Major Dundee (1965): Peckinpah’s Western, Starring Charlton Heston

Major Dundee, Sam Peckinpah’s third feature, after “The Deadly Companions” (1961) and “Ride the High Country” (1962), was typically hampered by problems in both the production and post-production processes. 

The budget was cut before shooting began, some crucial scenes never got shot, and then the studio took the director’s two-and-a-half-hour cut and excised half an hour.

The crew responsible for the current restoration has added 12 minutes of footage, and also recorded a new score to replace the one commissioned by the studio.  The new version is more satisfying than the original, but it is still incomplete, since crucial scenes were never even shot, and the ending is still unsettlingly abrupt.  Even so, as the movie that came before Peckinpah’s masterpiece, “The Wild Bunch” (1969), it might have served as a preparation of sorts.

The tale, which begins on October 1, 1864, concerns the uncomfortable relationship between former friends, who now find themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Charlton Heston plays the title character, a stiff Union officer who has been relegated to guarding a P.O.W. facility.

When he decides to track down an Apache who slaughtered a village, he enlists the help of Confederate soldiers in his charge, including Captain Tyreen (a very young and red-haired Richard Harris), with whom he has a long history.

Opening with a killing field presided over by an Apache campaigner, the Civil War-era yarn traces the resolve of the military prison warden Dundee to assemble a command and set out into Mexico.  As his resources are meager, he takes Confederate prisoners, drunks, fallen Apaches, and even “colored” men.

Throughout, Dundee remains a confused, unappealing character, some of it by design. Initially, Peckinpah conceived him as a complex character, a glory-hungry officer who would do anything to gain fame and power.

The film is narrated by the company’s fresh-faced bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), whose commentary is often ironic, sort of counterpoint to the events seen on screen.  The voice-overs unfold in chronological order, lending shape to the narrative and specific time frame.

Charlton Heston is well cast as the ruthless, self-righteous authority figure, a frontier despot who serves his own interests.  James Coburn plays a one-armed, gone-native scout, and the only character not motivated by spite or prejudice.

The male-dominated ensemble includes Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, and Dub Taylor.

There are thematic similarities between “Major Dundee” and Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick,” with parallels drawn between Dundee and Captain Ahab, Tyreen and Starbuck, Ryan and Ishmael, and Sierra Charriba and his Apache tribe substituting for the whale, not to mention the idea of an obsessive idealist, who drives himself to destruction, while disregarding the impact of his decisions on others.

“Major Dundee” wishes to comment on the foreign (and U.S.) involvement in Southeast Asia, and the Vietnam War, depicting corrupt leaders, irresponsible bloodshed, and unnecessary military slaughter.