I’d known of ‘Major Dundee’ (1965) for decades yet all I knew about it was that it was a Sam Peckinpah film and that it was flawed. I was curious settling down to watch it last night as Peckinpah is an interesting filmmaker and, more importantly, would I be able to notice those flaws? How bad were they? Are they fatal? Let’s sit down and find ou… good god! Is there a doctor in the house?!
‘Major Dundee’ is about Major Dundee who sets out with a band of Confederate prisoners of war to track and kill a group of Apaches hiding out in New Mexico. And that’s it! There is almost nothing more to it than that. Dundee and his men set off and what follows is simply watching a feature film fall apart before your very eyes. If ‘Major Dundee’ was a meal at a restaurant then it would consist of the chief walking up to your table and simply dumping all the ingredients onto your plate in one go and walking off. The film is a mess.
Maybe I should think of it as a re-telling of ‘Moby-Dick’? But if that’s the case then it’s ‘Moby-Dick’ without the whale, just Ahab aimlessly wandering about for two hours. Are the Apaches the whale? If so then why do they disappear for almost the entire movie? Is it the French? Dundee’s ambition? Just what, exactly, is this movie about?
Maybe Peckinpah’s skill at kinetic action sequences will save the film? Fat chance of that buster, because most of the action is chaotic, seemingly edited at random and takes place at night meaning it’s hard to tell what’s going on what when you can tell what’s going on it’s not terribly interesting or exciting. Apparently the battle scenes were to be boosted by flashes of slow motion violence which would have helped, but more than likely not saved, proceedings.
Maybe the film is all about Dundee and his men? Possibly, but if that’s the case it’s been cack-handedly handled. We’re introduced to certain characters at the start only for them to drop out of the movie almost completely until the closing moments when they suddenly pop up again. Wait a minute — here’s Warren Oates! Maybe he’ll provide some much needed… oh great, they’ve just killed him off. So much for THAT hope!
All this means that ‘Major Dundee’ is exasperating and strangely paced, but at least it’s not terminally boring.
Then Dundee and his men meet a beautiful woman and the movie becomes terminally boring. Then Dundee gets hit in the leg and the movie goes into a coma. From this point on any chance of recovery is destroyed beyond hope. No amount of thrills, excitement or tension now injected into the movie can salvage what ‘Major Dundee’ has become.
One of the biggest criticisms of the movie I was aware of concerning ‘Major Dundee’ was in regards to Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score which sits uncomfortably, awkwardly, against the visuals. Yet I suspect the problem could’ve been with Amfitheatrof’s brief from studio execs who, more than likely, saw the footage and instructed the composer “Do whatever the hell you can to make this mess entertaining!” The result is a jaunty, upbeat score with the excessive use of muted trumpets which means the entire soundtracks sounds as though it was written by Eric Rogers. The automatic, and inevitable, effect of this is to make ‘Major Dundee’ feel as though it was directed by Gerald Thomas, meaning it’s hard to take seriously the horrors of violence when you keep expecting Sid James to walk into view (I also suspect the film would have worked better with James as Dundee but let’s not dwell on such frivolous speculation).
‘Major Dundee’ is a very frustrating movie as there are flashes of brilliance but, like any storm front, these flashes only last for fleeting fractions of a second. What’s left are simply the churning clouds of darkness and the oppressive heat of free-floating and directionless energy.
“The war will not last forever” Dundee mutters at one point. The war might not, but this film sure feels like it will.