Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #41/Peckinpals #3 Major Dundee (1965)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the big-hearted Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time one hundred dollar pledge to our Patreon account.
The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for each subsequent choice. I’ve been lucky to have a fair share of repeat customers. I am unbelievably lucky to have one obscenely generous patron (and at this level you truly a Medici-level patron of the arts, or whatever it is that I do) who has decided to pay me to write about every single film Sam Peckinpah directed.
I am, as you might imagine, overjoyed for the work and the patronage and the opportunity to write about good movies from a great filmmaker from a change. I’ve always dug Peckinpah’s work but watching 1965’s Major Dundee I came to a realization: I’m not the biggest western fan because I hate horses.
Jesus do I hate horses! Just seeing one of those apple-chomping, four legged Catherine the Great fuckers onscreen is enough to angry up the blood. God, do I hate horses. They’re always so arrogant and smug. You just know they think they’re God’s gift to humanity, always trotting about gingerly, without a care in the world, never speaking unless they have something to say.
Westerns, needless to say, are absolutely lousy with horses. And that’s a deal-breaker for me, to be honest. I have no problem watching a movie about a mule, particularly if that mule is good at kicking field goals, but if a movie prominently involves a horse I’m generally not interested. Unless the movie is Hot to Trot. LOVE that movie.
I nevertheless overcame my fierce, soul-deep hatred of horses for professional reasons for 1965’s Major Dundee, Peckinpah’s third film as a director and a movie positively chockablock with neighing monsters.
A smartly typecast Charlton Heston stars as the title character, a man of violence who lives for war and bloodshed but who has been relegated to an unhappy existence running a POW camp at the tail end of the Civil War as punishment. Playing jail keeper makes Dundee feel like a prisoner himself, stuck in professional purgatory while a war for his country’s fractured soul is being fought by his contemporaries every day.
When vicious Apache chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) slaughters cavalrymen and ranchers Dundee seizes upon the opportunity to redeem himself professionally by assembling a small army to hunt down and kill the Apache chief and retrieve the boy children the Apaches kidnapped with an eye towards raising them to be warriors.
The obsessed Major assembles a wild bunch of ragged recruits that includes black former slaves, a minister who is as handy with his fists as he is learned in the good book, a horse thief, the biggest drunk in town and a smattering of Confederate soldiers led by Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), a former friend and West Point contemporary of the Major’s turned enemy.
Major Dundee powerfully establishes exactly what kind of a man Captain Benjamin Tyreen is when he responds to the title character’s question as to whether he’d prefer to serve his country or hang with a defiant, “It is not my country, Major Dundee. I damn its flag and I damn you and I would rather hang than serve.”
As in Ride the High Country, Peckinpah does a masterful job establishing the complicated, painful history between its two main characters, and the powerful yet mercurial bond they share without needing to resort to clunky exposition.
Major Dundee opens on the aftermath of a massacre that has left the ground covered with corpses, including a soldier hung upside down as a warning.
When Dundee observes that he hopes that the unfortunate soldier was at least dead before he was hung up, one-armed, half Native American scout Sam Potts (the great James Coburn, making the most of his limited time onscreen) stoically observes, “Brannin was a soldier, Amos. Goes with the pretty girl and the pension.”
In Peckinpah’s brutal world, violent death is not a violation of nature’s way as much as it is an expression of the world’s fundamental cruelty. There is no such thing as an unnatural death in Peckinpah’s bleak realm. If anything, it’s living too long and too peacefully that’s unnatural.
These men are soldiers. Their job is to fight and to die and to never question the reasons why.
The script for Major Dundee is full of stoic, tough-guy wit and indelible turns of phrase. Dundee memorably and theatrically addresses potential volunteers for the suicide mission as “You thieves, renegades, deserters, you gentlemen of the south”, imbuing the world “gentleman” with a poisonous irony that conveys his deep-seated hatred of the region and the traitors willing to give their lives to tear their country apart.
Instead of a pep talk, Dundee offers his soldiers “nothing: saddle sores, short rations, maybe a bullet in your belly, and free air to breathe, a fair share of tobacco, quarter pay.” This is the rare job that might actually be worse than spending the rest of your life in a prisoner of war camp.
Dundee’s men are a curious mixture of virulent Southern racists and proud black former slaves, Confederate and Union soldiers, men of honor and unashamed scoundrels, jailers and the jailed, disgruntled Apache exiles eager for revenge and men motivated by genocidal hatred of indigenous people.
They’re divided in myriad important ways and united only in a shared quest for vengeance, freedom and the freedom they have been promised should they succeed in their underdog quest for revenge against a fierce, formidable enemy.
Major Dundee and his men are not above committing crimes in the name of the greater good. They are ruthless in their pragmatism and pragmatically ruthless. In the name of survival they’re willing to do just about anything, to lie, cheat, steal and kill.
Life is a never-ending, fierce, high stakes battle for survival until the men encounter a civilizing force in the beguiling form of Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the gorgeous widow of a European doctor who appears to a love and affection-starved Major Dundee like a mirage in the midst of a vast desert.
With its sprawling supporting cast full of Peckinpah repertory players like Coburn, Warren Oates (a standout as a Confederate deserter), L.Q Jones and R.G Armstrong, themes of honor and destiny, brutal violence and underlying fatalism, Major Dundee at times feels like a warm-up for The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah’s next movie and his breakthrough masterpiece as an auteur.
Of course the world would change tremendously between 1965, when Major Dundee was released to mixed reviews and underwhelming box-office and 1968, when The Wild Bunch single-handedly re-invented the Western in ways whose aftershocks are still being felt today.
Peckinpah came up in the world of western TV as a writer and a director. His success as a TV auteur gave him the leverage to make the big jump to film but it took film a while to catch up with Peckinpah and his brutal, uncompromising aesthetic.
The Wild Bunch was released a year after Bonnie & Clyde, a milestone both in the birth and development of New Hollywood and a game-changing milestone in how violence was depicted onscreen. Peckinpah benefitted tremendously from the newfangled creative freedoms that followed Bonnie & Clyde but his work would also play a huge role in defining the western going forward.
The revisionist western is, in many ways, fundamentally the post-Peckinpah western. With Ride the High Wind, Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch Peckinpah was carving out, with a big-ass, super-manly machete, a new vision for what westerns could be that unsurprisingly reflected his own idiosyncratic, prickly personality, which would alternately help catapult him to giddy heights of fame and glory and nearly destroy his life and career.
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