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Major Dundee

USA 1965
produced by
Jerry Bresler for Jerry Bresler Productions/Columbia
directed by Sam Peckinpah
starring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Michael Anderson jr, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, Brock Peters, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Karl Swenson, Michael Pate, John Davis Chandler, Dub Taylor, Albert Carrier, José Carlos Ruiz, Aurora Clavel, Begoña Palacios, Enrique Lucero, Francisco Reiguera
story by Harry Julian Fink, screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah, music by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Christopher Caliendo

review by
Mike Haberfelner

Available on DVD !

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It's 1964, and the final year of the Civil War, when Apache chieftain Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) leads his men to a series of attacks on peaceful settlements, and has everybody killed but the young boys he has taken captive to be trained to be Apache warriors. Major Dundee (Charlton Heston) of the Union is frustrated that he hasn't been given any real command and just heads a prison camp, so he decides to mount an expedition on his own that's to follow Sierra Charriba's braves into Mexico to free the boys - and have bloody revenge on Sierra Charriba. Since this isn't an official expedition though, Dundee has to relie on volunteers, both among his men and the prisoners, and even has to recruit a bunch of Confederate soldiers under Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) - so the expedition is problem-prone from the beginning, and not only because the Confederate soldiers and the coloured volunteers just fail to get along. However, the deeper they get into Mexico, the more difficult it gets to follow Sierra Charriba's trail, and it's not exactly helpful that not even their scout Potts (James Coburn) trusts their Incian guide Riago (José Carlow Ruiz). Eventually, they experience unexpected success when an old Apache (Francisco Reiguera), who has deserted from Sierra Charriba's army, asks for safe passage and brings the abducted boys as a peace offering. Mission accomplished it would appear, but Dundee insists to push on until Sierra Charriba is killed. But the Apache's remain elusive, and eventually Dundee and his men have to attack a French garrison for food and supplies - even though the French are the Union's allies. However, they are celebrated by the Mexican locals who have been suppressed by the French - and Dundee and Tyreen soon enough fall for the same woman, Teresa (Senta Berger). However once Dundee and his men move on, the French take the village again, and only a few locals can escape, Teresa among them, and Dundee sees himself forced to offer protection. And still no sign of Sierra Charriba - until a bunch of Apache braves attack Dundee and Teresa while they have a nice swim away from camp, and Dundee is seriously wounded. He's brought to a doctor in Durango, but Durango's under French rule, and once in he has problems to move back out and eventually starts drowning his sorrows in alcohol - until eventually he's broken free by his men, led by Tyreen, who has long sworn to himself to murder Dundee once their mission's accomplished and simply doesn't want to miss out on the opportunity. Thing is, while Dundee and company continue their search for the ever elusive Sierra Charriba, the French send out several battalions to take down Dundee and his men ...

 

An epic of the Old West, done the Sam Peckinpah-way, where there are no heroes, not even villains, all characters are fallible, where things are dirty and tend to get violent - and the outcome is rather wonderful, as this movie is basically the character study of the already broken titular character aiming for grandness but stumbling with great regularity on the way there, while most of his decisions are questionable at best and often selfish to the point of being a danger to others. However the character doesn't come across as merely villainous, just deeply human to a (literal) fault, also thanks to a relatable performance by Charlton Heston, leading a strong ensemble. And Peckinpah sure knows how to pack all of this into impressive images, brought to life not only through his predilection for violence but also his willingness to get things dirty (quite literally), and a conscious decision to film in many (actual) ruins from better days only heighten the movie's atmosphere of decay.

Now the 1960s were a decade that sure wasn't short of masterpieces in the western genre - and this one's one of them for sure!

 

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review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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Tales to Chill
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Tales to Chill
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