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Film / Major Dundee

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Major Dundee is a 1965 Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, and James Coburn.

The title character, Union cavalry officer Major Amos Dundee (Heston), is relieved of his command for an unspecified tactical error at the Battle of Gettysburg and sent to head a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory. When a family of ranchers and a relief column of cavalry are massacred by an Apache war chief named Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), Dundee seizes the opportunity for glory, raising a contentious troop of Union regulars (black and white), Confederate prisoners, several Indian scouts, and a gang of civilian mercenaries on an expedition into Mexico to destroy the Apaches.


  • The Alcoholic: Wiley. Dundee in the extended version.
  • Actor Allusion Sam Potts (James Coburn) warns Dundee to stay off the streets, saying he'd make "an unlikely looking Mexican", in reference to Heston's role as a Mexican narcotics officer (sans accent) in Touch of Evil.
  • Anachronism Stew: The New Mexico state flag is shown in the garrison office. However, New Mexico wasn't a state until 1912, and the flag designed after that, about 1920.
  • Badass Preacher: Reverend Dahlstrom.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Studio publicity during the original release claimed that it was based on a true story, but it wasn't. There were some actual incidents where Confederate POWs joined the Cavalry to fight natives, but nothing really resembling the film's plot.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Early in the film Dundee threatens to have Tyreen "hanged from the same tree" as Sierra Charibba when they lock horns over the conditions for having the Confederate prisoners serve. At the end of the film Dundee can only watch in horror as a wounded Tyreen sacrifices himself to buy time for Dundee and the others by going up against another battalion of French by himself.
  • Bittersweet Ending: the Apache are killed but most of Dundee's men including Tyreen are killed in the final battle with the French soldiers they pissed off earlier in the film, leaving Dundee to return to the States with less than a quarter of the men he set out with. Could also be seen as a Downer Ending.
    • This was even stronger in the original script, where after narrowly surviving the battle with the French, Dundee spots another Apache trail marker which implies that some of Charibba's men survived the battle with Dundee's men. Which reinforces the sense that Dundee's mission was all for nothing.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Lieutenant Graham, and Wiley the drunken mule packer.
  • Dangerous Deserter: Confederate O.W. Hadley and his execution by Captain Tyreen (Harris).
  • Dark and Troubled Past: neither Dundee nor Tyreen have much detail explained about their pasts, but what little we do know paints a fascinating picture:
    • Dundee is a Southern born career minded officer who nonetheless stayed loyal to the North during the Civil War, and made some kind of tactical mistake at Gettysburg, leading to his reassignment.
    • Tyreen is an Irish immigrant who killed a fellow cavalryman in a duel and lost his commission (with Dundee casting the last vote in his court martial) and wound up serving the South. It's mentioned in passing that Tyreen's mentor died at Chickamauga (fighting for the Union) and implied that he feels guilty about it.
  • Deconstruction: The film plays out as a deconstruction of the old "Cavalry Vs. Indians" formula that dominated so many westerns, taking many of the genre's familiar archetypes and trying to turn them on their heads. The main character is at best an anti-hero (and an extremely arrogant one at that), his friend turned enemy is often shown to be a better man than him, his unit is a study in dysfunction, Dundee not only does not get Teresa, he actually alienates her by cheating on her, and the final battles with the Apache and the French Lancers are far from glorious. Dundee doesn't even kill Charibba in the end, instead Charibba is killed by Tim Ryan the Bugle Boy, leaving Dundee to kick Charibba's body down a slope in an attempt to feel that he actually did something to him.
    • And like most Sam Peckinpah films the film plays as a deconstruction of all things Rated M for Manly.
  • Defiant to the End: Unrepentant Confederate O.W. Hadley's last words are "God bless Robert E. Lee!"
  • Duel to the Death: The reason for the grudging relationship between Dundee and Tyreen, as, prior to the war, Dundee cast the deciding vote in Tyreen's court-martial from the U.S. Army for participating in a duel.
  • Enemy Mine: The Confederate prisoners led by Captain Tyreen.
  • A Father to His Men: Potts isn't actually in charge, but he's protective of his fellow scouts, and the younger soldiers.
  • Glory Hound: Major Dundee's reason for going after Sierra Charriba. It is also implied that it is what caused his tactical error at Gettysburg.
  • Handicapped Badass: Samuel Potts. He's only got one arm, but that doesn't deter him in the slightest.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Tyreen is fatally shot, but rides off to singlehandedly delay a second detachment of French cavalry while allowing the others to escape. Dundee is visibly grief stricken by the sight of his former friend's heroic yet gruesome death.
  • Honor Before Reason: Dundee has a Confederate soldier killed for desertion, despite appeals for mercy, as is military law, despite being in the middle of nowhere and needing every man he can get in order to eliminate an Apache tribe on the war path. This ultimately proves to be a mistake as it causes even more tension between his Union soldiers and the Confederates, just when they were starting to get along too.
  • I Gave My Word: Tyreen, having given his word of honor, binds himself and his men to serve loyally to Dundee, but only until Charriba has been dispatched and resettle their dispute with Dundee.
  • Injured Limb Episode: Dundee gets shot in the leg with an arrow at one point. Though Dundee tries to shrug it off with the usual "Just a flesh wound" response of most invincible action heroes so he can stay with the command, he actually needs to go get surgery for it and it takes about two weeks for him to recover, despite his stubborn alpha male pride boasting otherwise.
  • In the Style of: Basically conceived as "David Lean makes a Western",note  but Columbia cut the film's budget right before they went to Mexico, forcing Sam Peckinpah to scale things back considerably. Still, the Lean influence is obvious.
  • Karma Houdini: Racist Jerkass Jimmy Lee survives the final battle.
  • The Lancer: Sergeant Gomez to Dundee, Sergeant Chillum to Tyreen.
  • Large Ham: With Charlton Heston and Richard Harris as co-leads, this is inevitable, but they also tone things down when necessary.
  • Leitmotif: The original score has the Major Dundee March for the title character and a goofy electronic sting for Sierra Charriba's appearances.
  • Majorly Awesome: At the very least Played With, and depending on the viewer, maybe even Averted. Dundee is good at appearing to be honorable and a formidable leader, and manages to keep his ragtag unit together despite heavy odds. But he's also an impulsive Glory Hound whose motives for the mission and shaky tactics become more questionable as time goes on.
  • Modern Major General: Lieutenant Graham comes off as one of these at first, able to quote Napoleon from memory but clueless about actual warfare. He gradually proves himself, though.
  • Nice Guy: Lieutenant Graham. He may be a little stiff and out of place but the poor guy's doing the best he can and even though he's clearly in way over his head going along with Dundee he's still mostly respectful to others and well meaning within his limited experience. One of the best examples of this is the fact that he wanted to intervene when Confederate Jimmy Lee was harassing black Union volunteer Aesop and would have had Dundee not stopped him in order to force Tyreen himself to intervene when tensions between the Confederates and the Union soldiers was escalating.
  • Noodle Incident: Dundee is mentioned as having "tried to fight your war at Gettysburg" without elaboration. This could be intended to parallel Judson Kilpatrick's ordering a pointless, suicidal cavalry charge against well-entrenched Confederates on July 3rd, though unlike Dundee, Kilpatrick not only retained his command but was later promoted.
  • Novelization: There was a novelization based on a very early script draft by Harry Julian Fink (hence before the movie's notorious Executive Meddling). Though it maintains the plot outline (Union and Confederate soldiers teaming up to fight Apache Indians), it contains more characters than the movie, changes the fate of existing ones (Captain Tyreen most notably) and elaborated on numerous scenes deleted from the final cut - including the Apache massacre that originally opened the movie.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Captain Tyreen. Perhaps best demonstrated by the way he compliments a black soldier whom one of his Confederates has been antagonizing.
  • Only Sane Man: Potts the scout constantly calls out Dundee's questionable behavior and notes the expedition's growing tensions.
  • The Peter Principle: Dundee allegedly only got where he is by siding against a friend, and he makes some very questionable decisions during his quest to destroy an Apache tribe massacring essentially innocent settlers, at one point causing his own men to resent him.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Dundee could be seen as this, due to his arrogance being disproportionately larger than his actual abilities.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Jimmy Lee Benteen, who calls Aesop a "nigger" and nearly starts a confrontation among Dundee's troops. Even his fellow Confederates view Benteen as a loud-mouthed Jerkass.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: An arrogant military commander who's been Reassigned to Antarctica, leading an army that's composed of Yankee cavalry, including African Americans, Confederate cavalry, drunks and horse-thieves, a Badass Preacher, and a one armed scout and two Apache scouts. The external antagonism of Sierra Charriba has nothing on the internal antagonism of the group itself.
    Ryan in voiceover: We were ready, all who volunteered. Civilians, criminals, Southerners, and Negroes.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Captain Tyreen condescends on Dundee, twice, for his poor judgment and arrogance and, to Tyreen's better judgement, should give up soldiering altogether.
    • Dundee also chastised Tyreen, claiming Tyreen brought his own misfortunes upon himself through his own untamed passions and lack of foresight.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Dundee went from a field command in the Civil War to commanding a prison camp in New Mexico. And boy does he resent it.
  • Re-Cut: The film was heavily edited from 136 minutes to 123 in its initial release, but restored in 2005, along with an entirely new music score. Peckinpah's director's cut was 152 minutes but is apparently lost.
  • Recycled In Space: R.G. Armstrong referred to the original cut as "Moby-Dick on horseback". Many of the characters are similar to those from that book, with Dundee as Captain Ahab, Tyreen as Starbuck, Ryan as Ishmael, and other minor characters, with Sierra Charriba and his Apache tribe substituting for the whale, as is the general plot line (an obsessive idealist drives himself to destruction, disregarding the effects on others). These references to Moby-Dick were likely intentional on the part of the screenwriters. Some have also pointed out similarities of the plot to the Vietnam War, which are highly unlikely to have been intentional, as the war had not significantly escalated at the time of the film's production.
  • Romancing the Widow: Dundee and Teresa Santiago, but doesn't last very long after Teresa found Dundee bedded with a pretty Mexican.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The opening scene at the Rostes Ranch and the funeral after the first skirmish with the Apaches were inspired by scenes from The Searchers.
    • When Dundee's troop exits Fort Benlin, each faction of the command singing its own distinct song, it is a deliberate parody of an equivalent scene in Fort Apache.
    • There are references to Lawrence of Arabia the execution of Hadley, and Dundee's drunken exile in Durango, closely mirror sequences from this film.
  • Sole Survivor: Trooper Tim Ryan is the only survivor of the opening massacre.
    • Technically, three children also survive, but are taken prisoner by the Apaches.
  • South of the Border: The Americans pursue the Apache in Mexico, right in the middle of the Second French Intervention.
  • Time-Passage Beard: Dundee grows one during a period of convalescence.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Benjamin Priam, a horse their released from jail by Dundee in order to "supply" his expedition.
  • We Used to Be Friends: The back story for Dundee and Tyreen.
    • Fridge Brilliance: Ben-Hur, for which Heston won his only Oscar for Best Actor, had previously featured old Chuck in a story of two friends who betrayed each other, only in this film it was Chuck's character who did the betraying, at least that's how Harris's Tyreen sees it.