Major Dundee Reviews
Since Ride the High Country (1962), Sam Peckinpah's scope has grown to be more confident, interestingly more graphically violent, confirming the Western genre to be his area of both expertise and development. The cinematography shows itself as more confident as his directorial capabilities keep evolving, most noticeably in the Director's Cut of the film, which surely shows the motivations of the characters as clear and complimentary to the plot's advancement. Nevertheless, the maximization of the scope came up with a price: Peckinpah's intentions are unclear. Is it a historical account? Most probably not. Accuracy is not a concern here. Social criticism? A commentary on racism? A collective character study on race prejudices? All or some of the above? Or just an action film set in the 19th Century with Mexico's folklore as a stylish excuse?
It is true that the film could have been better and is a waste of valuable potential, but given Peckinpah's status in 1965, he couldn't have been better. It was the necessary step upwards to be taken before perfecting his style, his vision, his passion for Mexican shooting locations, the proper character balance and the proper micro and macro conflicts in his Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969). Nevertheless, the film is well accomplished from a technical point of view, with a badass leading performance by Charlton Heston and a decent effort from the ensemble cast. These are the positive aspects if one can look beyond the romantic clichés and the predominantly stereotypical representations of the rural Mexico, which the film presents as generalizations, instead of peculiarities.
Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), a Union officer, is head of a Confederate prison in New Mexico. When Apache Indians abduct some young kids, Dundee hires a crew, including Confederate prisoners, led by Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an old friend of Dundee before turning Confederate, to find the Indians and retrieve the kids. What Dundee doesn't know is the quest will lead them down to Mexico and tensions between him and Ben will heat up higher.
Other stars in the film include Jim Hutton as Lt. Graham. James Coburn as Samuel Potts, and Senta Berger as a Mexican widow who falls for Heston.
If you look at the film closely, you'll see similarities to the Western classic The Searchers, a story about a crazed man racist towards an Indian race and looking for abducted children. The Searchers is a true Western classic, with an epic storyline, a spectacular performance from John Wayne, and filled with adventure, comedy, and drama. Major Dundee, on the other hand, fails miserably.
Now I have to be honest, I loved the opening sequence, involving an Indian attack at a village and the burning of buildings. That sequence alone had potential that this was going to be a great film. But, shortly afterwards, the film goes downhill fast. For one thing, there's too many characters to count, and it's hard to care for people have been poorly developed. Take James Coburn for example. All he does in the film is make grand announcements to others, and his part was wasted. Jim Hutton was also a waste and I couldn't care for his character much.
What makes The Searchers a great classic is how epic the journey is. In Major Dundee, however, the journey is dull, dull, dull, and dull. While the cinematography stuns, everything else falls flat. Even worse in the story, is that long before the halfway mark, an old Apache returns the kids to the army, so Dundee returns them home and continues to search for the Apaches. Well, if you got the kids back, then what's the point? In The Searchers, you had to wait until the end in order to see the kids, and the journey took five years. By the time the scene I mentioned happened, it hit an all-time low, and the film got worse and worse and worse.
The other problem I had with the story is this; Why is the French in Mexico? The French had nothing to do with the story, so why are they the bad guys now? I thought that was racist. If people complain that The Searchers is racist, then this film is a whole lot worse.
Charlton Heston is one of the best actors in his day. He excelled me, and others, as Moses in The Ten Commandments, and wowed in his Oscar-winning performance in Ben-Hur. In Major Dundee? He's the biggest problem. Heston was a huge miscast, and felt no sympathy for his character when making the quest. For one thing, Heston's character was so stupid that I'm surprised that he was ever a Union officer. I'd thought I'd never say this, but Richard Harrs's character, the Confederate leader, had more common sense than Heston's character, and I'm not a Confederate supporter. Harris had better acting than Heston, and was the only performance worth mentioning.
Heston gets involved in a romance later in the film, and it bores. The film has some action sequences, and they bore as well. Most of them were filmed in the night, so most of the time, you can't tell what's going on. But when you can tell what's going on, the scenes are stupidly-crafted, boring, and lazy.
Major Dundee is a big reason why I'm not a huge fan of the Western genre. It promises something epic and turns into a dull disappointment. The acting, with the exception of Richard Harris, is dull, the action sequences are poorly made, and the epic journey is a boring waste. I wasted two-and-a-half hours of my life watching this dull, racist, junk. If you want to watch a real Western, watch Rio Bravo. Watch The Searchers. Watch even The Magnificent Seven. Avoid Major Poopee at all costs, and you'll do a great favor to the whole world. The more it's avoided, the better.