Saturday, September 10, 2016
Directed by Sam Peckinpah and screenplay by Peckinpah, Harry Julian Fink, and Oscar Saul from a story by Fink, Major Dundee is the story of a Union cavalry officers who bands together a group of Army regulars, Confederate soldiers, and Indian scouts to destroy the Apache who had been attacking towns in Texas and New Mexico. The film is a western set during the American Civil War where a man has to put aside differences and settle old grudges just so he can do what is right for America against the Apache as Charlton Heston play the titular role of Major Amos Dundee. Also starring Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Senta Berger, and James Coburn. Major Dundee is a thrilling and captivating film from Sam Peckinpah.
Set in late 1864 during the final months of the American Civil War, the film is about a Union cavalry officer who is trying to go after the Apache following an attack on a fort where many of its residents including women and children were killed with some kids taken by the Apache. Realizing he’s outnumbered and needs volunteers, he asks the help of a Confederate captain and other Confederates who are at a fort as prisoners in exchange for their pardons. With a group that includes a few Indian scouts, African-American Union soldiers, and a ragtag group of thieves and cowboys. Major Amos Charles Dundee would go after the Apache through Mexico despite the fact that Mexico is under the control of the French who are American allies. Along the way, the group of men who are very different and with very different loyalties must band together as well as deal with Major Dundee’s thirst for glory.
The film’s screenplay is interesting not just for the development of Major Dundee but also several characters that include Captain Benjamin Tyree (Richard Harris) who was once a friend of Dundee until Tyree was court-martialed following a duel where Dundee was the deciding vote. Tyree reluctantly agrees to help Dundee in taking down the Apache but once they finish the mission, Tyree wants to settle the score with Dundee. Still, Tyree was able to get some of his men and other Confederate soldiers to volunteer in the hopes that they will be pardoned though they still have to follow Dundee’s orders which they reluctantly do as well as share the same rations with African-American soldiers. Much of the film is told through the eyes of a young trooper named Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) who is a bugler as he volunteers to join the company where he does a lot of the narrating as he expresses his thoughts and the length of the journey to find the Apache.
Other characters such as the one-armed scout Samuel Potts (James Coburn) and the inexperienced. Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) are characters who watch everything from afar but also kind of serve as consciences in the film with Potts being someone who is a tracker that knows his role. The script also has this unique structure where much of the first half is set in New Mexico and Texas with the second half set in Mexico where there is a change in the morale of the men but also in the setting. Especially where Dundee and Tyree start to compete for the affections of an Austrian widow living in a small pueblo that had been captured by the French. Upon liberating the pueblo and getting a break from battle, it is clear that Dundee has stirred up more trouble with the French as well as some schism in his company as it is clear that pride and ego sometimes get in the way of what is really important. Especially as Dundee has to realize what he must face and know that he can’t do it all by himself.
Sam Peckinpah’s direction is quite vast as it play into the world that is the West as it’s shot entirely in various locations in Mexico. Peckinpah’s usage of the wide and medium shots play into look of the deserts, mountains, and rivers as while maintaining some intimacy in the way he shoots the characters through close-ups and medium shots. Especially in how he would shoot some of the dramatic moments and tension that looms into the film as Peckinpah adds that air of realism about the group of people Dundee is leading. Peckinpah’s usage of low-angles also play into the way Dundee rules over everyone but also in the fact that Dundee sees himself in such a way that it is somewhat disconnected from reality where he would eventually get grounded.
The 2005 restoration version of the film which runs at a running time of 136 minutes is considered by many Peckinpah historians and purists as an improvement over the 123-minute theatrical cut from its original 1965 release. For years, the theatrical version strayed away from the elements of graphic violence and other things that some believe hindered the film as the restored version would feature these things and more. Especially in how Tyree is introduced and how some of the characters cope with death and some of the decisions that Dundee makes. The battle scenes are quite intense where Peckinpah maintains that air of frenzy in how chaotic the battle is as well as creating that air of camaraderie between Dundee and Tyree who are both at their best when they fight together side-by-side. Overall, Peckinpah creates an exhilarating and intense film about a Union cavalry officer trying to stop the Apache with the aid of a ragtag group of volunteers including members of the Confederate army.
Cinematographer Sam Leavitt does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography that is filled with gorgeous colors of many of the daytime exteriors including the detail in the look of the flags as well as some unique lighting for scenes set at night. Editors Howard Kunin, William A. Lyon, and Donald W. Starling do excellent work with the editing as it‘s got some style with its rhythmic cuts for the action and suspense as well as some nice transition dissolves. Art director Alfred Ybarra does nice work with the set design from the look of the forts as well as the pueblo that Dundee and his company would liberate.
Costume designer Tom Dawson does terrific work with the costumes from the ragged clothes of some of the volunteers to the stuffy uniform of the French army that Dundee‘s men mock. The sound work of James Z. Flaster and Rafael Ruiz Esparza do superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the deserts as well as in a party sequence as well in some of the battle scenes. The film’s music by Christopher Caliendo, for its 2005 restoration, is amazing as it has that nice mixture of orchestral bombast with traditional Mexican-based music with the latter to play for much of the film’s second half as the score, that replaces the original 1965 score by Daniel Amfitheatrof, is considered an improvement.
The film’s marvelous cast include some notable small roles from Aurora Clavel as a woman who helps Dundee regain his health, Begona Palacios as a woman Ryan had an affair with at the pueblo, Albert Carrier as a French lancers commander, Jose Carlos Ruiz as an Apache scout Ryan is suspicious about, Karl Swenson as Dundee’s second-in-command at the fort, and Michael Pate as the Apache leader Sierra Charriba who tries to cause trouble against the army. Other noteworthy small roles as members of the company under Dundee include Dub Taylor as the horse thief Priam, John Davis Chandler as a racist Confederate soldier, R.G. Armstrong as the reverend who is the company’s moral guide, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates as a couple of brothers who are loyal to Tyree, Brock Peters as the African-American soldier Aesop who leads his small band of African-American soldiers that eventually gets the trust of the Confederate volunteers, and Slim Pickens in a fantastic performance as the drunken mule-packer Wiley.
Ben Johnson is terrific as Tyree’s loyal sergeant Chillum who is reluctant to take orders from Dundee yet proves to be very helpful. Mario Adorf is superb as Sgt. Gomez as Dundee’s right-hand man who is able to organize things as well as help Tyree late in the film following some of the chaos in the third act. Senta Berger is wonderful as Teresa Santiago as an Austrian-born widow of a doctor who becomes an object of affection for Dundee as well as Tyree to a lesser extent on the latter as she copes with the chaos of war. Michael Anderson Jr. is excellent as Ryan as a young bugle trooper who gets his first real taste of battle as he recalls a lot of the things he sees in the narration as well as reflecting on his own misjudgment and understanding of things. Jim Hutton is brilliant as Lt. Graham as an inexperienced artilleryman who hasn’t had much time in the battlefield yet would eventually do things to help Dundee and prove his worth in battle.
James Coburn is amazing as the one-armed, half-Indian Samuel Potts as this scout is who is kind of the film’s conscience as he is someone that knows what the Apache would do but also cope with their actions as well as what Dundee tries to do. Richard Harris is phenomenal as Captain Benjamin Tyree as this Confederate soldier that does have a legitimate grudge with Dundee yet is willing to help him destroy the Apache while being someone who is a gentleman and knows what to do in handling things where he still upholds some aspect of honor. Finally, there’s Charlton Heston in an incredible performance as the titular character as this cavalry officer who is hoping to attain some glory following some mistakes he made at Gettysburg while he copes with his duty as Heston isn’t afraid to display flaws into the character where Heston does ham it up a bit but also display a vulnerability and humility as it’s one of Heston’s more overlooked performances.
Major Dundee is a remarkable film from Sam Peckinpah that is highlighted by the top-notch performances of Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, and James Coburn. In its 2005 restoration version, it’s a film that features a great ensemble cast, amazing battle scenes, and compelling themes on duty and honor. It’s a film that isn’t just a western that plays with its convention but also create something that is thrilling. In the end, Major Dundee is a sensational film from Sam Peckinpah.
Sam Peckinpah Films: The Deadly Companions - Ride the High Country - Noon Wine - The Wild Bunch - The Ballad of Cable Hogue - Straw Dogs - Junior Bonner - The Getaway - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - The Killer Elite - Cross of Iron - Convoy - The Osterman Weekend - The Auteurs #62: Sam Peckinpah
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