Originally released in 1965, Major Dundee, directed by Sam Peckinpah, is best viewed as a blueprint for his classic The Wild Bunch. A loose reinterpretation of Moby Dick as a Western, Major Dundee was released with huge cuts and consequently was disliked by its director, and although this restored version redresses the balance with 10 minutes of additional footage, it is still 20 minutes shorter than an unreleased Peckinpah cut of the film.

Loosely narrated in voice-over from the diaries of Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr), a relatively minor character in the film, Major Dundee suffers from a lack of focus. It begins promisingly, after a group of Apache Indians ransack a village, Major Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston) is recruited to hunt down the perpetrators. Set in the midst of the American Civil War, Union soldier Dundee is forced to recruit from Confederate prisoners, one of whom is his nemesis Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). As “a command divided against itself” they head out on an epic journey after their mysterious destructive charge.

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In the second half of Major Dundee a multitude of subplots build-up, including one featuring a love interest (Santa Berger) and an ongoing combat with the French foreign legion, and Major Dundee starts to feel rushed - an element magnified by the dramatic cuts and many disparate elements. The conclusion, though brutal, feels oddly anti-climactic and unsatisfying.

Major Dundee is at its most effective when in conflict, be it ideological or combat. The numerous battle scenes are violent and exciting, marked with the signature of its controversial director. The central rivalry between Dundee and Tyreen is convincingly portrayed by its experienced and well cast leads Heston and Harris; both men forced to fight together “until the apache’s taken or destroyed”, while remaining unfaltering to their convictions.

The Mexican setting provides a wonderful backdrop to the action, and there are some stunning landscape shots in the film. Major Dundee is a flawed but interesting film which may please fans of the genre and will be of some interest Peckinpah aficionados, but those seeking an introduction to his work are best advised to check out The Wild Bunch first.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2008
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A divided troop on the trail of violent Apaches.
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Director: Sam Peckinpah

Writer: Henri Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah

Starring: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger

Year: 1965

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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