Major Dundee

Chasing the Great White Whale in Mexico

Call me wishful.

I had high hopes for Major Dundee, not just because I’d read R.G. Armstrong’s description of the movie as “Moby Dick on horseback,” but because the great Sam Peckinpah had made it right between the blinding brilliance of Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. I had an inkling of how the movie was going to develop and I could hardly contain my anticipation.

I wish that the movie I saw had been anywhere as good as the one I had hoped to see. Major Dundee is a fascinating, epic failure, full of brilliant moments — despite Charlton Heston and Richard Harris chewing at the sweeping scenery and stellar supporting cast — all of which serves to make the movie’s eventual crashing demise that much more heartbreaking. Moby Dick tells us that pursuing one’s obsessions can destroy you; Peckinpah should have been more wary.

Major Dundee, like the Great Whale Book, takes its time in getting around to the central plot, preferring to establish motives for the cast of characters. Moby Dick lies somewhere between a picaresque, a morality play, a treatise on whaling and a drunken rant, meandering for a hundred pages after the story begins, the plot inching forward incrementally until the very end, when the Pequod sights Moby Dick and pursues it over three days, ending only when the Pequod is lost and everyone is drowned save Ishmael, our narrator.

Major Dundee has the same loosey-goosey structure. Peckinpah uses a few specific events to propel the characters out on the quest, but then lets them wander from great scene to great scene until the bottom drops out. The rationale for the quest is that Major Amos Dundee (Heston), a Union officer during the Civil Way banished to oversee a prison somewhere west of Texas, feels compelled to chase the murderous Apache warlord Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), ostensibly to rescue a few male children but mainly because Dundee needs a quest to occupy his time. His bugle boy, Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.), supplies clumsy overdubbed narration. The superb James Coburn plays Samuel Potts, Dundee’s one-armed guide, but he doesn’t have too much to do in the film. Dundee forces his childhood friend and prisoner Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Harris), a fellow Southerner, to bring his men along on the quest for Sierra Charriba. Tyreen’s crew includes Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson, Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones.

With Dundee as frontier Ahab, Peckinpah stocks his band with characters from Moby Dick. Tyreen is Starbuck, Ryan the bugle boy is Ishmael, Graham the artilleryman (Jim Hutton), the good-natured but clumsy Stubb, and Sgt. Gomez (Mario Adorf) the uptight Flack of the group. The characters without clear counterparts in the Great Whale Book are the Rev. Dalhstrom (R.G. Armstrong), who joins Dundee for undetermined reasons (but Peckinpah wouldn’t cast Armstrong without having him play a man of the cloth), Aesop (Brock Peters), the leader of a group of African-American soldiers who the Union has dumped at the prison instead of letting them fight, and Slim Pickens and Dub Taylor (among others) as cowboys tagging along for the money and adventure.

However belabored the story, the film excels in signature Peckinpah moments. Three stand out. The first is set in Dundee’s prison. To coerce Tyreen and his crew into joining his quest, Dundee has sentenced them to hang for the murder of a guard, and the other prisoners are near riot. We see Dundee smoking a cigar on the high wall over the open-air prison yard at twilight, then dropping his cigar into the yard to watch the prisoners fight over it. One prisoner is eventually victorious, cigar in hand. But then he looks up, realizes that it had been Dundee’s cigar and drops it with a wonderful look of disdain to crush it out under the grimiest, foulest bare feet ever captured on film.

The next is early in the quest when a Confederate soldier named Benteen played with simpering evil by John Davis Chandler (the most ratfaced Hammond brother in Ride the High Country), orders Aesop to come over and help him remove his boots. Benteen had been comic relief to that point, having earlier earned the nickname “redneck peckerwood,” one of Peckinpah’s favorite insults. This scene is played with pitch-perfect tension. Everything in the camp abruptly stops when Benteen says to Aesop, “You forget your manners, nigger?” Aesop, an indescribable look on his face, slowly — very slowly — walks to Benteen, and it is unclear what he means to do when he gets there. One man starts to intervene, but Dundee stops him. The camera jumps around the camp to focus briefly on each man, and all look uncertain about what they should do. Suddenly Dalhstrom is there, roughly pulling Benteen’s boots off. Several Confederates leap to their feet, and Sgt. Gomez shouts, “Sit down, you Rebel trash!” Huge Ben Johnson stands up and says, “You don’t know it, but you’re about to be tested.” You can almost see Ryan the bugle boy wet his pants. Tyreen interrupts, however, and defuses the situation by complimenting Aesop.

Finally, in the centerpiece scene of the movie, Confederate soldier O.W. Hadley, played by the perpetually underrated Warren Oates, goes AWOL and is caught by Sgt. Gomez. Dundee has stated that he will execute any deserters and intends to do just that. Hadley is pathetic, in the true, heartwrenching meaning of the word, as he looks to Tyreen and his fellow Confederates to protect him and begs for mercy from Dundee. When Dundee tells his men to form a firing squad, Hadley says to Dundee, “Hell, Major, you’re just doing what you have to do. But goddamn your soul for it! And God bless Robert E. Lee!” At this, Tyreen, unable to let Dundee execute one of his men, shoots Oates himself.

Heston and Harris are both outrageously overacting throughout the movie, but Hadley’s execution is the point at which the supporting staff most obviously upstages them. The naturalism in Oates’s performance, echoed by perfect performances in this scene from L.Q. Jones as his brother and Ben Johnson, who doesn’t even need to say a word, draws a stark contrast with Heston’s and Harris’s hammy deliveries.

Hadley’s execution is also the turning point of the movie. The narrative ceases to make sense afterwards (Dundee abandons his post and becomes a drunk, then regains his post and defeats the Apaches, but barely escapes the French — all edited for maximum possible confusion), as apparently Peckinpah ran out of money and time and had to throw together a quick ending. The studios took the picture away from him afterwards and edited it into the mess that it is, so no one really knows how well Peckinpah’s vision would have turned out.

For all its failings, Major Dundee taught Peckinpah some limitations, a lesson he admittedly didn’t hold onto for too long. Perhaps the most important lesson he learned was that he could make better movies with less ambitious source material, as he went on to prove with The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and Junior Bonner. There's never been an adaptation of Moby Dick that’s been worth a damn: the source material is simply too hard to adapt. Peckinpah might as well have tried to make a movie out of Leaves of Grass. I’m surprised that R.G. Armstrong didn’t follow up his “Moby Dick on horseback” quote by telling the interviewer, “I only am alone escaped to tell thee.”