It is difficult not to see shades of the Vietnam war in Westerns of the 1960s, and none more so than in Major Dundee which eerily prefigures the 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre in its opening shots. A homestead has been decimated by an Apache raid. Most of the settlers have been murdered, but three boys have been taken (to be raised as Apache warriors). It’s the job of cavalry major Amos Charles Dundee (the rock-jawed, commanding Charlton Heston) to right the wrongs with extreme prejudice.
In getting together a crack team who will use any means necessary he has the pick of the fort’s slackers (a bunch of Confederates, deserters, thieves, renegades and other nogoodniks). As reward they’ll get pay, pardons, paroles… and baccy. An acting Confederate (arch enemy of the cavalrymen) volunteers to corral the wild bunch: Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris, looking for all the world like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider). From the outset there’s bad blood between Dundee and Tyreen, both oozing machismo as they circle each other like angry scorpions. As comic relief in this otherwise humourless story there is a loyal scout (James Coburn, whose megawatt teeth will blind any Apache who gets too close).
The hunt is on and conflicts in the ranks (between Southern trash, the straight up and down cavalrymen, and a contingent of black soldiers) are set to upend the mission before it starts. Assorted operatic ambushes ensue – not just from the Injuns but French troops threatening a Mexican pueblo – especially in a riverside encounter with the water running red with the blood of men and horses. Towards the end (the missing boys long since returned) the action rather obscures the story.
The plot is needlessly longwinded. There’s even time for a pointless love-interest subplot. But the tale is told with such bravura and earnest conviction that it’s difficult not to like it. There’s some beautifully composed location scenes and superb cinematography (Sam Leavitt). Heston and Harris bounce off each other with the required amount of butch gusto.
Major Dundee might be the last of the grand horse operas. The world was changing. In 1968 Heston was saving mankind on the Planet of the Apes. Peckinpah’s later variation on the theme, The Wild Bunch, with its whip pans and gory slo-mo was a far more vivid and accomplished work than Major Dundee. And 1970’s Soldier Blue was a bloodier and more explicit metaphor for Vietnam, a war that would shamefully drag on until 1975.
This Major Dundee box-set includes the notoriously messed about theatrical release, the superior extended version (reviewed here), and a host of delectable extras.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 28 Jun 2021