time of three hours.

But problems started immediately when Peckinpah went on his location scouting trip to Mexico. He started choosing locations where it was impossible to transport men and material. Seeing the erratic behavior of the director, a panicked studio cut down the budget and schedule of the film and downgraded the production from a roadshow presentation to a normal one. From thereon the film’s production went down hill, with Peckinpah becoming more and more confrontational with the studio. There was also the issue that the studio, the director and lead actor Charlton Heston, all wanted to make a different kind of movie. Studio wanted a regular ‘cavalry vs Indians’ western, while Heston was looking to make a character driven film, and Peckinpah was aiming for a huge, bloody epic, something like Moby Dick on a horseback, with Major Dundee as a Captain Ahab like character. It goes without saying that the shoot was tumultuous; the film went way over budget and over schedule and when the shooting was finally over, Peckinpah was dismissed from the post-production process and the studio cut its own truncated version of the film, which was released to lukewarm reviews and tepid box office. Peckinpah’s reputation would be tarnished to such an extent that he wouldn’t work for another 4 years; but when he did, he would make his greatest masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, that would alter the face of the American western.

But whatever of Major Dundee that survived in the truncated version is very fascinating and sometimes downright brilliant and gives an inkling to the kind of great movie it would have been if Peckinpah was allowed to do his job; or Peckinpah was sober and competent enough to do his job properly. A restoration of the film was carried out in 2005, which added 15 more minutes of footage to the released version; they also replaced the original, frequently inapt musical score by Daniele Amfitheatrof with a brand-new soundtrack by silent film scorer Christopher Caliendo, but Peckinpah’s original cut of 160 minutes seems to have been lost forever. Like several of Peckinpah’s films, Major Dundee deals with the complex relationships between friends\comrades\lovers who find themselves on the opposite sides of each other. Like McRae and Scott in Ride the High Country and then later, William Holden and Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch ;James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and even Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in The Getaway ; Major Dundee also features two characters at the center of the narrative :Amos Dundee(Charlton Heston) and Benjamin Tyreen(Richard Harris), who were friends once, but are enemies now and who are forced to work together to achieve a common objective. Dundee and Tyree are both southerners who were friends and were together at west point. But later they became bitter rivals; Dundee cast the deciding vote in Tyreen’s court-martial from the U.S. Army  (prior to the American Civil War) for participating in a duel, leading to Tyreen’s dismissal from the service and his later becoming an officer in the Confederate Army. Dundee remained with the Union army and, once the civil war breaks out, they would find themselves on opposite sides. Tyreen is captured during war and he becomes a prisoner in the  POW camp run by Dundee in the New Mexico Territory. Dundee is a highly egotistical officer and craves for personal glory more than anything. The reason why he is now running a prison is because he has been relieved of his command for an unspecified tactical error at the Battle of Gettysburg; it seems that he showed too much initiative, ignoring the orders of his superiors. Even the reason he cast his vote against Tyreen at the court martial was to appease his bosses and advance his career. Tyreen takes this as a betrayal, not only from his friend , but also from his country, since fighting the dual is not a court martial offence in the south. So now he carries a fierce grudge against his old friend as well as against the United States and doesn’t want anything to do with either of them. But Dundee would soon need Tyreen’s help, in a mission that would once again be intended for his personal glory. It so happens that Apache war chief, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), is running wild in the territory, killing settlers and destroying property. When Charriba massacres a family of ranchers and a relief column of cavalry at the Rostes Ranch, Dundee sees an opportunity for career-advancement; If he manages to nab Charriba and rescue the children the Apaches kidnapped from the ranch, then that would impress his superiors to give him back his command. To this end, he sends out his scout, Samuel Potts (James Coburn), to locate Charriba, even as he begins raising his own private army.

Starting with Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) , the bugler who is the only survivor of the massacre, Dundee recruits a horse thief, a drunken mule-packer, a vengeful minister, and a small group of black soldiers, who were formerly slaves. Dundee also  (reluctantly) appoints the inexperienced Lieutenant Graham (Jim Hutton) as his second in command. But they are not enough. He realizes that he would have to take the help of confederate soldiers under Tyreen; swallowing his pride, he requests Tyreen for some of is men. Tyreen refuses Dundee’s request outright, even with the threat of “being hanged to death” hanging over his head as well as his several comrades. Eventually, Tyreen changes his mind and accepts Dundee’s offer. He binds himself and his men to loyally serve Dundee, but only “until Apache are taken or destroyed.“, a statement that will be repeated again and again throughout the film. Thus Dundee’s ragtag army sets forth on their mission to capture the Apaches; they cross the Rio Grande and enters Mexico; Dundee’s army is immediately bogged down by infighting between unions and confederates and it will take great effort form Tyreen to calm things down. On top of that, Charriba proves to be a very difficult enemy. The cunning Apache lures them into a trap, and in an ambush on Christmas eve, he eliminates almost half of Dundee’s army and most of their supplies. A defeated Dundee is forced to seek asylum in a nearby Mexican village for replenishing his supplies. Worse, finding the village impoverished and unable to supply them, He is forced to raid a garrison of French soldiers, thus making an enemy of them too. The rest of the film deals with Dundee and his army struggling to survive in a hostile, alien territory, as they take on two enemies at the same time; they are running away from the French soldiers even as they are pursuing the Apaches. In between, there are desertions, executions, a brief romance  and even Dundee turning into a tragic hero; wounded, humiliated and an alcoholic. But as with all great heroes, Dundee rise up again to lead his men to victory over Charriba. His army also manage to fight off the French and renter the United Sates territory, though at a great cost; Tyreen and several other members of Dundee’s army perish in battles, with only Dundee, Graham, Potts, Ryan, Sergeant Gomez and few of the  Confederates surviving.

Major Dundee had a complex and highly interesting concept with echoes of John Ford’s The Searchers, Howard Hawk’s Red River, J. Lee Thompson’s Guns of Navarone and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia , but i don’t subscribe to the view that it was some kind of Moby Dick in the Wild West. The character of Dundee can be placed among the best depicted, and most interesting, in the history of western movies, but it is definitely not Captain Ahab, because Dundee is more obsessed with his personal glory, and not the destruction of a formidable enemy; Charriba and the Apaches are just a ruse for him to gain glory in battlefield and get back his command.. He is a frustrated soldier and an egomaniac, who knows nothing other than to fight, and he finally get his chance to make war against everybody: the Apaches, the French army and even his own soldiers. But then, he starts facing one defeat after another from an enemy who seems to disappear into thin air after repeatedly humiliating him and he doesn’t know how to handle it; he goes to pieces and his physical wound is just a manifestation of his mortal tiredness and ennui; he sinks into drunkenness, dirt, brutish dejection. Then the Apaches reappear and Dundee finds the strength to exit from his self-built nightmare; he is rejuvenated and ends up defeating his enemies. This is an extraordinary ‘western’ hero and represents Peckinpah’s take on the hawkish nature of the American military leaders, who are heroes during wartime , but are ineffectual during peacetime; and they keep whipping up conflicts all around the world, so that they can prove their worth and effectiveness. And it is interesting to note that Dundee’s army, with it’s disparate group of characters: Yankees, southerners, African-Americans, native tribes, Mexicans, priests, horse thieves, etc. etc., is meant to represent the American nation; and the nation stays united only if it has a common enemy to defend against (or pursue) and Dundee is very much meant to represent the ruling\military class, who repeatedly use this ruse to keep their nation united; that’s always been one of the main contradictions of the American republic. Dundee maybe driven only by his own ambition, but once he crosses the Rio Grande his troop will rally behind him no matter how ruthless or corrupt he becomes. When faced with a foreign(French) adversary, American identity-confusion both political (North, South, Texican) and personal (black, white, Mexican, Indian) melts away and Dundee’s motley troop becomes one strong fighting unit, representing one strong nation. It was after World War II that America emerged as the most powerful nation in the world and Peckinpah, who had himself suffered a lot in that war, digs into this. Though Peckinpah was once touted to be John Ford’s successor, the truth is that he is an anti-John Ford, and his films plays out as a revisionist versions of Ford’s western, where the gruesome realities of life (and especially death) in the Old West aren’t simply hinted at, they’re shown in all their bloody splendor. Unlike Ford’s gorgeous monument valley, Peckinpah’s landscape is brutal and unforgiving, littered with bloodied corpses all around; on ground, on trees, in water.

The film has a lot of flaws. The unfinished nature of the script is very obvious . But the film has a visual beauty that i have never found in any of his other films, even The Wild Bunch. This is the most classical of all Peckinpah movies; this was before he developed his frenetic style of filmmaking, with multiple camera setups and rapid editing. Here, the the scenes are allowed to play out without many cuts, which allows the viewer to admire the beauty of the composition of individual frames. An early scene in the prison camp, where Dundee addresses the prisoners at night is a pure visual delight; the arrangement of the actors in symmetry with the sets and props is magnificent. The same goes for  a lot of outdoor sequences involving horses. The opening sequence , when Dundee and his men rides into the survey the destruction of Rostes Ranch is superbly choreographed and so are the sequences in the Mexican village; with Heston displaying his horse riding skills at several points in the film. But the two major action set pieces of the film: the ambush on Christmas eve and the final battle with the French are disappointing. They are choppy and confusing, showing that Peckinpah wasn’t yet comfortable handling sequences of that scale; or they were messed up on the editing table by the studio.. But where Peckinpah really scores is in delineating the relationship between Dundee and Tyreen. Their relationship is superbly written in the script, with a subtlety that let the viewer infer the past without slowing down the film. And starting with their names, Peckinpah tries a lot of subversion. Their nature is totally opposite to their names: Dundee is the tyrant, while Tyreen is the Dandy, who wears feathers in his cap, is fanciful and charms the ladies. The casting of the actors is also perfect; it’s hard to find another film were Charlton Heston has been so perfectly cast. The role requires an actor who is part performer part poseur, and Heston is that actor, because Dundee is a leader who seems to be leading his troops on a noble mission, but the truth is something less noble. So he has to repeatedly make grand postures about the nobility of his mission, to others and to himself, while deep within himself he knows the truth. And for the most part of the film Heston plays it straight, just as if Dundee is another noble hero in his gallery of noble heroes like Moses, Ben-Hur, El Cid and so on, which makes his duplicity even more chilling. Peckinpah, on his part, does everything to accentuate it. For most part of the film, the camera is always reverentially looking up at the towering actor, who fills the frame like a giant. It’s only after he goes to pieces in Durango, after facing successive defeats and being wounded from an arrow,  that he starts becoming diminutive and finally, in a truly brutal moment we see him lying in the dirt, licked on by a dog as the camera looks down on him. It’s not clear whether Peckinpah actually directed Heston in this way or whether Peckinpah was pulling a fast one on the famously conservative actor and his ‘noble hero’ persona; just directing him to play it straight, while he was setting things around him to critique that persona without Heston knowing it. Whatever the reasons, this is one of Heston’s greatest performances. It’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role, with that towering persona and commanding voice, who can portray the pompousness, arrogance, ambition, self-righteousness as well as the tragedy and self-loathing of the character so convincingly. On the other hand, Richard Harris is kind of miscast in the role of Tyreen. His formal Shakespearean acting style and dialogue delivery is all wrong for the character and he sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the bunch of brilliant, earthy actors , who would soon become part of Sm Peckinpah’s stock company: James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, Aurora Clavel, Enrique Lucero, all of whom are superb in the film, and add much needed color and weight to the proceedings.

The relationship between Heston and Harris was as acrimonious as their onscreen relationship. Heston was straight-laced, a family man and utterly disciplined about the business of filming, always on time, first on the set and drove Harris (who was late a couple of times) mad by recording his arrival on a stopwatch. He responded by getting a load of alarm clocks and setting them exactly for call time. When they went off, Heston didn’t know what was happening and the Irish actor said that it was just him ‘clocking in’. obviously, Heston was not amused. Peckinpah was often drunk on set, verbally abusive to both cast and crew, and fired no less than fifteen crew-members during the shoot. On one occasion he stormed off, declaring he would prefer the company of rattlesnakes to that of actors. During another confrontation Heston threatened him with a cavalry saber in an effort to stop his abuse. But Heston was steadfast in his support of his director; which was a sentiment that he extended to all his directors; he, famously, stood like a rock behind Orson Welles when the latter was making Touch of Evil; When the studio contemplated firing Peckinpah, Heston saved him by putting his entire fee into the production. At one point Peckinpah got so drunk that he had to be confined to his trailer, where he continued to drink even more. In the end, Heston had to finish the scenes by taking on the directorial duties.  By that stage, the production had overrun by $1.5 million  The first cut of the film came to over four hours , at which point the studio took over control and reduced it to 136 minutes and then later to 122 minutes for general release. Even at that length, the film flopped at the box office, pretty much ending the career of Peckinpah.

It’s very interesting and even shocking to see how much of Dundee’s character graph corresponds with that of Peckinpah’s while making the movie. Peckinpah appears to be on his own quasi-Dundee quest on this picture, a man compelled by unseen forces who found his “mission” unattainable, and who (by some accounts at least) became increasingly unhinged, drowning his sorrows in copious amounts of alcohol in an effort to cope with a deteriorating situation. Peckinpah, like Dundee, began the film without a finished script; without a clear idea as to what he want to do with the film. He only had some grandiose visual and thematic ideas he wanted to accomplish with the film, without fully knowing how to achieve them. And as the shoot progressed, he started falling behind; he came face to face with his own inefficiency in achieving his ambition, which drove him crazy and finally he lost control of his film. Peckinpah was ill equipped to handle a film of this scale at that time, and his own character flaws (as it happened with Dundee’s) added to his defeat. The studio was pretty much like the French in the film, Peckinpah didn’t have to make an enemy of them, but he did, which cost him dearly. And just as Heston’s Dundee, in spite of all his setbacks, would merge victorious at the end, Peckinpah too would have his success, but he would have to wait for some time and, he would achieve that success by practically remaking Major Dundee four years later as The Wild Bunch(1969), which was a commercial success and is considered the director’s masterpiece. But his self-destructive traits would continue to pull him down, and except for The Getaway (1972), starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, Peckinpah would never taste commercial success again. Peckinpah eventually succumbed to the effects of alcohol and drugs, dying of heart failure in 1984, aged 59.  History would prove that the errant but highly talented director was a man ahead of his time, who would gain much more appreciation and respect after his death.