Major Dundee


(1964) ★★★★

Embattled film-maker Sam Peckinpah was at war with Hollywood all his career. And with himself all his life, which ended with a heart attack in 1984. He was 59. Most of those years, he drank heavily and had a mean reputation.

“That’s the last interview I’m ever giving,” he told me in 1969. “And you can quote me!”

I did. And it wasn’t.

I was a teenager, I took him at his word. His true legacy remains two of the greatest westerns ever made: Ride the High Country in 1962 and The Wild Bunch in 1969. In between, he was kicked off Steve McQueen’s 1965 hit The Cincinnati Kid after a gruelling run-in with Columbia Pictures on Major Dundee. Charlton Heston had the title role, a Union cavalry officer who enlists the aid of Confederate cut-throats in a south-of-the-border sortie against Apache kidnappers.

A wildly ambitious tale set in the last winter of the Civil War, it addressed themes of loyalty and bigotry. Concerned by spiralling costs on the Mexican locations, Columbia wanted to close it down. Heston, to his credit, stood up for his director, deferring his salary so filming could be completed.

Columbia later chopped 40 minutes out of Peckinpah’s cut, which was seen for the first time in a 2005 restoration. It remains a glorious failure, as noble as Heston’s gesture. His excitable co-star Richard Harris spoke openly of his intense dislike for Heston, who responded: “I found him a somewhat erratic personality. But we certainly never feuded.”

Harris, for his part, is openly copying moves he learned from watching Marlon Brando during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty.

“Nobody could get on with Richard Harris,” said co-star Senta Berger, in 2005. “Later in life he became a somewhat wiser man. But back then he regarded any male person as a rival. And on Dundee there were quite a few men.”

Incidentally, Film4 is showing the 1957 western B-pic Dragoon Wells Massacre at the same time. As a child, I misread the title as Dragon Wells Massacre, and was disappointed when none showed up.

Certificate: 15