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During the last winter of the Civil War, cavalry officer Amos Dundee leads a contentious troop of Army regulars, Confederate prisoners and scouts on an expedition into Mexico to destroy a band of Apaches who have been raiding U.S. bases in Texas. Written by
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In the territory of New Mexico towards the end of the Civil War, an Indian, Sierra Charriba, and his Apache warriors raided, sacked and looted an area almost three times the size of Texas.
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"Major Dundee" is a forgotten, much underrated masterpiece, though admittedly affected by many defects. Indeed, here the director Peckinpah is (almost) as much innovative as in his undisputed best work "The Wild Bunch". The realism of many scenes, like that of the camp-hospital, with the badly-wounded bleeding soldiers lying on the ground, was stark new at the time the film was made. The action scenes are fantastic. In particular, look at the furious violence of the final brief battle on the river, note that a pool of blood spreads out on the water where the horses are hit: never seen such stuff before!
The story is exciting. The photography is wonderful: the beauty of the Mexican locations is definitely stunning. The work of the whole cast is very good.
The clash between Major Dundee (Charlton Heston) and the Confederate war-prisoner Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) is somewhat conventional, but the character of Dundee can be placed among the best depicted and most interesting in the history of western movies. This frustrated soldier, a typical born-to-fight fellow, has finally his chance to make war, pursuing the cruel Apache Sierra Charriba. And he fights, kills, makes war against everybody and everything (the Apaches, the French army in Mexico, his own soldiers if necessary). Then, suddenly, something goes to pieces inside him. He feels a mortal tiredness; he sinks into drunkenness, dirt, brutish dejection. Then the Apaches reappear, and Dundee finds the strength to exit from his self-built nightmare... and he restarts to fight, fight, fight... This fellow has really no other choice: either to be an assassin, or to be a brute. Strikingly original character!
It's true the movie have several faults. It is too long and often slow-paced. The martinet officer played by Jim Hutton is out of place: this comic character could be appropriate in a John Ford's movie, but he grates much with Peckinpah's tragic vision. The scout played by James Coburn and some other minor characters are uninteresting. And, of course, Senta Berger is completely pointless: but she's so lovely that we can easily forgive her presence.
I learn from other comments that "Major Dundee" was badly butchered by the producers. I saw it twice at the theaters, and some other times on the TV. I can say that the television version is very bad with respect to what I saw on the wide screen. Many interesting details and subtleties have been cut. And by no means we can forgive that two magnificent scenes are ruined: the ambush on the creek and the carnage at the Apache camp in the wide-screen version happen over-night! But in the TV version it seems that it's full light! This leaves a feeling of annoying nonsense on the viewer (are the Apaches sleeping during day?). Too bad!
Luckily enough, for all his misfortunes and troubles "Major Dundee" is a great, magnificent, innovative movie.
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