Major Dundee is a 1965 Sam Peckinpah Western focusing on a Union cavalry officer (Charlton Heston) who leads a motley troop of soldiers into Mexico to rescue three children kidnapped by Apaches.
Along the way they liberate Mexican villagers and clash with French lancers trying to establish the Austrian Archduke Maximillian 1 as emperor of Mexico.
The Wild Bunch is universally recognized as Peckinpah’s greatest achievement. It has certainly had a far greater impact on audiences and critics than Major Dundee. According to Heston, this was really the movie Peckinpah wanted to make while making Dundee, but he couldn’t quite get his hands around it.
As a result, Dundee’s virtues have been tragically overlooked. It has a larger cast of major characters than Bunch, and these are men you can truly like and identify with:
- The charm of Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harrs), a Confederate lieutenant forced into Union service;
- The steady courage of Sergeant Gomez;
- The quiet dignity of Aesop (Brock Peters), a black soldier;
- The quest for maturity in a young, untried bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson, Jr.);
- The on-the-job training experience of Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton); and
- The stoic endurance of Indian scout Sam Potts (James Coburn).
These men are charged with a dangerous and dirty mission, and do it as well as they can, but you wouldn’t fear inviting them to meet your family.
Major Dundee (Charlton Heston)
That was definitely not the case with The Wild Bunch, four hardened killers prepared to rip off anyone, anytime, and leave a trail of bodies in their wake. The only place where you would have felt safe seeing them, in real-life, was behind prison bars.
The Wild Bunch
Dundee is an odyssey movie, in the same vein as Saving Private Ryan. Both films start with a battle, followed by the disappearance of characters who need to be searched for and brought back to safety.
Just as Dundee assembles a small force to go into Mexico, so, too, does Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) do the same, with his hunting ground being France.
Dundee’s men retrieve the kidnapped children and survive a near-fatal battle with Indians. Miller’s men twice clash with the Germans before finding their quarry, James Ryan.
Before Dundee can return to the United States, he must face and defeat a corps of French soldiers. Before Miller can haul Ryan back to safety, he must repulse a German assault.
Both groups of soldiers–Dundee’s and Miller’s–are transformed by their experiences in ways neither group could possibly articulate. (Miller, being a highly literate schoolteacher, would surely do a better job of this than the tight-jawed Dundee.)
Dundee’s soldiers return to a United States that’s just ended its Civil War with a Union victory–and the death of slavery. Miller’s soldiers return to a nation that is now a global superpower.
Of course, Ryan was fortunate in having Steven Spielberg as its director. With his clout, there was no question that Ryan would emerge as the film he wanted.
Peckinpah lacked such clout. And he fought with everyone, including the producer, Jerry Bressler, who ultimately held the power to destroy his film. This guaranteed that his movie would emerge far differently than he had envisioned.
In 2005, an extended version of Dundee was released, featuring 12 minutes of restored footage. (Much of the original footage was lost after severe cuts to the movie.)
In this, we fully see how unsympathetic a character the martinet Dundee really is. Owing to Heston’s record of playing heroes, it’s easy to overlook Dundee’s arrogance and lethal fanaticism and automatically view him as a hero. If he is indeed that, he is a hero with serious flaws.
And his self-imposed mission poses questions for us today:
- Where is the line between professional duty and personal fanaticism?
- How do we balance the success of a mission against its potential costs–especially if they prove appalling?
- At what point–if any–does personal conscience override professional obligations?
Whether intentionally or not, in Major Dundee, Peckinpah laid out a microcosm of the American history that would immediately follow the Civil War.
Former Confederates and Unionists would forego their regional animosities and fight against a recognized mutual enemy—the Indians. This would prove a dirty and drawn-out war, shorn of the glory and (later) treasured memories of the Civil War.
Just as Dundee’s final battle with French lancers ended with an American victory won at great cost, so, too, would America’s forays into the Spanish-American War and World Wars 1 and 11 prove the same.
Ben Tyreen’s commentary on the barbarism of French troops (“Never underestimate the value of a European education”) would be echoed by twentieth-century Americans uncovering the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald.
America would learn to project its formidable military power at great cost. Toward the end of the movie, Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the ex-patriot Austrian widow, would ask Dundee: “But who do you answer to?”
It is a question that still vividly expresses the view of the international community as this superpower colossus hurtles from one conflict to the next.