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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
After the success of Sam Peckinpah's later The Wild Bunch (1969), Columbia told him that they would allow him to re-shoot parts of this film that had been cut from the released version. Peckinpah, naturally, declined the offer. See more »
Although Mexico was occupied by French troops during the American Civil War and that occupation was not looked upon kindly by the Lincoln administration, there was never any fighting between the U.S. Army and the French. See more »
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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A textbook example of how a penny-pinching producer can ruin a potentially great movie by basically sandbagging its (admittedly truculent) director, MAJOR DUNDEE nevertheless works as an answer of thoughts to the glorious Cavalry westerns of John Ford. Sam Peckinpah, on his third film overall and first one with a large-scale budget, was somehow able to pull a good film out of his controversial hat, thanks in no small part to his cast.
Heston plays an ambitious, ego-driven warden of a prison outpost in New Mexico in the closing months of the Civil War. When a rampaging band of Apache slaughter a family at a nearby ranch and then take apart a regiment he sends out to destroy them, Heston sees his way to get out of his routine job and get promoted. But to do this, he must form a garrison of troopers comprised of civilians, blacks, and Confederate prisoners. One of the latter is Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), who had once been his friend but is now his worst enemy. Furthermore, his pursuit of the Apache, once it starts, will take the troopers across the Rio Grande into French-occupied northern Mexico. Now, they'll not only have to worry about hunting down the Apache and keeping the peace amongst themselves, they also have to worry about French lancers.
Despite the film being butchered so maliciously to the point where many critics rightly complained about its incoherence, plus a marital music score that Peckinpah detested royally (he could have used Jerry Goldsmith here), MAJOR DUNDEE succeeds by pulling out as many stops as it can. It benefits from being shot almost exclusively on location in Mexico (under truly ghastly conditions, which would have happened even without studio interference). The photography by Sam Leavitt is also quite good (though, in another case where the producer overrode the director, Peckinpah couldn't use his favorite cameraman Lucien Ballard on the shoot). And there are those moments of violence and bloodshed that predate, though in a more 'PG-13' fashion, Peckinpah's next film, the far more violent 1969 epic THE WILD BUNCH.
Heston is as good as ever in the title role. But surprisingly, he is nearly matched on screen by Harris, who plays his role as an Irish supporter of the Confederacy with great dash and insight. James Coburn also does good journeyman work as the one-armed scout Sam Potts. Peckinpah rounds out the cast with his Usual Suspects: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chandler, Slim Pickens, and Dub Taylor.
In spite of all its flaws, MAJOR DUNDEE is still quite viewable, which is why I rank it an 8 out of 10.
NOTE: Sony Pictures has just released an extended version of this movie, with twelve minutes of footage once thought irretrievably lost placed back in; and they've replaced the original marital music score in favor of one by Christopher Caliendo. It is closer to what Peckinpah had in mind, but with thirty minutes of additional footage irretrievably lost, there's no telling whatsoever how much better this film might have been had Peckinpah not been sandbagged. Nevertheless, it still stands as a slightly flawed but never dull Civil War western.
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