Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee (1965)

“How can we catch the wind — or destroy an enemy we never see?”

Near the end of the Civil War, a Union cavalry leader (Charlton Heston) recruits a former-friend-turned-Confederate (Richard Harris) — as well as other prisoners-of-war, scoundrels, and a small group of Black soldiers — to help him fight a battle across the Mexican border against the Apache Indians.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cavalry
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Civil War
  • James Coburn Films
  • Jim Hutton Films
  • Mexico
  • Misfits
  • Native Americans
  • Richard Harris Films
  • Rivalry
  • Sam Peckinpah Films
  • Warren Oates Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, while this “okay Sam Peckinpah epic western” — made in between Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) — “contains several sweeping battle scenes,” the “emphasis is more on Bligh-Christian infighting between strict military man Charlton Heston and the more humane Richard Harris”, as well as “the tormented Heston’s personal journey” and “how Dundee’s troop, comprised of diverse elements, comes to represent imperialistic, impure, but somehow noble America.”

He points out (and many agree) that the “picture is confusing and boring at times,” though “it’s hard to judge because Columbia Studios broke the contract with Peckinpah and edited [the] film itself.” (See DVD Savant’s extensive overview of the film’s production, release, and re-release history if you’d like to read more.) He notes that because “Peckinpah wasn’t allowed to film several pivotal scenes that would have added more than an hour to the already lengthy running time” (the truth is more complicated than this), he “disowned this film” — and “some will recognize The Wild Bunch as his partial remake.” Meanwhile, Peary argues that “Heston’s cold, deeply flawed character is far too complex for the actor to play,” thus making it “hard for us to figure out what is going on in his head at any given time,” but he does make note of the “excellent cast” overall.

I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s assessment of this disappointing western, which contains a reasonably interesting and coherent first hour, only to go flying off into frustratingly opaque directions for the remainder of its running time. The female characters — primarily Senta Berger as a German-born beauty who falls for Heston — are nothing more than romantic bait for the men:

… and the Apaches (perhaps predictably) are almost completely dehumanized. While this film has cult fans who consider it a guilty favorite, I can’t recommend it as must-see.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Sam Leavitt’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a one-time look simply for its historical significance, and Peckinpah fans will consider it must-see.


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