Monday Movie: Major Dundee, by David Bax

Every Monday, we’ll recommend a movie–it could be a classic, an overlooked recent treasure, an unfairly maligned personal favorite or whatever the hell we feel like–and we’ll tell you where to find it online.

Up until an “extended cut” was restored and released in 2005, Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee was probably most well know for its famously troubled production. This is the movie where Peckinpah was so drunk and belligerent during principal photography that star Charlton Heston threatened him with a saber. Yet later, when the studio wanted the director replaced, Heston gave up his salary to keep him on. Finally, the movie was cut to pieces by producers. After taking a reported twenty or so minutes out, disastrous preview screenings spurred them to cut yet another 12-13 minutes. It’s the last bit that was added back in to make the extended version.

Heston plays Dundee, a Union officer sent to oversee a New Mexico prison as punishment for unknown actions on his part. But when Apache from Mexico begin raids in the area, Dundee, thirsty for glory and redemption, puts together a ramshackle battalion of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, former slaves, civilians and others to cross the border and attack. Dundee’s singleminded drive–as well as his penchant for earning someone’s grudging respect and then quickly pissing them off again–has devastating effects on the men under his command. In other words, the movie is a Western Moby Dick.

Major Dundee is a bit uneven and patchy. Who knows, maybe that missing twenty minutes would have fixed these problems. But rumor has it that those scenes were cut mostly because of the excessive violence, which bolsters the case for appreciating Major Dundee for what it truly is: A predecessor to Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. That makes the movie worth celebrating and, with its depiction of ruinous machismo and misguided heroism, deserving of a place in the pantheon of revisionist Westerns.

Major Dundee is available to rent on Amazon.

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