Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965)

Well shit. I meant to write this thing up a few weeks ago as part of my Peckinpah retrospective that I’m hoping to someday finish. Unfortunately, the latest movie I watched was a bit of an epic slog. Peckinpah was just coming off the critically lauded Ride the High Country which Charlton Heston had actually seen and liked. He was just the type of director to shoot Heston’s next project, something called Major Dundee (oh wait, the picture I’m writing about) in the style of such epics as Lawrence of Arabia or maybe Heston’s own El Cid. You know, a three hour picture complete with an overture, interlude, etc. The kind of picture that won Oscars and made millions. Anyway, watched this thing a few weeks ago. My memories a little fuzzy. Details come in and out. I think it’s about a Major or some shit during the Civil War, except it takes place in the Old West which is not where many Civil War battles were fought. Or something. Apaches figure into this thing. There’s a Scottish or Irish Captain who fought for the South. And a young bugler narrates the story, although his narration is so few and far between that we forget who he is and why he's talking over a Heston/Peckinpah collaboration. The end.

Okay, I’m just messing with you. That’d be a shitty review. Truthfully, I wrote this thing the other night and I thought it came out pretty good.  The words just flowed out of me.  Then blogspot lost it (without saving) and I nearly threw my laptop out the window. Now I’m just trying to remember it piece by piece and it ain’t working out too well. Like I said earlier, Heston hand-picked Peckinpah to direct this feature thinking he’d found some young genius filmmaker (he had) that he could control (not quite). Peckinpah was allowed to be himself on the set which is to say belligerent with the crew, drunk all the time, slapping around women, and shooting out mirrors in his hotel room (I’m theorizing here). I keep hearing/reading that Heston tried to run Peckinpah through with a saber. Not sure if that’s true or not. I think I read it in some book somewhere. So, Peckinpah was not the easiest guy to work with. And then the picture went overtime and over budget and got shut down with several scenes yet to be shot. That’s fine, they thought, we can stitch together a piece of crap and it’ll still make money.

What I managed to get my hands on is the extended edition which the DVD back cover claims to be “A Restored Masterpiece.” Well, the whole “masterpiece” thing got me thinking about what they meant by “masterpiece”. So, I decided to look it up in the ol’ dictionary.com. First thing I noticed is it’s a noun. Second thing I noticed is it’s got three definitions. Shit, when did dictionaries get so complicated? The first one defines “masterpiece” as “a person’s greatest piece of work, as in an art.” That definitely doesn’t apply here since this thing isn’t even as good as the last Peckinpah I watched. Fuck, I may have mislabeled that thing myself when I called it his “first masterpiece” since according to this definition you’re only entitled to one in your lifetime. The second definition states it’s “anything done with masterly skill.” So, I guess this one might work here.  I don't think so but if you're being a pussy I could see how you might think so.  We're getting a little too lenient in what qualifies as a masterpiece. Using it in a sentence, I guess I’d go with "Father didn’t let son help build his Pinewood derby car in the hope that it could actually be labeled a masterpiece." The final definition claims it’s “a consummate example of skill or excellence of any kind.” That last definition throws me for a bit of a loop. “ANY kind”? Farting, apparently, can qualify. Quitting, could even be considered a masterpiece. I guess you could consider it a masterpiece when I won the eagle feather at Camp Sunrise (a Cub Scout, thing) but I consider it more of a masterpiece when I quit Boy Scouts after one meeting. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Anyway, we got a few definitions of masterpiece to contend with here. Major Dundee doesn’t qualify for any of them, in my opinion. I guess this is the part where I ramble on to try and explain myself.

Major Dundee, for the most part, doesn’t even feel like a Peckinpah picture. We got here the story of a disgraced Major in the Union army named Dundee (no relation to Crocodile, far as I can tell). Dundee fought in one of the big skirmishes in the Civil War, something like Salisbury Hill or Gettysburgh. Like I said, it’s not easy remembering this shit. Well, turns out Dundee made some tactical blunder in the hopes of achieving glory and got a bunch of men killed. As punishment, he was sent out to the New Mexico territory to warden over some prison. The picture opens with the aftermath of an Apache massacre of a family on a ranch. Dundee sent in a small army and they were also massacred (we don’t see any of this shit). The Apaches don’t discriminate when it comes to slaughter except for young boys who they capture to develop into warriors. Dundee sees his chance for redemption. Gather up an army and pursue the Apaches across the Rio Grande and into Mexico, rescue the boys, get sent back into the real war with maybe a plaque or a statue or something, bed some broads, etc. It’s the perfect opportunity. 

Of course there’s a scene where Dundee has to put together his rag tag army. Some are regular soldiers; the bugler, his bookish lieutenant, etc. The majority end up being horse thieves, rapists (I’m pretty sure), drunks, etc. We got a black regiment mixed in there somewhere, back of the line-ish, and this coming 20+ years before Glory. That’s pretty impressive. We also got a scout, played by James Coburn, with one arm. It’s a decent special effect for the time. Looks like they just stuffed something in his left sleeve and tied it off where the stump would be. No CGI as far as I could tell. Coburn’s a friend of the injun, sorry Indian. He calls them his brothers. They have wrestling matches and Knife fights for fun. Typical brother shit. Most interesting, we have a few jailed confederate soldiers led by Captain Tyrese or Tyrel or whatever. He’s played by the ahab-ish (Quint-ish?) boat captain from that movie Orca. The picture where Bo “10” Derek gets her already broken leg bitten off. Anyway, Tyrell and Dundee were friends at West Point. Can’t remember exactly what happened but they had a falling out. Tyrell (an Irish or a Scotsman) went to fight with the South while Dundee fought for the North. Now, here’s Captain Tyrese in Dundee’s prison where he and his men are given the option of hanging or joining the army and taking orders from Dundee. I can’t imagine hanging prisoners of war being acceptable, so maybe Tyrese and his men did some other shit before being captured. Also, Warren Oates is one of the confederate soldiers. Moustache and all. And R.G. Armstrong plays a man of god but isn’t quite the zealot he was in the last picture. Slim Pickens is a drunken horse thief I think, but other than a few lines, he barely resonated.

Basically, this picture is a bunch of scenes of Dundee and his men riding across the countryside, having unmemorable skirmishes with Apaches, dealing with uninteresting dissension among the ranks, encountering some French assholes, bedding a couple women here and there, wrestling, eating, drinking, bugling, etc. Hell, I even forgot what they were out there looking for. Oh yeah, a couple of kidnapped boys. The Apaches are complete non characters, none more so of a non-character than their chief, Chief Sonny Chiba (I think). This guy is a legend, a nightmare of the western plains yet I don’t even remember getting a look at his face or even hearing him talk. The villain of the picture is faceless. We’re supposed to fear him because of what we’ve heard he’s done but we never see any of that shit.

I suppose we could look at the major conflict of the picture as being between Dundee and Captain Tyrone and, actually, this is where the picture comes closest to feeling like a Peckinpah picture. We got two manly men (well, Tyrone is a bit dainty, truthfully) who used to be on the same side but have been driven apart by circumstances and are now fighting on opposite sides. Friends respecting, but trying to kill one another is a Peckinpah theme (see Holden/Ryan in The Wild Bunch or Coburn/Kristofferson in the Billy the Kid picture). Unfortunately, once Dundee and whats his face have to set aside their differences for the common good it veers into more of a Hollywood cliché, rather than Peckinpah territory. The French army doesn’t really work as a source of real conflict or villainy either. Fuck, Dundee and his men storm into a French occupied town looking to pillage for supplies after their army was ambushed. Dundee and his crew are the invaders, in this scenario. Then they have a party and Dundee’s army ends up bedding some Mexican women. I think Dundee bedded a broad too, but it was never made overtly clear. Even the bugler banged a Mexican broad. Shit, these Mexican women, who can’t even speak English, are just happy as can be to get some gringo dick. Poor bugler was reprimanded the next morning when he stumbled out for revelry, or whatever it’s called, pants around the ol’ ankles.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the picture lacks conflict. It lacks resolution. It lacks a cohesive story. It lacks those unique Peckinpah touches. Oh sure, we got a bunch of men acting tough together, mistreating their women, and drinking gallons of whiskey. What it lacks is Peckinpah’s soul. The man’s an artist. His great pictures usually have all his problems thrown up on the screen for the world to see. This just feels like a picture that deserves to be forgotten. There’s almost nothing on screen that would have been presented differently if, say, Heston had directed the thing himself. Or, some other guy. Whoever. Doesn’t matter. Point is, this doesn’t feel like a Peckinpah. We got no slow motion action scenes (which admittedly, he wouldn’t use until his next picture), we got no mirror shooting, we got little sense of a character’s motivations. We know Dundee wants to redeem himself for his previous war blunders. We’re not quite sure what he did (at least, I don’t remember what he did) . We’re just kind of told he wants that glory that eludes most men. Captain Tyreke tells him something along the lines of did you ever stop to think that maybe there’s a reason you’re the warden of a prison while there’s a war going on. In other words, he’s kind of a chump. I will say Heston makes a great chump. We see his desperation, he drinks a lot, takes an arrow in the leg like a man, etc. He’s still a chump.

Unfortunately, the picture (already a great big slog) just falls completely apart at the end. Finally, Dundee and his men come face to face with Apache Chief Chiba. The battle is unexciting and too quick. Chiba is unceremoniously dispatched (with minimal fight) and his body gets pushed down a ravine. I think that’s how he went out. Before the men can high five each other one of Dundee’s men looks across a meadow and says “Oh fuck, we forgot about the French.” The French, who are coming to get their revenge, apparently. The battle takes place in the Rio Grande, on horseback. Guns blaze, swords thwack, soldiers fall into the river before they’ve been struck. It’s an appallingly incompetent scene and I refuse to believe Peckinpah had any part in it. I’ll just believe he was kicked off set before they even got to it. What comes next is even more un-Peckinpah, in my opinion. Of course, one of either Tyreen or Dundee are probably going to die. I would have gone with Dundee. Instead, Tyreen is mortally shot. The first French wave has been disbanded but French reinforcements are racing towards the river. Tyreen singlehandedly charges into their masses giving Dundee and his remaining men just enough time to escape. Like fucking cowards. What was the point of Tyreen’s sacrifice (which wasn't much of a sacrifice when you consider he was already moments from death)? He allowed for a deeply flawed and cowardly (again, not a trait Peckinpah would respect) man to escape. What was the point of the picture? The picture ends as soon as Dundee makes it to the other side of the river. Sure, they had revenge on Chief Chiba, a man the audience could give a shit about. It’s possible I dozed during the part where they rescued the kidnapped children. I’ll just assume it didn’t happen. I don’t know, it’s all a bit muddled. Could have used a better climax is what I’m saying. Also a better middle. And a better beginning. Not one of Peckinpah’s finest works, but I’m not sure it’s entirely his fault. Maybe he’ll have more luck with his next picture.

Also, Oates gets shot in the back.  By his own man.  Spoiler alert.  So, basically what I'm getting at is Major Dundee is a classic picture deserving of it's "restored masterpiece" status.  Fucking with you again.  Major Dundee is a Major Disappointment.  Fuck, who am I?  Gene Shalit?  I'm not ending with that bullshit.  Let's just say Peckinpah was really,really drunk.  The perfect catch-all excuse.

Apologies to Richard Harris.  I know who you are.  I just couldn't keep your character's name straight.  My bad.

Next Up: Ernest Borgnine makes his Peckinpah debut and gets (spoiler!) shot full of holes for his trouble.

Motifs: Um, old West setting, some drinking, a few broads get hurt (this time more emotionally, than phsyically), guy talk around a fire, lots of men, etc

Peckinpah Regulars: R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, James Coburn, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, maybe a couple others

1 comment:

John "Gianni" Anderson said...

Can't wait for the next review... I'm sorry your previous review got eaten by Blogger but if it's any comfort, I think this review was helped by your loss-induced rage.