Sunday, August 9, 2009

Major Dundee (1965)

By Eric Jessen 8/8/09

Major Dundee is a fascinating cluttered disaster of drunken Sam Peckinpah. Columbia Pictures and Charlton Heston loved Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah's first film, and decided to lump a sizable budget, a Harry Fink script, and a feeling of flexibility on the shoulders of the tormented genius. The boozing, coarse director ventured south to a remote dusty Mexican hole, threw the original script in the trash and began shooting, shifting the movie's focus to a morose character study of Major Dundee (Charlton Heston). But as the spending skyrocketed and rumblings of Peckinpah infuriating, torturing the cast, and being too wasted to direct emerged, Columbia cut funding in half. The production rushed to an awkward finish. The released studio version got negative reviews and flopped at the box office. But in a cloud of studio cuts and production turbulence, Major Dundee is still full of bits of classic Peckinpah and is an interesting representation of the director's career.
The movie begins at the sight of a massacre of Union soldiers, women and children by Apache Indians. Major Dundee, the goat of the Union's loss at the Battle of Gettysburg, exiled to the Mexican border, decides to put together a troupe of soldiers and confederate prisoners, including his former best friend and rival, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) to hunt down the Indians.
The early passages of the movie run smoothly but painstakingly slow, progressing like an epic (I've read Peckinpah's original cut was over 4 hours long). Dundee and Tyreen pussyfoot around, conversing intently, their lines crawling from their mouths then floating above their heads clearly indicating “to be referenced later,” before they decide to “ride together.” The first few scenes are boring and bloated, the soldiers singing rah-rah songs, but hint at a meaningful payoff (like the overly happy scenes in The Big Heat).
Dundee, Tyreen and company head down to the expansive Mexican wilderness (photographed very well by Sam Leavitt) setting up patented Peckinpah themes: the macho brotherhood of battered men and their “sacred word.”
Dundee is at first trimmed (Heston's chin lathered in aftershave) and confident, seeking glory, but suppressing the feeling of impotency and heading into a dangerous jungle. Dundee seems to be shaping into a compelling character. Charlton Heston's bullheaded machismo and Richard Harris' effeminate British demeanor make for an interesting love affair. And I also found it intriguing that the American soldiers, armed with guns and cannons would struggle to defeat the Indians' bows, arrows and intimate knowledge of the terrain.
But as the film entered its second hour it became increasingly choppy and uncomfortable to watch. Lines from Heston, Harris and the supporting cast fall on dead air (like I'm missing key information, a scene or two, lost in a cut maybe). The action scenes are jerky (definitely not Peckinpah). And worst of all there are 20 to 30 minutes of a hapless love interest. Dundee meets a woman in Mexico, Teresa, played by Senta Berger. She is dull and mundane. Her scenes are painful to watch. I don't think you can call what Berger does acting. She just exists with no personality and big breasts.
With Sam Peckinpah plastered, well off the wagon, working for an apprehensive studio, Major Dundee was destined for failure. Peckinpah would just have to wait to make his drunken masterpiece.

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