Movies

Major Dundee (1965, Charlton Heston, Richard Harris)

Major Dundee

In Major Dundee as the American Civil War nears its end, a rogue band of Apaches attacks a U.S. cavalry post in New Mexico, slaughtering most of the inhabitants and abducting several children.

At nearby Fort Benlin, the commander, Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) plans the fightback that will rebuild his tattered reputation. Short of men, he augments his small troop of fighters by accepting black volunteers and a group of confederate prisoners led by Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), who are given the simple choice: fight or die.

Tyreen agrees, but makes it clear that when the mission is complete, he will kill Dundee. The makeshift army sets off, and is soon rife with political and personal squabbling, which worsens when they arrive at a Mexican village and Dundee and Tyreen both fall for a local nurse (Senta Berger). Ill-prepared and disaffected, the soldiers are galvanised by one thing: news of the Apaches’ whereabouts…

“A lot of things went wrong with Dundee; Sam was responsible for most of them,” said Charlton Heston in his autobiography, In the Arena . “A lot of things went right with it; Sam was responsible for most of those, too. He was… a difficult but very talented man.”

Actor and director shared an office while in pre-production, and both had different goals: the solicitous Heston dreamt of John Ford-style glory, while the obnoxious, hard-drinking Peckinpah conceived a more violent epic. It’s even suggested the actor threatened the director with a sabre to settle the feud.

That anger manifests itself as a manic energy which the ensemble cast maximise, with Harris contributing a fine turn as Tyreen, perhaps spurred on by the Oscar nomination for This Sporting Life , which was announced while he filmed in Mexico.

Budgetary excess saw Columbia Pictures take the film away from Peckinpah, releasing a truncated version with an extra character to tie jagged scenes together. The director took solace in supporting actress Begona Palacios, marrying her on three separate occasions, finding himself blackballed by the studios and then returning, triumphant, to make The Wild Bunch.

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Harry Julian Fink, Sam Peckinpah, Oscar Saul

Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Michael Anderson Jr.