Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Major Dundee

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
The United States of America

Captain Tyreen: “Just what the bloody hell are you doing out here in the first place, Major?”

David Samuel Peckinpah. To this day few directors have had such a widespread influence on cinema as old “Bloody Sam.” As one of the pioneers of the revisionist Western, Peckinpah reshaped the way the world though about the American West. Violent, misogynist, and fearless, Peckinpah's movies reinvented movie violence and the way the world reacted to it. To this day, few films have challenged the mold of cinema as much as his legendary “blood ballet” The Wild Bunch (1969). Its audacity was rooted in its realism, as Peckinpah dared to show what happened when power was given into the wrong hands. In the final shootout, everyone, from heroes to villains and children to young women, were killed. His intentions were noble: to provide a catharsis for audiences who sought violent cinema. By showing the truth, he tried to convince people that violence was an evil, dirty thing. And yet, just like in so many of his films, good intentions led to tragic results. Instead of being turned off, audiences demanded more of the same. Soon, Hollywood was awash in the senseless violence that Peckinpah so despised. Is it any wonder why he abused alcohol and drugs his whole life?

Sam Peckinpah

But things didn't start that way for Peckinpah. Born on February 21, 1925 in Fresno, California, Peckinpah grew up being a cowboy on his grandfather's ranch. He was raised on “trapping, branding, and shooting” as a youngster. It was here that Peckinpah learned how to talk like a cowboy, a trait that would become apparent in the rough dialogue in many of his films. He also learned how to act like a cowboy. And like many of the characters in his films, he witnessed the death of his beloved West. He would later join the United States Marine Corps and serve in China during World War Two. It was here that he picked up his drinking problem and witnessed the violence that would become so prevalent in his films.

Fans of Peckinpah can name several of his greatest and most influential works: The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and Cross of Iron (1977). But to those who know, he directed a little known classic years before Sam Peckinpah became THE Sam Peckinpah. That film was dirty little picture entitled Major Dundee. The story of a group of Union and Confederate soldiers tasked with destroying an evil Apache war chief, Major Dundee can be considered the first true Peckinpah film. That's not to say that it was his first. He actually directed two movies before Major Dundee.

His first film, The Deadly Companions (1961), was more of a learning experience for Peckinpah. While the characters certainly resembled those which would populate his later films, there was nothing particularly interesting about them. For the most part, it is a cut and paste western that could have been directed by anybody else. There was nothing that audiences wouldn't see outside of a spaghetti western. In fact, it wasn't even very violent. His second film, Ride the High Country (1962) is much better. In fact it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. But again, apart from some trademark character development and themes, nothing really set it apart from the other films of the day.

But really, aren't Peckinpah movies because they doesn't make a statement. As many of the characters in his other films would, the main characters learn that it is bad to kill and that ultimately violence leads to nothing. But they doesn't provide any deep, psychological examination of violence that made Peckinpah's movies' classics. And that is what really set Peckinpah's movies apart from the rest: we feel as though we have learned something. His best two films, The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, can be interpreted on two levels. First, they can be interpreted through their gritty and realistic portrayal of violence. The Wild Bunch focused on violence within society and Straw Dogs concerned the innate violence that each soul harbors. Second, they can be interpreted as commentaries on the male id. The Wild Bunch concerns honor and how far men are willing to go to preserve it. Straw Dogs takes a harrowing look at how every man has a desire to protect their homes and what they perceive to belong to them. Each movie places men in extreme situations and examines how they react and how their reactions transform them into different people. The characters are the key factor.

So when I say that Major Dundee is the first true Peckinpah film, I mean it in the sense that it was his first film to try and examine male behavior. The question that Major Dundee seems to ask it: what motivates men to act the way they do? And that is what the film is all about. True, it starts off as a military revenge movie, but as it progresses, we keep asking ourselves why the characters react to situations the way that they do. Why would Yankees and Rebels work together for a common cause when they hate each other so much? Why would racist white soldiers fight alongside of black soldiers? And what drives Major Dundee to seek out the Apache War chief even after it becomes apparent that it is probably a hopeless venture?

Much can be explained by one of the very first shots of the film. We see a destroyed settlement being ransacked by Indians. The ground is littered with corpses which are powerless to stop the Indians from kidnapping their crying children. We then see the credits roll as the settlement catches fire and burns. The chief Sierra Charriba looks over the corpse of a soldier being hung upside down and he shouts, “Who will they send against me now?” After he leaves, Major Amos Dundee arrives to survey the damage. He wants vengeance. And he will go to the Gates of Hell to get it.

Dundee is played by a fiery Charlton Heston. With his trademark growl, he comes across as a man who is used to being in control. Later, when an officer questions one of his orders, all he needs to do is glare at him to shut him up. Heston has always had an overbearing screen presence, and it shows here as he dominates his shots. He perfectly plays the role of Dundee, a man who sees the massacre as a chance to regain lost glory. You see, Dundee was part of the American army in the Civil War. He fought at the Battle of Gettysburg where he made an unspecified tactical error that resulted in him being sent to head a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory. He is obviously a man of wounded pride. Therein lies his motivation: to regain his position. He is not driven by some instinctual racist hatred like John Wayne in The Searchers (1956). All he sees is an opportunity.

But he is also a realist. In order to go after Sierra Charriba, he will need a strong, powerful contingent of men. The camp already has a skeletal guard. So, the only way he can rally up enough men is to hire drunks, cattle wrestlers, cowboys, and of course, the very Confederates that he was sworn to guard. His sales pitch is stern and fair:

You thieves, renegades, deserters, you gentlemen of the South. I want some volunteers. I want volunteers to fight the Apache Sierra Charriba. I need horse soldiers - men who can ride, men who can shoot. In return, I promise you nothing... saddle sores, short rations, maybe a bullet in your belly... and free air to breathe, fair share of tobacco, quarter pay... and my good will and best offices for pardons and paroles when I get back.

But in reality, the Confederates know that this is their chance to make a run for it. They probably could have succeeded if it wasn't for their own commander, Captain Tyreen. Once friends with Major Dundee, their relationship deteriorated after Dundee helped get him court martialed from the U.S. Army. It is implied that this led to his seceding to the South. Even though he wasn't born there, he is the model Southern gentleman. Whereas Dundee stands for personal gain, Tyreen fights for a greater cause: Southern honor. He swears his own and his men's loyalty to Dundee, bit only until Charriba has been dealt with and the three kidnapped boys from the beginning of the movie are rescued. Even though it is obvious that he hates Dundee, his chivalrous ways prevent him from breaking his own oath. Consider this particular piece of dialogue:

Capt. Benjamin Tyreen: [addressing his troops] We will serve under Major Dundee's command. And until that time, any disrespect you show the Major will be taken as a personal insult by *me*.

Jimmy Lee Benteen: Don't you worry none, Uncle Ben, when the time comes, we'll turpentine that cauky, chicken-pickin' Yankee...

Capt. Benjamin Tyreen: I am *not* your uncle, you redneck peckerwood. And if you say one more word, you'll spend the rest of this campaign in *chains*.

Yes, Tyreen remains loyal even though it goes against everything that he wants. He stays loyal when they get close to a group of Confederate cavalry and they have an opportunity to make a run for it. He stays loyal after his men start fights with the black soldiers. He even stays loyal when he has to kill one of his own men who was captured in the act of desertion.

Watching the tension between Dundee and Tyreen is easily the most interesting part of the film. But if you are not careful, you might miss many of the other characters who are part of Dundee's contingent. Among them are black soldiers who requested to join. Their motivation was that they wanted to be taken seriously as soldiers and as actual men. I like to think that the thought of fighting with Confederate troops made the deal more appealing to the black soldiers. Who better to prove their worth to then the very men who kept them down for centuries?

There is also Riago, a “Christian Indian” scout. He is just one of the Indians who aid Dundee and his men during the film. They simply want revenge, as many of them were cast out or left behind from Sierra Charriba's group. Their vengeance (or is it?) is so great that they are willing to be killed and even crucified to track Charriba down, even though they are surrounded by men who hate them and distrust them.

But my favorite is Preacher Dalhstrom. When he signs up to join with Dundee, he is dismissed because they do not need a man of the cloth. His answer is simple: “Seventeen years ago, I married [the killed settlers]. Who that destroyeth my flock, I will do destroy.”

It's often said by travelers that it isn't the destination, but the journey that makes a trip special. Well, that is partially true of Major Dundee. And while the journey may be incredible, the most fascinating aspects are the travelers themselves. The battle of wills between Dundee and Tyreen, the fighting between the troops and the Indians, and the inner turmoil within the contingent itself makes up the meat of the film. And yes, it is very entertaining. I could go on for another five pages about all of the battle scenes, the scuffles with the French Army stationed in Mexico, the similarities with Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and even how this was one of the goriest westerns of its time. But I don't feel that it is relevant. The characters are what make this film. Without them, it could have been just another Western. But Peckinpah's creations propel this film into glory. If his later work explained how men expressed their violent tendencies, Major Dundee had the insight to ask why. It was the start of a glorious and tragic career. It was the dawn of the Age of Peckinpah.



  1. Excellent review, I loved this film, definitely one of Peckinpah's best.

    I thought Heston was terrific, he doesn't get praised so much these days, maybe because people aren't to fond of his political views and things like that, but I think that in terms of acting he was one of the best leading Hollywood men of the 60's.
    Did you read that story of him giving up his entire salary for this film just to persuade the studio's not to fire Peckinpah, as Peckinpah was drunk on set, violent and generally hard to work with. Heston got what he wanted and the film was finished, but he received no salary. A unique story in Hollywood's history.

    Anyway, I'll be sure to write about this one in detail in my upcoming Peckinpah post, I'll be mentioning many of the thing you do in this review, his attitude to violence and masculinity ad other such aspects of his work.
    I still need to see his later films though and his earliest.

  2. Well, I'm honored, my friend! I look forward to your review!

  3. Over 30 years my focus on Major Dundee centers around the predicament of situations brought on by conflict. The Union Army was not at war with the French in Mexico, but had to fight them to escape back into Texas. The villagers who suffered reprisal by the French forces after Dundee and Cavalry baited and stole from the French forces. Tyreen's dilemma upon finding himself within shouting distance of Confederate Calvalry. Of course there was the pursued Apaches hitting and running all over Northern Mexico. The Prison Camp second in command left to guard so many prisoners with an even smaller Guard contingent. By my count, it appeared only seven to eight troopers made it back across the Rio Grande including the Major. Then finally what were they going to say about the whole expedition upon returning to Fort Benlin. War is a messy and disorganized circumstance. Major Dundee was a good expose' of character flaws that can act to complicate and worsen an already bad situation. Great movie as an historical what if? SW ATL Horned Frog

    1. Very true. And let's not forget, Peckinpah was always fascinated by the morale grey areas in human conflict. Thanks for commenting!