Sunday 24 October 2010

Movie Review: Major Dundee (1965)

A sprawling and ambitious western, Major Dundee suffers from meaningless meandering, ill-advised side-trips, and a severe lack of focus. 

Stories abound of director Sam Peckinpah being frequently drunk and incoherent on the set of Major Dundee, with star Charlton Heston having to step into the director's chair to keep the production on track. The resulting mess included a legendary, never-seen version of the movie that extended for 4 hours and 30 minutes. The released version is just over two hours, although it sometimes feels like four hours.

Major Dundee is a work of fiction, but very loosely inspired by some real-life skirmishes where Confederate prisoners joined Union soldiers in Texas to battle Indians. In the movie, as the American Civil War draws to a close, a group of Apaches under the leadership of Chief Charriba mount a series of raids and massacres against both Union and Confederate troops in and around New Mexico. The Union's Major Dundee (Heston) has accumulated a patchy war leadership record, and is assigned the somewhat demeaning command of a jail near the Mexico border. He takes it upon himself to assemble a rag-tag force of prison guards (including Black soldiers) and prisoners, including his bitter Confederate rival Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), to go after Chief Charriba and his men.

Rather than focusing on their mission, Dundee's soldiers spend a lot of time threatening to kill each other as tensions between North and South, Black and white, and jailer and jailed simmer and sometimes boil over. With Dundee mounting an unconvincing pursuit, the Apaches soon take refuge in Mexico, where the French Army has assembled troops, setting up a triangular climactic conflict between Dundee's men, the Apaches and the French.

While there is enough going among all the galloping horses to maintain a rudimentary level of viewer attentiveness, the characters in Major Dundee are neither interesting nor sympathetic enough to ignite the movie. The conflict between Dundee and Tyreen, which should have given the film its centre of gravity, is drawn in crayons. Charlton Heston gives Dundee the same over-the-top higher calling that powers his biblical roles, while Harris looks like he just stepped out of a movie about those magnificent men in their flying machines. James Coburn wanders in and out of the action in an under-used role as Sam Potts, a one-armed half-breed who helps Dundee track the Apaches.

Santa Berger all of a sudden shows up in the unlikely role of a stunningly gorgeous European woman stranded in a tiny Mexican village. She further clogs up the progress of the movie by batting her eyelashes and contriving a romance with Dundee that mostly serves to prove her poor judgement and the ease with which he gets distracted.

The action scenes are a mixture of the sloppy, the bloody, and the confusing, with Peckinpah looking for but not yet finding artistry in cinematic violence. Although full of potential, Major Dundee is as flawed as its ragtag collection of characters. 

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.