Major Dundee (1965)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Coscreenwriter: Sam Peckinpah

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By Roderick Heath

Young Fresno-born Sam Peckinpah spent a stint in the army in the waning days of WWII and was sent to China as part of a noncombat unit assigned to keep peace between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers after the surrender. As Peckinpah told it, peacekeeping became a gruesome spectacle of factional vengeance that left terrible impressions upon him, blossoming into the dark and dangerous melancholia that would fuel both his life problems and his art in later years. After mustering out, Peckinpah did what a lot of young, creative ex-servicemen did—he headed for Hollywood, where he subsisted for years as a sometime actor and TV stagehand. Peckinpah quickly gained a bad reputation for his spiky attitude, but in time became a reliable aide and protégé to Don Siegel, who eventually gave him the task of performing uncredited revisions on the script of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

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That film’s success gave Peckinpah the courage to try writing for TV, and then, directing. He gained a reputation working multiple roles on “The Westerner,” whose star, Brian Keith, helped Peckinpah gain his break as feature director, on 1961’s The Deadly Companions, a minor, modest western that established Peckinpah’s rugged sense of the western landscape and aesthetic, a blend of the barbarous and the limpidly evocative. With his second film, Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah emerged as a powerful and individual talent with one eye for tradition, giving Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott an inspired testimonial, whilst also laying groundwork for dragging the ’50s “adult western” style into a new zone of harsh eccentricity. The weird and unpredictable blend of posturing macho and arch romantic, provocateur and sensitive artist, great filmmaker and self-destructive rebel, would define Peckinpah in the popular imagination until his death in 1984 and beyond.

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Bankrolled by Columbia Studios to round out Charlton Heston’s contract, Major Dundee’s shoot was rocked by discord in the studio and unease with Peckinpah’s growing predilection for on-set hell-raising. Although he and Peckinpah quarrelled violently, Heston still offered to forego his own salary to appease the studio and ensure the film was completed to Peckinpah’s satisfaction. The studio kept the money, but the production was still halted before shooting was done, and a truncated rump of Peckinpah’s vision eventually was released. Peckinpah, embittered and almost blackballed by the industry, managed to rehabilitate his reputation with the telemovie Noon Wine (1968) before The Wild Bunch (1969), for a brief, crucial moment, saw the man’s best abilities coincide with the receptivity of the audience.

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Today, Major Dundee is often dismissed as a warm-up for The Wild Bunch, especially because Peckinpah purposefully recycled elements in the latter film, determined to salvage the essence of his art from the ill-starred earlier work and put it over with an even more furious and unvarnished effect. Both films depict a band of quarrelsome Americans spilling over the Mexican border and being caught up in a local conflict that offers the chance for a nobler end than they ever counted on. Dundee, however, demands respect and reassessment as Peckinpah’s keystone work and a work of vital transition in American screen culture. Costar R. G. Armstrong called the film “Moby Dick on horseback,” an accurate description because of its portrait of a leader as half-colossus, half-madman whose pursuit of a deadly, almost omnipresent foe threatens to resolve only in the consummation of a romance with death. Even after a major reconstruction to try to repair it, Major Dundee is anything but an uncompromised or flawless success, but in some ways, that makes it all the more tantalising as a relic of a great director coming of age.

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Where Peckinpah had laced references to his childhood into Ride the High Country, Major Dundee has many intimations of self-portraiture via Heston’s title character, a man of superlative gifts who seems to be driven to acts of risky defiance and self-debasement. The film’s opening seems to nod to Cy Endfield’s similar portrait of men on the edge between civilisations, Zulu (1964), with a voiceover reporting massacre and calumny. The time is the waning days of the Civil War; the place, rural New Mexico, where would-be titans can strut their stuff. Infamously ingenious and brutal Mescalero Apache chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) has just wiped out a column of Union cavalry, leaving only two members of the company alive: Indian scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), whose disappearance and return make him the object of suspicion as a traitor, and young bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.), who had been sent to fetch aid for his commander. The relief, led by Maj. Amos Dundee (Heston), arrives too late, finding the corpses of the force and settlers scattered around a blazing farmhouse. Dundee, has been placed in charge of a military garrison on the fringes of nation and psyche, with a prison crammed full of ornery Confederate prisoners his chief responsibility, as punishment for exceeding his orders at Gettysburg. Dundee sees a chance to reclaim his standing by hunting down Charriba, but lacks the manpower to wage a campaign and keep the prison well-guarded. He puts out a call for volunteers and reaps a collection of weathered frontiersmen, including one-armed tracker Samuel Potts (James Coburn), perma-pickled muleskinner Wiley (Slim Pickens), and fighting preacher man Rev. Dahlstrom (Armstrong). Still short of men, Dundee asks for volunteers from among the Confederates.

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Dundee knows the only hope he has for gaining the peaceful cooperation of the rebels is to do exactly the last thing he wants—negotiate with their beloved commander Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant with a relentless desire for status and advancement as a gentleman of rank. He was Dundee’s West Point classmate and best friend until Dundee participated in a court martial over a duel that got Tyreen kicked out of the army, only to find another chance as an eager rebel. Dundee tries to maintain a high-handed attitude over Tyreen during negotiations, reminding him that he and his men have two alternatives, hanging as punishment for a recent escape attempt or doing as he says, but Tyreen refuses, knowing that he has Dundee over a barrel. Dundee finally takes out his frustration by visiting Tyreen in his cell and socking him, a gesture Tyreen reciprocates so the two men can finally strike a bargain. Dundee knows that Tyreen takes his sense of honour so seriously his oath will bind him to serve until Charriba is killed or captured. Tyreen brings with him a motley outfit of Southerners, including redneck brothers O. W. and Arthur Hadley (compulsory Peckinpah character actors Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones). But Dundee’s army isn’t quite complete, not until Aesop (Brock Peters) requests that he and his unit of black soldiers who have been serving as guards and flunkies for years without any action, be given a chance to serve, too. Dundee leads this force of uneasy compatriots across the Rio Grande in pursuit of an enemy who seemingly wants Dundee to give chase.

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Major Dundee’s scope is encompassing, a commentary on both the history of the western genre Peckinpah so loved, as well as the proper commencement of his deconstruction of it. It is also a veritable stab at writing a creation myth for modern America, commenting on the state of the union circa 1965 as much as 1865, replete with overtones not just of Melville and Shakespeare, but also Greek sagas—not for nothing is one character named Priam. As the social compacts and conventions that had sustained the healing of the union after the Civil War finally frayed in the years since Little Rock, popular cinema had struggled to find new ways to explore the changing face of American society. Peckinpah’s Melvillian references echo the way the great author portrayed the nation as a polyglot driven by a possibly insane struggle with ancient forces and susceptible to visionaries with suspect goals. Peckinpah is less fatalistic here in spite of his corrosive intentions, for Major Dundee is a tale of ironic triumph and unification, often evoking the sense of communal life and fascination for rites of passage that tied together John Ford’s films. Major Dundee is in part Peckinpah’s tribute to Ford, as a partial remake of Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), recasting John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s war-cleaved couple as Dundee and Tyreen’s broken comradeship, whilst Dundee evokes Henry Fonda’s ill-fated antihero from Fort Apache (1948). Columbia had actually wanted Ford to direct the project, but he was busy making his mea culpa, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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For Peckinpah, then, it became a dialogue and argument with old masters. Ford had been the great cinematic mythologian for that declining social compact, and Peckinpah highlights the manifold schisms of class and race and the problems of international relations overtaking the national dialogue at the time. The foreign adventuring depicted is half careerist folly, half Quixotic crusade. Equally, Major Dundee fits into a wave of post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic films studying flawed, neurotic would-be übermenschen, including Lord Jim (1965) and Khartoum (1966), also starring Heston, whose aura of the titanic he cleverly adapted and twisted as the taste of the time shifted from the simple heroism of his Moses: Heston plays up Dundee’s smug charisma and physical authority, striding rigidly and defiantly through a sea of infuriated Confederate prisoners, lounging with feet on table as he interviews men to join him on his ego crusade—the essence of swagger—all the better to watch him crumble in the face of impotence and self-doubt. Part and parcel of Major Dundee’s force lies in its male leads giving two of their best performances. Harris, in his first starring role in an American film after This Sporting Life (1963) made him famous (he learned he’d been nominated for an Oscar on set), delivers an expert alternation of gestures soft, batting his eyes with almost coquettish appeal at ladies who stumble into his path, and hard, as when he replies with the precision of a spitting cobra to an uppity Southron underling, “I’m not your uncle, you redneck peckerwood.”

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Dundee and Tyreen are unruly Dioscuri for this neo-Iliad, symbolic of contrasts and engaged in a constant battle of wills made all the more fraught by the personal affection underlying their conflict and their intense similarity, a common thread of Peckinpah’s work. History is written in their names, the troubled dichotomy of Scot and Irish and their relationship to external power amplified by the new domain’s schism of Union and Confederate, loyalist and rebel. But neither man is so singular, each containing more than a little of the other, Tyreen primly correct in his chivalrous pretences, Dundee bullishly individual as the company man. It is very easy indeed to see the pair as Peckinpah’s projected self-concept, his awareness of his volatile and contradictory place in the movie industry and his society in general, as well as his anxiety over where that might eventually lead him. Tim Ryan could be young Peckinpah thrust into the wilds of China, about to be treated to all the great and terrifying experiences a youth could ask for. Around this triptych Peckinpah and his fellow screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Oscar Saul create a Dickensian gallery of types. The most important is Jim Hutton’s Lt. Graham, another professional but inexperienced soldier seeming to lack all of the ornery specificity of Dundee and Tyreen, in love with artillery, his specific discipline, but initially inept at the ordinary soldierly business of mustering men. Soon after Dundee leads his men in the wilderness, Arthur Hadley tries to bait Aesop, sparking a fight between the two men that becomes the first test of the uneasy contract of the company. Dundee leaves it to Tyreen to intervene as he should, but Dahlstrom takes a hand first, defending Aesop and beating the crap out of Arthur: “Preacher, you sure kick up a lot of dust with your sermon!” one soldier complains as Arthur lands on him in a cloud of dirt. Tyreen then defuses the stand-off that seems imminent by praising Aesop and his men for their professional skill. Legitimacy is acknowledged, a barrier broken, a new paradigm instantly created.

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Peckinpah’s love of odyssey narratives dictates that Major Dundee become a tale as much about the journey and the picaresque epiphanies that come on the way as it is about goals and climaxes, anticipating the vignettes and cultural purview of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1973) as well as the cracked romanticism of Junior Bonner (1972). The expedition is soon brutally tempered when Charriba lures the major into a trap, sending an elderly member of his war party to entice the Americans with the chance of recapturing the children taken captive during the massacre. Dundee loses many men in the subsequent fight when Charriba’s stroke falls on them during a night river crossing. The company manages to fight their way out, but with their supplies lost. The only choice before Dundee is to head into a nearby village that’s garrisoned by the troops from the French army, in the midst of the Juarista rebellion.

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Entering the village, Dundee and his men bear immediate witness to the brutality of the imperialist repression, hanged men dangling from ropes as warnings (according to an urban legend, Peckinpah had real dead bodies used for the scene), and happily use force to extricate the French from their garrison. Bloodless revolution segues into happy fiesta, as the villagers throw a party in celebration. The bedraggled men of Dundee’s force are tended by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the Austrian-born wife of a local doctor who has been put to death for helping the rebels, and her protégé Linda (Begoña Palacios, Peckinpah’s future second wife). Teresa is archetype for many of the women who cross paths with Peckinpah’s men, as starkly individual and closed-off as them, tantalising in her open and giving sensuality, but also potentially frustrating to their machismo for her unwillingness to be defined entirely by one lover: Dundee, Tyreen, and Graham compete for her favour, whilst Linda, an energetic sprite, deflowers Ryan in the midst of an explosion of joy.

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The village sequence is close to the best thing Peckinpah ever did, a dream of frontier chivalry and communal festivity, the unifying desperation for a sense of purpose, colour, and nobility to life rather than petty oppression and everyday tyrannies. As such, it counterpoints the notorious ballets of blood in The Wild Bunch, eros to its thanatos, whilst also clearly providing the blueprint for the later film’s sadder, more elegiac village visit; the village could well be the same, taking the later criminal band as the ghosts of the good fellows under Dundee, the degraded end of the dream. The sequence also represents Peckinpah’s most overt nod to Ford, reproducing one of Ford’s favourite gags of the young tenderfoot skewered in the butt by an apache arrow and tended with necessary roughness, leading into a sprawl of behavioural delight, from Dundee and Tyreen both plotting how to seduce Teresa only to be foiled by rubber-limbed, half-shickered Graham cutting in for a dance, and Ryan and Linda swapping a look of knowing intensity before ducking out. Linda chasing after Ryan to give him his hat in the midst of the morning’s hangovers and pausing for a farewell kiss certainly represents Peckinpah’s most tender, sentimental interlude.

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Dundee has a good tactical reason for letting his men get wildly drunk and the French officers escape—to entice more French soldiers on a punitive mission and ambush them. This tactic gains Dundee’s forces supplies and arms and time to recover to return to dogging Charriba’s trail, but it also lays the seed for a potentially destructive rift in the group when the memory of the sensual delights of the village becomes too strong and O. W. absconds. O. W. is dragged back by a search party, accompanied by Teresa, who’s hiding out from French reprisals, and Dundee makes clear his intention to have O. W. shot as a deserter, sparking the smouldering rage of the Confederates. The straightforward hunt has devolved into some kind of existential quest, the point of which is lost deep in Dundee’s psyche and can’t be extracted except in crisis.

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The lust for transcendence that drives Dundee beyond the bounds of safe and sane enterprise is, interestingly, a trait that links him with Charriba, whose predations represent not tribal interests but Charriba’s warlike ego, making him and Dundee less fighters for their distinct cultures and more like Sergio Leone’s eternal warriors in an appropriately primal landscape. It emerges early on that Charriba clearly wants to destroy Dundee to create a Little Bighornish legend for himself “to be sung around his tribe’s campfires for a thousand years,” and declares with cackling delight when he thinks he’s about to drop the fatal stroke, “Who will you send against me now?” But Dundee and company instead ambush and destroy Charriba in a deliberately anticlimactic battle, having suckered him in at last by turning his egotism against him. Ryan’s maturation encompasses internal struggle of a kind none of the others can share, in large part because the campaign against Charriba is more personal for him than anyone in spite of his tender years: his pain for the loss of his comrades and his desire for mindless revenge on the Apache scout Riago, whose loyalty is in doubt to everyone except Potts, become interior rhymes to the external conflicts between the other men. Riago’s innocence is grotesquely proven when he’s caught and killed by Charriba, but the chieftain is then himself gunned down by Ryan on the cusp of believed victory, marking both the perfect last of Ryan’s rites of manhood and also the ironic punchline of the great drama: Ryan’s feat is the sardonic undercutting of another man’s myth.

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The landscape Peckinpah creates is brutal and littered with sights and sounds affixed with dreamlike intensity and totemistic import. A blood-smeared cloth tied to a cross made with a sapling and a sabre. A dead girl dressed in white lying riddled with arrows being picked up and carried away by dark-suited men. Flayed, tortured bodies dangling from ropes, another pinned to a tree in a frontier pieta. One-armed and bible-touting righteous warriors. Lakes and rivers of pellucid stillness contrasted with dangling corpses. Moonlit meetings between would-be lovers amidst stark ruins that stand like the gates between lives. Linda and Teresa each watching with sad pride as the scrappy heroes depart. Columns of dazzlingly coloured French dragoons carving the ruddy Mexican earth. Dundee pictured in the moment of his victory surrounded by the barbed branches of a thorny tree, reckoning the size of the felled Charriba with Ryan (“He doesn’t look so big now does he?” “He was big enough, son.”). Signs of human civilisation infiltrate the landscape, already burnt and blistered by time and elements, structures of bare brick like rotten teeth jutting from the earth. Peckinpah’s framings, via Sam Leavitt’s excellent photography, alternates surveys of a vast and impersonal land with tangled and thorny hives, Peckinpah’s urgent desire to get across the feel of the earth, dust, and heat as part of the texture of his film, becoming all the more palpable the farther he drives into the Mexican hinterlands, and the essential mystique of Peckinpah’s sense of this place is created.

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Heston interestingly noted that he and Peckinpah’s quarrels were partly generated by their schismatic concept for the work: Heston wanted to make a film about the Civil War via the microcosmic drama, whilst Peckinpah was already wrestling with the interior struggle of humanism and nihilism that would later galvanise The Wild Bunch. This split accounts for the volatility of Major Dundee and its lack of narrative balance, but also gets to the heart of the film’s power, the dialogue of external and internal wars. Dark frontier logic emerges as Dundee asks why their Apache guides would betray their own kin and help the gringos, to which Potts replies, “Well why not? Everyone else seems to be doing it.” The execution of O. W. provides a crucial pivot in the psychic drama in the film, a bigger event than Charriba’s death as the limits of Dundee’s authority and Tyreen’s honour—and through them everything they stand for—are tested through the awful spectacle of a man begging for his life (an exceptional moment for the ever-excellent Oates): Tyreen actually does the dirty work of killing his subordinate, in part to diffuse the blame, but he promptly vows to kill Dundee once the mission is completed. Dundee begins to fray, taking time out for a sexual frolic with Teresa in the woods, straying beyond the limits of his command only to receive an arrow in the thigh from some of Charriba’s raiders, as close to a castration as cinema could get. Dundee is crippled and Tyreen, still fuming, pointedly asks, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Amos?”

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Dundee has to be taken into Durango, garrisoned by the French, to get medical attention and recover. Ensconced in a grimy rented room, Dundee rapidly descends from imperious leader to alcoholic wretch bedding his nursemaid, Melinche (Aurora Clavel). This sequence, and particularly the moment when Teresa comes to visit Dundee and finds him with Melinche, is the exposed nerve of Peckinpah’s work here, the feeling of a deep personal investment in Dundee’s cringing shame and debasement in the eyes of a woman he respects, the depiction of deep regret and the fear of being exposed as pathetic, febrile, and helpless, a moment of King Lear-like gravitas and utterly immediate emotion that seems all the more telling considering that Peckinpah was reported to have done more or less did the same thing during the shoot. After Teresa leaves abruptly, Dundee turns into a lonely, slovenly wanderer limping about the town, unnoticed by locals and French alike. The movement depicting Dundee’s disgrace in Durango was mostly cut and left as a ghost in the original theatrical cut, and the most crucial part of the film’s restoration a few years ago. Dundee is rescued unwillingly by Tyreen, who, for all his punitive bluster, enters the town to find him and drag him out whilst the rest of the company fight off the French: Dundee tries to fight Tyreen off before collapsing and begging him to leave him to wallow. But Tyreen does manage to drag him away and soon Dundee resurges, now, tellingly, equipped with the kind of wily circumspection and understanding of his enemy, who was in part himself, that gives him the key to destroying Charriba by making a run for the border and forcing his foe to give chase if he wants his great event.

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That fight ends, and Dundee and Tyreen stare at each other in a loaded moment wondering if they can actually duel or not, but then the appearance of pursuing French cavalry makes it an unnecessary question. The Americans find themselves trapped, with French dragoons lined up on the far side of the Rio Grande, determined to punish the rascal Americans. Thus, Dundee has no choice but to lead his men into a final action. The concept of violence as omnipresent, orgiastic consummation of base impulse that would consume Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) isn’t quite nascent here, partly because Peckinpah’s use of Seven Samurai-inspired slow-motion action shots, which would be used to concussive effect on The Wild Bunch, was unceremoniously excised by the studio, although the ensuing fight is still notably bold in depicting blood spilling to an extent very few films had done before. The depiction of men who have learned too well that they have feet of clay making a tilt at regaining their honour by taking on a corrupt regime in an impossible battle is nonetheless as crucial here for Peckinpah as in his works to come. The battle is a whirlwind of brilliantly handled action that retains a hint of Ford’s jauntiness, complete with Tyreen getting himself mortally wounded by saving the company’s flag from the French commander in a gesture not of mere patriotism, but for faith in the fellowship the men have created, thus recreating their country in miniature before riding into the midst of the massed French to die a death at once glorious and ugly. What’s left of Dundee’s troop rides into the Texan sagebrush, with the fitting final confirmation that their return home has come on the cusp of the Civil War’s very end, Dundee, the captain of the ruined band who are now, once again, countrymen.

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