Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Don't call me "Crocodile"!

Another of my recent watches off the DVR was Major Dundee.

The time is the end of 1864, which as you'll know is near the end of the US Civil War; the setting is a prisoner of war camp for captured confederates somewhere out in the New Mexico territory. The Apaches have attacked one of the nearby ranches, killing the parents in the family along with an army patrol; they've also taken the three children in the family. The only survivor was the young bugler, Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.).

The commander of the POW camp, Maj. Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), is none too happy. This isn't just because of the Apache attack; he doesn't even really want to be in command here, having been sent out west because he screwed up at Gettysburg. Also, all those Confederates are restless because there's a war on and under their commander Capt. Tyreen (Richard Harris), they feel an obligation to make life as difficult for the Union as possible even if they're out in the middle of nowhere in a place that's not going to affect the Civil War one bit.

Maj. Dundee decides that he needs to capture Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), the Apache warrior who led the raid, not only to teach the Apache a lesson and to prevent further attacks, but to earn back a bit of the glory he lost at Gettysburg. The only problem is, he's way to short-staffed to do anything. The only possible way he can get more people is to recruit from among the Confederate prisoners. And they, understandably, have no desire to help.

But it turns out that one of the Union soldiers the Confederate leaders attacked died, so now they're facing murder charges and a death sentence Joining up in going after the Apache might not be the worst option if it commutes their sentence. So Tyreen reluctantly joins Dundee, along with the Hadleys (Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones) for the Confederates. Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) is part of the Union contingent along with Dundee and Ryan; a bunch of nameless soldiers and the guide Potts (James Coburn) also join in.

Finding the Apache is going to be hard. Not only do they know the land better than the white man; they decide to escape by going south across the undefended border into Mexico. That presents big problems for Dundee, who follows the Apache into Mexico nonetheless. This being the turn of the year 1864/5, there's not just the Mexicans to deal with but the French as well, this being the period when Napoleon III tried to install a puppet state in Mexico. And the French soldiers are much better than the Mexican soldiers.

Major Dundee goes on like this, and if the movie has a problem, it's this: that it goes on... and on... and on. It only runs a little over two hours, but was apparently edited down quite a bit by the studio over objections from the director, Sam Peckinpah. It's still not tight enough, and has some plot holes. Or, if they're not plot holes, they made the movie more confusing to follow.

The cinematography is nice, helped by location shooting in Durango, Mexico. The actors do as well as they can with the script, although I found Richard Harris to be a bit miscast. All in all, Major Dundee isn't bad, but I find it could have been much better. It's available on DVD should you wish to watch.

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