Charlton Heston, James Coburn, Senta Berger, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, and Michael Anderson Jr. in Major Dundee (1965)


(director/writer: Sam Peckinpah; screenwriters: from the story by Harry Julian Fink/Harry Julian Fink/Oscar Saul; cinematographer: Sam Leavitt; editors: Howard Kunin/William Lyon/Don Starling; music: Daniele Amfitheatrof; cast: Charlton Heston (Maj. Amos Dundee), Richard Harris (Capt. Benjamin Tyreen), Jim Hutton (Lt. Graham), James Coburn (Samuel Potts), Michael Anderson Jr. (Tim Ryan), Senta Berger (Teresa Santiago), Mario Adorf (Sgt. Gomez), Brock Peters (Aesop), Warren Oates (O.W. Hadley), Ben Johnson (Sgt. Chillum), R.G. Armstrong (Rev. Dahlstrom), L.Q. Jones (Arthur Hadley), Slim Pickens (Wiley), Karl Swenson (Capt. Frank Waller), Michael Pate (Sierra Charriba), Begona Palacios (Linda); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jerry Bresler; Columbia Pictures; 1965)
“The restored version becomes a near masterpiece–a most powerful but fragmented western of epic proportions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The good people at Columbia hired bad-boy Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”) to direct their loosely drawn subversive 1965 western ”Major Dundee” and then upon its completion butchered it by removing 34 minutes (producers cutting 20 minutes and distributors 14 minutes) and thereby making it appear disjointed and lose its meaning, with an unhappy Peckinpah trying to get his name removed from the credits. At last, there is a version available on the big screen that restores 12 minutes of previously unseen footage and removes the old music the director fought against and replaces it with some rousing original music that’s more fitting. It follows in theme closely to Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, and in the restored version becomes a near masterpiece–a most powerful but fragmented western of epic proportions. The career soldier played with a fierce passion by Charlton Heston, at his darkest best, shows him plagued by obsessions over the following: racial hatred, a strong sense to prove himself capable above all else, a divided sense of loyalty, frustration over his feeble love experiences, disappointment over his military failures, and a lingering bitter taste of alienation that he can’t escape from.

Harry Julian Fink’s original script was altered by co-writers Peckinpah and Oscar Saul.

It’s set in 1864 in New Mexico (filmed on location in Mexico), in the isolated Fort Benlin, where Southern-born but loyal Union Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) has been relegated to command of a prison camp because of his inability to perform at Gettysburg. When renegade Apache chief Sierra Charriba massacres a regular Army cavalry company and civilians, taking along three young white boys, the Major sees this as his chance to prove himself to the Army and get his military career back on the right track if he destroys the renegades and could rescue the boys. The only survivor was the young bugler Tim Ryan, who keeps a diary of events and through his eyes does the story unfold.

Dundee obtains permission from the Army to hunt Charriba down and retrieve the children with a volunteer rag-tag Army consisting of ten regular soldiers, a one-armed Indian scout, Sam Potts (James Coburn), and the rest are paroled Confederate prisoners, horse thieves, drunks and renegades. Dundee has a one-year time limit for his mission. The officer Dundee places in charge of the prisoners is Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant, cashiered out of the regular Army as an officer, and a Rebel soldier. He’s an old foe of Dundee’s, ever since Dundee voted against him at the trial, who pledges his loyalty with the following mantra “Until the Apache is taken or destroyed.”

Pushing his men hard, the overambitious hard-bitten Dundee leads his men into Mexico but loses some when caught in an ambush. Most of the fighting is between the Confederate and the Union troops, with the main conflict and the film’s center revolving around the uneasy relationship between the hardened Dundee and the hopeless romantic Tyreen and the irrational stances they have each pledged themselves to follow no matter what. They both know each other too well to fool the other by trying to get over by showing their better sides, as their fragile temporary love/hate relationship is based only on necessity. Each has sworn an allegiance to a different cause, and at the end of this mission they will return to being sworn enemies.

Deep in Mexico, the men stop off in French-occupied Durango to resupply and take in the leisurely pleasures of the battered and impoverished Mexican village. After easily capturing the French garrison the soldiers decamp in town and hold a party where they get drunk and pick up the local senoritas. Bugler Ryan makes off with Mexican senorita Linda (Begoña Palacios, in real-life Peckinpah married her), while Dundee yearns for the Austrian widow of a Mexican doctor Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), a hot looking tomato who is as appealing as eye candy but looks out of place in this dusty setting.

Finally the Apaches are revenged and the soldiers must fight a rearmed French unit again to cross the Rio Grande and return to America. Their victory comes at a high price, as they suffer heavy casualties. In the end, Peckinpah questions if this mission was merely a punitive one wantonly carried out by the psychologically unstable Heston and company.