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Back in the Saddle

Major improvement: Peckinpah's westernized 'Nam-era parable returns in bloody recut

Play it again, Sam. A blustery, madcap preamble to the full-blooded anti-westerns that Mr. Peckinpah scorched our earth with a few years later and a genuinely Rorschachian historical stencil, Major Dundee (1965) has always been famously handicapped by producer re-editing. Coming before us today with 12 additional minutes no one outside of the Columbia editing rooms ever saw, Peckinpah's first patently runaway-train production seems less a restored classic than a missing link in the breakdown of Hollywood genre hegemony. After it, the traditional western could only scramble for crumbs of relevance. Because they are at heart whiskey-sodden, depressive, and nihilistic, Peckinpah's films have always been impossible to pin to the wall ethically or politically, even as they deliberately engage in 'Nam-era parable-telling. Major Dundee is virtually without rival as a reflection of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, because it simultaneously gloats on irresponsible bloodshed, abhors military slaughter, and couldn't give a good goddamn about life or death.

Which is not to say that the film is vintage Peckinpah—it is a messy skirmish in his career's adolescence, and it bungles and bristles with as much studio epic, Ford-style cliché as new wave anarchy. But the politics are as nutsy and testosterone-blighted as a berserker in mid-amok. Opening with a killing field presided over by a maniacally evil Apache campaigner, the Civil War-era scenario sludgily traces the resolve of the titular military prison warden (Charlton Heston) to assemble a command and set out into Mexico after the bastard, without orders or strategy. His resources are pitiful, so Confederate prisoners, drunks, fallen Apaches, and even "coloreds" are employed, including one Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), a bitter but honey-toned and "fanciful" Johnny Reb who turns out to be Dundee's primary antagonist.

Narrated redundantly by the company's fresh-faced bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), Peckinpah's movie is as broad as a Swedish barn and staggers across its landscape as if it were being concocted along the way (which is how it was reportedly made); the film's hearty middle course is a bacchanalian pit stop in a Mexican village, turned hospitable once Dundee cannonballs the French garrison in control. (As far as I can determine, this is the only American film to even acknowledge France's Mexican presence during both countries' civil conflicts.) Wooing a displaced German hottie (Senta Berger), veins-in-the-teeth ramrod Dundee catches an arrow in the leg and bizarrely spends the next quarter-hour as a whoring Durango gutter drunk: "Just leave me alone!" Eventually, the Apache are confronted almost by accident, and then armies of festooned French horsemen become the south-of-the-border dilemma du jour.

NRA forever: Heston
photo: Photofest/Film Forum
NRA forever: Heston

The movie's typification of the Apache is old-school ghoulishness, but Dundee and his troops are equal parts imperialistic bulletheads and multiculti misfits. (The background cast is a Who's Who of growling, man's-man character stars: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor, et al.) James Coburn's one-armed, gone-native scout is the only character undemented by spite, prejudice, or ambition. If the structural similarities to Apocalypse Now seem immediate to the eye, then Dundee is the equivalent to Robert Duvall's Kilgore, with no Willard or Kurtz to focus the narrative energy or provide opposed points of view. In this westernized 'Nam, fragging is always on everyone's mind, the Enemy is a ghost in the bush, and American intervention (on the heels of the French) is a generalized, steamrolling disaster—and that includes Peckinpah's run of Mexico. The natives are, of course, fodder; Peckinpah might have decried the Mexicans' subjugation in film after film, but he was also never very interested in them as people.

Suddenly, the third-world invasion of Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie doesn't seem like an uncontrolled, stony act of megalomania so much as a bid toward Peckinpah-hood. What rescues Major Dundee in the end from its many conflicts and unresolved passions is Heston—always effective as ruthless, self-righteous sons of bitches, this most reviled of dime-store demigods makes a fearsomely convincing misanthrope-authority figure, a loathsome frontier despot capable of convincing everyone in his wide path that he's destined to create history, not just witness it. Harris—readying his eyeliner and plummy self-amusement for Camelot—is no match for him.

 
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