Mar 212013

Rating: ★★★½☆

Columbia, 1965, 136 minutes
Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Michael Anderson, Jr., Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, Brock Peters,Warren Oates, R. G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens
Story: Harry Julian Fink
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul and Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Director: Sam Peckinpah

Historical Background

After overthrowing the dictator Santa Anna in 1855, liberal forces established a republican government. A plan to weaken the power of the Catholic clergy resulted in the War of Reform (1858-1860) when the clergy persuaded conservative generals to launch a coup d’etat. Although the liberals won the war, both sides had run up sizable debts to Britain, Spain and France. President Benito Juarez tried to negotiate a long-term payment plan, but Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France used the debts as justification to place Archduke Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the throne of Mexico, to create a pro-France, Catholic empire next to the United States, which led to the French Intervention in Mexico (1861-1867). Although the Mexican army had been defeated by a French army in 1864, Maximilian’s support was limited to the conservative elite, while the countryside was dominated by Juaristas, guerrillas loyal to Juarez. Despite Maximilian’s neutral stance during the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union government refused to recognize Maximilian as the ruler of Mexico. After the fall of the Confederacy, the victorious Union would not tolerate a French presence on its southern border. Blatant pressure convinced the French to return home, enabling Juarez to regain control of Mexico.

Plot Summary

In the fall of 1864, a band of Apache have raided a settlement and massacred an entire company of cavalry. Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), the commander of a nearby Union prison, vows to destroy the Apache and retrieve three boys abducted by the Apache. Since his garrison is too small, he recruits a mix of civilians, black soldiers, and Confederate prisoners led by Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), who promises to serve only until the Apache are taken or destroyed. Determined to end the Apache threat, Dundee pursues them into Mexico, even though it is occupied by a French army, and could lead to war between the Union and Mexico. After weeks of fruitless searching, the force is ambushed by the Apache. Desperate for supplies, they reach a village, whose small French garrison is forced to hand over their weapons and supplies. While resting in the village, Dundee finds romance with Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the widow of an Austrian doctor who was hung for treating Juaristas. Luring a larger French garrison into a trap, Dundee takes their weapons and supplies, and returns to the chase.

As Dundee’s obsession grows dangerous, even his own men start to turn against him. While they hunt the Apache, the French hunt them, so it is unlikely that they will survive to return across the border.

Historical Accuracy

Major Dundee is essentially a character study that takes place in a war, not a war movie. Set near the end of the Civil War, it also involves the Indian wars and the Franco-Mexican War, but never really focuses on any specific conflict.

The idea that the commander of a Union prison enlists Confederate prisoners to fight the Apache is based on actual instances, so the overall plot is plausible. However, it is completely unbelievable that a Union force would fight several battles with the French occupiers of Mexico. Hoping to win recognition by the American government, Emperor Maximilian had refused to recognize the Confederacy, but it would have been impossible to ignore a mini-invasion. A vital factor in the Confederates’ increasingly bleak situation was the Union’s control of the majority of the southern ports. If Maximilian had opened the border between Mexico and the south, it would have enabled the Confederacy to fight longer, which probably would not have helped Dundee’s career.

When Dundee’s troops enter the Mexican village, they are greeted by several corpses hanging in the village square. The French were fighting a vicious war against the Juaristas, and executions without a trial were a key if unsuccessful part of the French strategy. However, the portrayal of the French soldiers as soft in comparison to the Americans is incorrect, since the real French troops had been hardened by years of harsh guerrilla warfare.

Fed up with two years of guard duty and cleaning stables, seven black soldiers led by Aesop (Brock Peters) volunteer for the mission. While many black regiments fought alongside white units, becoming a critical part of the Union war effort, far too many blacks enlisted only to find themselves guarding prisoners or performing menial tasks.

Although the script stretches the facts, the movie paints a clear picture of the overall situation. The north and south were locked in a bloody civil war, but both sides considered the Indians to be a common enemy. On the other side of the border, a powerful French army, supported by the elite of Mexico, was struggling to keep an Austrian prince on the throne.


This is a complex movie so the comments section will be longer than usual. Much longer.

The movie was plagued with problems, some imposed by the studio and some created by director Sam Peckinpah’s inexperience and self-destructive nature. The final script by Harry Julian Fink was ridiculously long and only covered the first third of the film, but there was little time for rewrites since Charlton Heston had signed to make The Agony and the Ecstasy after finishing Dundee, so filming could not be postponed. Writer Oscar Saul was brought in to help Peckinpah produce a new version. Although the two men created memorable characters and intense character conflicts, the script remained half-finished and lacked an ending that matched the fireworks in the beginning. Peckinpah believed that the weaknesses in the second half could be fixed on the set, but mistakes in the location scouting stage would ensure that he would not have the time.

Having spent most of his career working on TV westerns that had few locations, Peckinpah had had a surprising success with Ride the High Country (1962), a small movie that was filmed in the mountains where he gone hunting since he was a boy. Major Dundee was a much larger production and would be filmed in Mexico. Eager to use the best scenery possible, Peckinpah rashly chose locations far from each other, therefore valuable time was wasted traveling between locations. Overwhelmed by the scope of the production, Peckinpah did not have time to deal with the unfinished script, so the film loses its focus in the second half.

Two days before they left for Mexico, Peckinpah and producer Jerry Bresler learned that there had been a change in administration at Columbia, and the new people were less keen on the script, so the budget was cut by a third and fifteen days were removed from the seventy-five-day shooting schedule. The entire industry was battling a decline in revenue, so budget cuts were common, but Peckinpah viewed it as a personal betrayal by Bresler.

Impressed by the beauty of the initial scenes sent back to the studio, Columbia initially accepted the delays and budget overruns. This would prove to be an error. Unknown to the studio, Peckinpah was determined to gain revenge on producer Jerry Bresler by shooting endless takes of the final battle at the Rio Grande, even though friends warned him that the studio would take revenge in the final cut. When the shooting ended, it was fifteen days over schedule and $1.5 million over budget, exactly the original schedule and budget. Peckinpah thought that he could have his revenge and get the picture he wanted, but the studio had other plans. When the film was shown to owners of theater chains, they called for a much shorter version, and Peckinpah soon discovered that he was no longer an employee of Columbia studios. The film was edited, cutting out most of the graphic violence and scenes that explained Dundee’s obsession. When it was released, Major Dundee was ridiculed by critics and ignored by movie-goers.

Having grown up on the westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, Peckinpah paid homage to the films of his youth, while introducing a more modern perspective. Unlike the westerns of Ford and Hawks, Peckinpah refused to hide atrocities, therefore the bodies of dead women are shown after the massacre. Furthermore, the soldiers killed in the Apache’s ambush are thrown into a mass grave, instead of the individual graves common in Ford’s westerns.

Peckinpah himself admitted that the film is basically Moby Dick transplanted to the west, with the Apache taking the place of the great whale. However, the execution of the Moby Dick analogy is flawed since Dundee achieves a form of redemption at the end, even though his obsession had left a trail of destruction behind him. With some leading stars, it would be natural to presume that the studio or Heston himself insisted on his character surviving. However, this seems unlikely in Heston’s case. In fact, Heston seemed to enjoy playing death scenes, since his character died in five or six movies during the decade from 1961 to 1971.

Bad blood exists between Dundee and Tyreen because Dundee had voted to cashier him for killing another officer in a duel before the war. Dundee is from the South but fights his former neighbours, while Tyreen is an Irish exile who knows that he follows a lost cause, which is an interesting reversal since the vast majority of Irish immigrants fought for the North. Although a captive with bleak prospects, Tyreen is more honest with himself than Dundee, while Dundee, the protagonist of the film, is a glory-hungry egomaniac. At one point, Tyreen taunts Dundee, commenting that Dundee’s superiors made him a jailer instead of giving him a combat command for a reason. Early in the film Dundee’s second-in-command states that Dundee can not handle prison duty and hopes a victory will win him promotion. Determined to introduce harsh reality to the westerns, Peckinpah had decided that Dundee would be driven by ambition and personal demons, not any form of ideals.

Unlike other movies that rely on montage sequences to present the passage of time, the viewer sees the characters gradually become exhausted. The movie was filmed in chronological order, therefore the actors’ exhaustion was real, since the conditions worsened as the company moved from location to location. The worn-down clothes show that they started as soldiers and slowly degenerated into savages, little different than the Apache they are chasing.

Made at the time of the Vietnam War, the film is a powerful criticism of the war, but the story of overreach, obsession and interference in other countries is still relevant today. The various groups literally want to kill each other, which reflects the conflict within American society at the time.

It is a grim film but there are several moments of humor to relieve the tension. Dundee’s second-in-command will only let him have inexperienced Lieutenant Graham (Jim Huttom) for the mission, and Dundee stares with disbelief at the rawness of the young officer.

Unbelievably charming, the interlude in the village is worth watching on its own, especially the competition between Dundee and Tyreen for the attentions of the buxom Teresa. The young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.) who narrates the story walks off with a girl (Begonia Palacios) while the two older men sit off on the side debating whether he is old enough to shave.

Major Dundee is one of those movies where a film of the behind-the-scenes action would probably be as interesting as the final result. Determined to ensure that his director was home at a decent hour, Heston kept Peckinpah company as he migrated from bar to bar, usually ending up in a run-down brothel. When Columbia wanted to fire Peckinpah, Heston said he would quit, and the rest of the cast echoed his threat, so the studio backed down. Somewhere in the middle of carousing and whoring, Peckinpah managed to court Begonia, who was half his age and chaperoned by a formidable aunt, and they married soon after the filming ended. A steady stream of dapper studio executives appeared briefly at the set before retreating to the air-conditioned hotel, deluding themselves that there was a way to control Peckinpah, who would quickly meet with them before heading out to the bars and whorehouses, chaperoned by his lead actor, who finally lost patience with one of the worst-tempered directors in the world and charged at Peckinpah with a saber. When the film finally wrapped, the cast literally ran for the airport without pausing to say goodbye.

Despite Heston’s support of Peckinpah against the studio, the two men argued because Heston was naturally fed up with dealing with a dysfunctional director with severe self-destructive issues, while Peckinpah was struggling to force Heston to move past his usual alpha male performance and add more vulnerability to his character. A key issue is that Heston was a likable person in real life and wanted to be liked on the screen but he was playing an obsessive, unsympathetic character who was not supposed to be liked. Although Heston may not have realized it, Peckinpah appears to have had an influence on his star. When Dundee hides in Durango recovering from a wound, seeking solace in many, many bottles and a young woman, Heston shows a surprising vulnerability, clearly resembling Peckinpah, who routinely went on drunks that lasted for weeks in Mexico or the mountains in order to escape his responsibilities as a husband and father.

Since the film is about Dundee’s obsession, it does not spend as much time with the supporting characters as the later Wild Bunch. This is unfortunate since the movie had an astonishing cast, many of whom became part of Peckinpah’s stock company. R.G. Armstrong plays a preacher equally comfortable giving a sermon and slapping around racist white trash. While his performance lacks the insanity of his iconic role as atomic bomb riding USAAF Major ‘King’ Kong in Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released the year before, Slim Pickens plays a perpetually drunk horse wrangler. Almost unrecognizable beneath the beard and the grime, James Coburn’s one-armed, half-breed scout is aware that far too many soldiers don’t trust any of the Indians, including him.

Trying to explain the failure of Major Dundee, Heston believed that he, Peckinpah and Columbia all wanted different films. He wanted to explore the Civil War, Peckinpah wanted to make the Wild Bunch and Columbia wanted a John Ford film.

Peckinpah was genuinely lost in Mexico and Dundee’s dysfunctional attitude mimics Peckinpah’s own confusion. Although no one knew it at the time, it was a dress rehearsal for The Wild Bunch, but it is still an impressive accomplishment on its own. A restored version, based on a cut made by producer Jerry Bresler, was made in 2005, which provides a more coherent story, while revealing the movie’s flaws. Despite the flaws, it bursts with passion and brilliance.

If you want to learn more about the French Intervention of Mexico, check out my French Intervention in Mexico Page.


  • the war movie buff

    Fantastic review of the making of the film. I was aware of some but not most of that. Thanks.
    I saw the 1hr36m version. It really drags in spots (the two stints in the village bring the film to screeching halts). I am not sure the director’s cut would be much of an improvement pacing wise. I personnaly think the movie is overrated because Peckinpah’s reputation has gone up since it was released and that appears to have affected the more recent revisionism. With Heston and Harris you have two of the great scene-chewers and they do not dispappoint.

    • historyonfilm

      Glad you enjoyed it. The review was fun to write, and I really liked the movie despite the serious flaws in Heston’s character. Your are right that the movie is overrated. I think that since the original version released by the studio was so bad that people thought that the missing director’s cut would be much better. While the restored version flows better, the main problems remain. Still, some astonishing scenes, especially the confrontations between Heston and Harris.

  • Diane Demp

    History freak —- and just beginning to explore the Union Army in Texas during Civil War and Texas Confederacy and Mexico border areas –i.e. and General Nathaniel Banks commanding new orleans encouraging confederates to desert, cross Rio grande and join Union in Matamoras, had an ancester that did desert and lived to ripe old age incognito in New Orleans (but that is another story waiting for production lol !). As one time Army officer appreciated the officers characters and conflicts in this movie. . . leadership and leaders dont change just the times and situational challenges change —.

    • historyonfilm

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. Have not started researching the American Civil War in depth yet, it is a big subject, but I am looking forward to reading about the Galvanized Yankees.

  • I just finished watching the restored version, and my thoughts during the entire movie were along the lines of “this sure reminds me of The Wild Bunch”, particularly with the village fiesta scene. So yeah, dress rehearsal for sure.

    I appreciated the behind the scenes filmography info you added; not much different from any other shoot of his. Peckinpah was such a perennial victim with a chip on his shoulder, but he did have a epochal vision. That scene where Harris rescues Heston from Durango was particularly fascinating; when Heston, exhausted, grimy, and sweaty with drink, cries out “Leave me be,” I though “now how did Sam get Heston to do THAT?”