Major Dundee is one of Sam Peckinpah’s early works, a highly stylized Western that fits perfectly the outsized performances of its stars, Charleton Heston and Richard Harris. Neither the story, the dialogue or the acting can be called realistic, but it is what it claims to be, a rousing entertainment.
Near the end of the American Civil War, Major Amos Dundee (Heston) is a former Union cavalry office now stuck out in the New Mexico territory commanding a prison full of local criminals, deserters and Confederate prisoners. His biggest problem is a band of renegade Apache, led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) who have been rampaging through the territory, killing white settlers and stealing the male children to be raised by the Apache as warriors.
After one such massacre, Dundee sets out to pursue Charriba into his winter haven in Mexico. Unable to spare enough men from his own command, Dundee enlists some of the inmates, including 20 Confederate soldiers commanded by Captain Ben Tyreen (Harris). Dundee and Tyreen were old friends before the war but have little but hate for each other. Also joining the expedition are a handful of black soldiers, led by Aesop (Brock Peters), who are tired of cleaning stables and want to fight like the white soldiers, and a handful of others, including a preacher (R. G. Armstrong) with a particularly two-fisted way of delivering the gospel. Dundee’s own men include Sam Potts (James Coburn), a tough one-armed scout, the spit-and-polish Lieutenant Graham (Jim Hutton) and young Trooper Ryan (Michael Anderson, Jr.), a survivor of the last massacre.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Mexico is under French control at the time, meaning that Dundee’s force will technically be committing an act of war against a friendly European power.
The operation does not go well from the start. They are ambushed almost immediately and lose much of their supplies. To replenish, they resort to “liberating” a small Mexican village from the French. This earns them the allegiance of Teresa (Senta Berger), a pretty German expatriate for whom both Dundee and Tyreen have eyes. As a result, the small band finds itself pursued by French soldiers while chasing the elusive Charriba.
Even though Major Dundee is told rather broadly on almost all levels, it is not without nuance. The titular hero, Dundee, is not a completely sympathetic character, coming across as a pompous martinet willing to go to any length to restore the tarnished luster of his military career. The film’s supposed “villain,” Tyreen, is often shown to be a more reasonable and honorable man. Halfway through the film, when he vows to kill Dundee once they have caught and destroyed the Apache, the audience does not necessarily blame him.
Major Dundee is only Peckinpah’s second film, and while not as boldly assured as his next, The Wild Bunch, it is definitely an impressive work for a young director. The new DVD version restores 13 minutes of footage deleted by the studio when the film was released. Never having seen the original version, I can’t say that this new cut is better, but I can’t imaging that cutting such a large chunk out of this movie would improve it.