Monday 28 April 2008

Major Dundee (1965)

As the opening narration tells us, 'In the territory of New Mexico towards the end of the Civil War, an Indian, Sierra Charriba, and his Apache warriors raided, sacked and looted an area almost three times the size of Texas.' Our story begins with a bugler named Timothy Ryan, of the 5th US Cavalry. He was the only man to survive their massacre at the Rostes ranch in 1864, his diary providing the story of the massacre and the campaign that followed against the Indians.

Major Amos Dundee, arriving soon after with his company, is told that the Apaches tend to take young males alive to raise as warriors, thus leaving the suggestion that the three young Rostes boys are still alive. He assembles a select company of thieves, cutthroats and horse thieves to retrieve them from the Apaches, giving himself five days and fifty men to do the job. The fifty comprise Confederate prisoners from his post; coloured soldiers; the odd volunteer and cowboys, drunks or other lowlifes from the vicinity; even a priest who had married into the Rostes family. With these men he has to follow Sierra Charriba into Mexico with its resident army of 30,000 French soldiers.

Most prominent amongst them is a former colleague, Captain Benjamin Tyreen, played by a blistering Richard Harris and a blistering performance was needed to underpin that of Charlton Heston in the lead. I prefer Harris's performance but Heston does everything that's needed for his own. Backing them up are capable hands I know like James Coburn as an Indian scout working for Dundee and Warren Oates as a Confederate prone to desertion, with smaller parts for Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson. Names new to me that stood out include Jim Hutton as Major Dundee's lieutenant, Lt Graham, and Michael Anderson Jr as the bugler who effectively tells our story.

The film itself is a new Peckinpah on me and it says plenty, both in front of and behind the camera. Peckinpah is known for his stylised violence and this certainly has a lot more than Peckinpah's previous film, Ride the High Country which starred old time legends Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Heston and Harris were a generation newer, having been born in 1924 and 1930 respectively, compared to 1898 and 1905 for Scott and McCrae, and the way the story is told feels like a generation newer too. Scott and McCrae feel like they fit in black and white without the very obvious red of blood that's shed here. Peckinpah was at home with that colour, which would become far more apparent in his later films.

I get the impression Peckinpah wanted to tell a lot of stories in this film and he set a lot of them up, but I get the feeling that he didn't know where to take them. It would be easy to blame the studio, as Peckinpah and others did, but I've just seen the extended version that is 136 minutes long, 13 more than the original studio version. Peckinpah's director's cut, which has never been released runs 152 minutes but I can't speak to whether it would have addressed any of these storylines.

The Dundee/Tyreen battle goes nowhere, unless you count what Tyreen does with the flag as satisfying Dundee's motives. Dundee himself is a man who doesn't know what life is unless there's a fight in it and we end leaving one. Conflict between the confederates and the yankees (or even the blacks) sort of fizzles out. The relatively few women in the film are fine but really only serve to set up a particular scene. Even in an extended version, this feels like it should have been far more than it actually is. Maybe Peckinpah was still finding his way to what would become his home turf four years later in The Wild Bunch.

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