During the end of the Civil War, Major Dundee guards Confederate prisoners, Union deserters and ordinary hard-bitten criminals in a remote fort. When Apaches attack the fort and make off with three children, Dundee must set up a posse including Confederates, who face a choice between joining up or being shot. The feud between Dundee and Tyreen is also heated up by a sultry Mexican widow.
Major Dundee is a 1965 Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, and James Coburn. Written by Harry Julian Fink, the film is about a Union cavalry officer who leads a contentious troop of Army regulars, Confederate prisoners, and scouts on an expedition into Mexico to destroy a band of Apaches who have been raiding United States bases in Texas. Major Dundee was filmed in various locations in Mexico. The movie was filmed in Eastman Color by Pathecolor, print by Technicolor.
During the last winter of the Civil War, cavalry officer Amos Dundee leads a contentious troop of Army regulars, Confederate prisoners and scouts on an expedition into Mexico to destroy a band of Apaches who have been raiding U.S. bases in Texas.
During the American Civil War, Union cavalry officer Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) is relieved of his command for an unspecified tactical error (though it is implied that he showed too much initiative) at the Battle of Gettysburg and sent to head a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory. After a family of ranchers and a relief column of cavalry are massacred by an Apache war chief named Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), Dundee seizes the opportunity for glory, raising his own private army of Union troops (black and white), Confederate prisoners led by his former friend and rival from their days at West Point, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), several Indian scouts, and a gang of civilian mercenaries to illegally pursue Charriba into Mexico. Tyreen bears a grudge against Dundee. Before the war, Dundee cast the deciding vote in Tyreens court-martial from the U.S. Army for participating in a duel. However, having given his word of honor, the chivalrous Tyreen binds himself and his men to serve loyally, but only until Charriba has been dispatched.
When the diverse factions of Dundees force are not fighting each other, they engage the Apaches in several bloody battles. Though they rescue several young boys captured by the Apaches, the Americans lose most of their supplies in an ambush, forcing them to raid a village garrisoned by French troops supporting Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. However, there is little to loot, and Dundee ends up sharing some of his dwindling food with the starving Mexicans. Beautiful resident Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the German widow of a doctor executed for his support of the rebels under Benito Juarez, causes further tensions between Dundee and Tyreen.
Dundee makes it easy for his French prisoners to escape. When they return with reinforcements as he had expected, Dundee surprises them in a night attack and makes off with badly needed supplies. Teresa and Dundee have a brief affair. In an unguarded moment with her, he is attacked by the Apaches, and wounded in the leg, forcing him to seek medical help in French-held Durango. The doctor successfully removes the arrow, but Dundee has to remain there to recuperate. He is tended by a pretty Mexican, whom he eventually takes to bed. When Teresa comes upon them unexpectedly, her relationship with Dundee comes to an abrupt end. Dundee starts drinking heavily as a result. Tyreen has to sneak into town and shame Dundee into resuming his mission.
Charriba proves difficult to pin down, so Dundee pretends to give up and starts back for the United States. The Apaches give chase and end up in a trap. Charriba is finally killed. With their bargain concluded, Dundee and Tyreen prepare to resume their personal battle, but the vengeful French appear, forcing the two men to set aside their differences. With the French having positioned a portion of their force on the American side of the Rio Grande, blocking Dundees forces from crossing into U.S. territory, the two cavalry forces charge each other at the Rio Grande, with major loss of life on both sides. Tyreen sees a French soldier seize the U.S. regimental colors, and seemingly moved by a patriotism he had thought dead, he takes back the captured American flag, and hands it over to Dundee – only to be hit in the stomach. With his last strength, he rides off to singlehandedly delay a second detachment of French cavalry while the others escape across the Rio Grande, and set out for home, greatly reduced in number.
As Dundees force heads home, the narration notes that its now April 16, 1865, and the soldiers are still unaware that the Civil War is over and President Lincoln has been assassinated.
Charlton Heston as Major Amos Charles Dundee
Richard Harris as Captain Benjamin Tyreen
Jim Hutton as Lieutenant Graham, a bumbling, inexperienced artilleryman
James Coburn as Samuel Potts, a wily mountain man or half-breed
Michael Anderson, Jr. as Trooper Tim Ryan, the bugler
Senta Berger as Teresa Santiago, the wife of an Austrian doctor
Mario Adorf as Sergeant Gomez, Dundees solid right-hand man
Brock Peters as Aesop, leader of a small group of black soldiers stationed at Fort Benlin
Warren Oates as O.W. Hadley, a Confederate who deserts and is later executed by Tyreen
Ben Johnson as Sergeant Chillum, Tyreens right-hand man
R.G. Armstrong as Reverend Dahlstrom, a local minister
L.Q. Jones as Arthur Hadley, O.W.s brother
Slim Pickens as Wiley, a drunken mule-packer
Dub Taylor as Benjamin Priam, a disheveled horse thief recruited from Fort Benlins prison
John Davis Chandler as Jimmy Lee Benteen, a racist rebel who picks a fight with Aesop
Karl Swenson as Captain Frank Waller, Dundees second-in-command at Fort Benlin
Albert Carrier as Captain Jacques Tremaine, commander of the French lancers
Michael Pate as Sierra Charriba, the chief of a tribe of renegade Apaches
Jose Carlos Ruiz as Riago, a "Christian Indian" scout whose loyalty is suspect
Begona Palacios as Linda, a young Mexican assistant to Teresa who has a short-lived affair with Ryan
Aurora Clavel as Melinche, an Indian woman in Durango who nurses Dundee back to health
Enrique Lucero as Doctor Aguilar, who operates on Dundee in Durango
Francisco Reiguera as Old Apache, sent to lure Dundee into an ambush
The screenplay, by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, and Peckinpah, was loosely based on historical precedents. However, contrary to claims by the production team at the time, it was not actually based on a true story. The films novelization was written by Richard Wormser. During the Minnesota Dakota War of 1862, Union forces in that state were forced to recruit Confederate prisoners from Texas to make up for their meager numbers in fighting the Indians. Unlike the movie, where there is much animosity between the Union and Confederate troops in Dundees command, the rebels, called "Galvanized Yankees", fought well and without much complaint. Both Union and Confederate forces also battled Apache, Navajo, and Comanche Indians throughout the war along the U.S.-Mexico border, making the scenario of the movie at least somewhat plausible. Before the films production, Peckinpah had been working on a Custer project, based on the novel by Hoffman Birney The Dice of God, but later abandoned it for this film. (His screenplay was filmed by Arnold Laven, as The Glory Guys).
Critics of the film have also pointed out similarities between this and Herman Melvilles classic novel Moby-Dick. Many of the characters are similar to those from that book, with Dundee as Captain Ahab, Tyreen as Starbuck, Ryan as Ishmael, and other minor characters, with Sierra Charriba and his Apache tribe substituting for the whale, as is the general plot line (an obsessive idealist drives himself to destruction, disregarding the effects on others). These references to Moby-Dick were likely intentional on the part of the screenwriters. Some have also pointed out similarities of the plot to the Vietnam War, which are highly unlikely to have been intentional, as the war had not significantly escalated at the time of the films production.
The opening scene at the Rostes Ranch and the funeral after the first skirmish with the Indians were inspired by scenes from The Searchers, while the scene where Dundees troop exits Fort Benlin, each faction of the command singing its own distinct song, is a deliberate parody of an equivalent scene in Fort Apache. The characterization of Dundee, particularly his personality as a martinet and his relationship with Tyreen, has been related to John Waynes character in Howard Hawks Red River. The Mexican Civil War setting recalls Robert Aldrichs Vera Cruz. The film also includes several references to David Leans Lawrence of Arabia – the execution of Hadley, and Dundees drunken exile in Durango, closely mirror sequences from this film.
The film "seems a direct reaction to [John] Ford’s Fort Apache ... with Charlton Heston cast as a more psychotic, more bluntly careerist version of Ford’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda)," according to a NY Times review of the film at the time of the 2013 Blu-ray release. Reviewer Dave Kehr went on to write that Peckinpah "plays Heston’s square-jawed intransigence against the aristocratic refinement of a Southern officer (overplayed by ... Harris)" and that Peckinpah "would essentially reshape this material into The Wild Bunch four years later, wisely dividing Dundee’s divided character into two separate figures" played then by Robert Ryan and William Holden.
Peckinpah found the script in late 1963. The early draft by Fink focused on Trooper Ryan and presented the film as a typical adventure story. Peckinpah largely discarded this, and began making the movie into a complex character study about Dundee, making him a glory-hungry officer who would do anything to gain fame and recognition. He had the support of Heston, who had seen and enjoyed Peckinpahs previous film, Ride the High Country, and was eager to work with the director. Actor R.G. Armstrong, who had a small part as a Reverend who tags along with the expedition, referred to the 156 minutes version of the film as "Moby-Dick on horseback".
The production of the movie was very troubled. Peckinpah was often drunk on the set, and was supposedly so abusive towards the cast that Heston had to threaten him with a cavalry saber in order to calm him down: he even charged Peckinpah on horseback at one point, leading the director to panic and order the camera crane he was working on to be raised fast. Peckinpah also fired a large number of crew members for very trivial reasons throughout the shoot. Columbia studio executives feared that the project was out of control, and that Peckinpah was too unstable to finish the picture, so they cut the shooting schedule of the film by several weeks. Heston gave up his entire salary for the film in order to keep Peckinpah on the project – a gesture rarely equaled in Hollywood history. The studio, however, forced Peckinpah to wrap up shooting very abruptly. Heston alleged that Peckinpah, towards the end of the shoot, simply became drunk and wandered off the set, and that he (Heston) had to finish directing many portions of the movie himself.
The length of Peckinpahs original cut has been disputed. According to some sources, including the 2005 DVD commentary, the original cut was 4 hours 38 minutes long, which was initially edited down to 156 minutes. Included in the unseen longer cuts were several slow-motion battle scenes inspired by Akira Kurosawas Seven Samurai. The movie was also fairly gory for the standards of 1965, and more bloody and violent scenes were cut out. A bombastic musical score by Daniele Amfitheatrof was added to the film despite Peckinpahs protests, as was the title song, "The Major Dundee March", sung by Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang. One of the most bizarre parts of the score was the use of an electronically altered sound – three anvils of different lengths played-back at half-speed every time Charriba or the Apaches would be seen or even mentioned. "Until the Apache is taken or destroyed" was one of the films catch phrases.
At the films initial release, it was 136 minutes long. After a disastrous premiere – the movie was almost universally panned by critics – an additional thirteen minutes were cut out, despite the protests of Peckinpah and producer Jerry Bresler. Some feel that these cuts ruined the movies scope and created significant plot holes, though others argue that these plot holes exist even in the extended version.
Major Dundee helped cement Peckinpahs image as a renegade filmmaker, which he would enhance with the conflicts on his later films, such as Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Others, namely Peckinpahs biographer David Weddle (author of If They Move ... Kill Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah), argue that Peckinpah is just as much to blame for the final product as Columbia and Jerry Bresler. Since its release on DVD, Dundee has begun to get recognition and notice from the public at large, and not just Western fans.Chilpancingo, Guerrero, Mexico
Estudios Churubusco, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico (studio) (interiors)
Cuautla, Morelos, Mexico (exteriors)
El Saltito waterfall, Nombre de Dios, Durango, Mexico
La Marquesa National Park, Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico (ranch: Rostes)
Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico
Rio Balsas, Guerrero, Mexico (finale: battle)
Tehuixtla, Morelos, Mexico (exteriors)
Tequesquitengo, Morelos, Mexico (exteriors)
Tlayacapan, Morelos, Mexico
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
Vista Hermosa, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico (exteriors)
In April 2005, the New York City based Film Forum premiered an "expanded" version featuring several restored scenes, along with a new musical score by Christopher Caliendo. This expanded version was actually the 136 minute cut authorized by producer Jerry Bresler before he left Columbia Studios. Recently unearthed in Sony Pictures archives, the restored version played in selected cities in North America and has been released on a Region 1 DVD. All of the cuts were edited out of the released version at the last minute; it is highly unlikely that Peckinpahs directors cut will ever be fully restored.
Restored scenes are listed below. These include both brief inserts and additions to existing scenes, as well as four major scenes restored to the film.Ryan plays "Taps" as soldiers bury the victims of the massacre.
After Dundee, Potts, and the other Union troopers survey the massacre at the Rostes Ranch, Tyreen and his Confederates attempt to escape through a mountain stream. They are trapped by troops from the fort and Dundees command. The next scene shows Dundee announcing to the forts prisoners his need for volunteers. The scene introduces the character of Tyreen, who is only awkwardly introduced in the theatrical version, and provides the reason why he and his men are to hang later in the film (they killed a guard during their escape attempt).
Tyreens men refuse to wear the Union jackets provided to them by Dundee.
Children watch Dundees expedition leaving Fort Benlin.
The wrestling match between Potts and the scout Riago is much longer, with Dundee chiding Potts because the artillery bet on him.
Paco, one of Potts Indian scouts, is killed by Apaches before the river ambush.
The fiesta scene in the Mexican village is longer, with Potts leering at a pretty girl, who snubs him (which would have led to the knife fight scene detailed below), and Teresa trying to comfort a crying baby.
Dundee recovers from his leg wound in Durango, while being tended to by Melinche (Aurora Clavell), eventually falling in love with her.
Dundee and his officers – Tyreen, Potts, Lt. Graham, and Sgt. Gomez – find an Apache trail marker, and then debate strategy on how to fight Charriba. At the end of the scene, we learn the fate of Apache scout Riago, who had earlier in the film been accused of being an agent of Charribas by Dundee and others. In the restored version, he is found crucified in a tree. In the theatrical version, his character disappeared without a trace.
Available as extras on the DVD are an unfinished knife fight scene between Potts and Gomez in a Mexican village, a longer version of Teresa and Dundees interlude at the lake, and several silent outtakes – including a master shot which would have opened the massacre scene at the beginning, of Lt. Brannin and his men riding past a sheep farmer to the Rostes Ranch.
For the 2005 restored version, a new score was composed by Christopher Caliendo. This score was composed and recorded with a small studio orchestra to authentically sound the way director Peckinpah might have approved it had he been alive at the time of the films restoration, and the way the music might have been done in its original 1965 release as opposed to todays larger orchestra-type scores. The new score is regarded by some critics as being better than the original, which was disliked by film experts and featured the title song performed by the Mitch Miller Sing-a-Long Gang, though many concede the new music is far from perfect; for example, there has been criticism of Caliendos decision to leave unscored several sequences which did have music in the original version.
Sam Peckinpah directed Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch. Ben Johnson appears in Major Dundee and The Undefeated. Sam Peckinpah directed Major Dundee and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Vera Cruz (1954). Two Flags West (1950).
Upon its theatrical release, Major Dundee received generally negative reviews while acknowledging the films potential. In his review in The New York Times, Eugene Archer wrote that the film had "an interesting cast, a superior visual texture, unexpected bits of character revelation and a choppy continuity that finally negates its impact." He praised Peckinpah for "seeking a fresh approach to the Western" and acknowledged that the director "displays a fine eye for panoramic vistas." Archer concludes:
Besides Mr. Hestons strong playing, there is good work by Jim Hutton, Mario Adorf and Michael Anderson Jr. as assorted troopers. Action abounds, and the pace is lively. The outdoor vistas are better than the intimate scenes, which are frequently marred by clumsy background processes, but Mr. Peckinpah does have an eye. He has a lot to learn, but his education should be worth paying for.
Many of the flaws identified by film critics in 1965 were addressed in the 2005 restored version, and film reviews of the DVD are much more positive. In his review in Alt Film Guide, Dan Schneider called Major Dundee "a near-great film that has a checkered history" and "likely the most gritty and realistic Western ever made."
On the review aggregator web site Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 97 percent positive rating from top film critics based on 30 reviews, and a 60 percent positive audience rating based on 3,177 ratings.