During the American Civil War, Major Dundee, commander of a remote stockade, leads a cavalry outfit of Union regulars, Confederate prisoners and disreputable civilians in pursuit of an Apache war party who have escaped to Mexico.
‘Fall in Behind the Major.’ Sam Peckinpah’s first epic-scale Western was taken from him in post-production, severely re-edited and stuck with a music score he hated. In 2005, a longer version more in accord with his vision was assembled, and an entirely new score composed by Christopher Caliendo. Neither cut is in a league with Sam’s greatest work, but both have so many wonderful things that they’re worth watching.
One of the first Westerns made with Vietnam in mind, Dundee now seems to address the perennial problem of what the hell America thinks it’s doing sending ill-prepared, internally-fractious military expeditions into third-world countries. Focused on catching a renegade Indian, Dundee still can’t keep his own men – Confederate rebels, freed black men, horse-thieves, a lunatic artilleryman, one-armed half-Indian scout James Coburn and Irish Southern officer Richard Harris – in line, and there’s a powerful stretch in which the granite-jawed, wide-shouldered Charlton Heston turns into a drunken derelict when cut off from his command.
In Mexico, the cavalry find a village of willing senoritas (including out-of-place Senta Berger) and oppressed peoples, but find themselves up against another, even stranger alien army – the French, who oppose the undisciplined Yankees with terrifying precision in a final battle at the Rio Grande.
Heston and Harris square off against each other, but the heart comes from Peckinpah’s great supporting cast: Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, L.Q. Jones.
It makes amazing use of the wide screen, marshalling armies of men on horses against threatening landscapes, and the action scenes show stirrings of the genius that will deliver The Wild Bunch.
Showed Peckinpah's promise and is definitely thought provoking but a minor Western for the time.