Major Dundee 4.0 stars

Major Dundee movie poster
  • Rated PG-13

Sam Peckinpah's first big-budget production, a Civil War-period Western of knotty complexity, to do with a mixed-nuts posse of Union regulars, Confederate POWs, a handful of custodial "coloreds," Indians, and ragtag civilian volunteers in pursuit of an Apache raiding party south of the border, and pursued in turn by a platoon of the French occupation army. It sounds almost farcical in so brief a summary. It plays remarkably well, despite the purported butchery of it by the studio. In retrospect, after the director's numerous other battles with the brass and after the degeneration of his career into self-parody and impersonal potboilers (The Killer Elite, The Osterman Weekend), it becomes more apparent that the true subject of the film is not so much, in a line lifted from the daily-diary narration, "a command divided against itself," not even so much a nation divided, as it is a man divided, a man conflicted. The true subject, to come right out with it, is Peckinpah himself. The two principal antagonists — Maj. Dundee (Charlton Heston at his sculptural best), the Union officer fallen out of favor with his superiors and relegated to the role of jailkeeper at a remote New Mexico outpost, and Capt. Tyreen (Richard Harris at his Brando-est), the Confederate turncoat cashiered out of the U.S. Army and now fallen into captivity — represent two sides of the same coin, former comrades at war with each other in more ways than one, linked by their common Southern backgrounds, by their military demotions, and by the double-E in their surnames. Dundee: the glory-seeker, the self-doubter, the guilty boozer, the headstrong hardliner who can't help but stray from the course, the damn fool. Tyreen: the self-romanticizing rebel, a sophist, a gallant, a dress-up dandy of humble origins, "a fanciful man" who, above all else, "has style." Together they describe their creator to a T, and there's something quite prophetic in the filmmaker's self-analysis through these two grapplers. Not just prophetic, to be sure, but diaristic, a direct reflection of his daily reality on the project, roaming the wilds of Mexico on a mission of doubtful outcome, with inadequate support or approval, an uncertain reception awaiting back home. To the extent that this is prophecy, it's the self-fulfilling kind. One of the men says a mouthful when, talking as the pot to the kettle, he says to the other, "When are you going to learn you made all your own troubles?" With Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Michael Anderson, Jr., and Senta Berger. 1965.

Duncan Shepherd

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