There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A long-lost nonmasterpiece, Major Dundee is a garbled but fascinating document from a chaotic era. Originally released in 1965 and brutally edited by a faltering yet still imperious Columbia Pictures, Sam Peckinpah’s third feature was a revisionist Western that had begun—many drafts before—as the story of Gen. George Custer. Some critics have claimed it as a Vietnam War parable, and though that’s not entirely convincing, the movie is certainly more political than most Westerns. The Custer-like title character, played by a suitably overbearing Charlton Heston, is a Union officer transferred to a New Mexico fort as punishment for an undisclosed blunder at Gettysburg. He arrives to find that Apaches have destroyed a nearby settlement, taking three boys to adopt into their ways and killing everyone else. Dundee quickly decides to lead a rescue mission, one that concerns neither him nor the film very much. Instead, the scenario concentrates on intramural tension: Rather than set out undermanned, Dundee recruits some POWs from the ongoing Civil War, led by Confederate Capt. Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish-born brawler; to add to the tension, the commander also enlists a few horse thieves and some freed slaves, notably Aesop (Brock Peters). Led by a one-armed scout (the heavily made-up James Coburn) and seething with mistrust, this motley battalion chases the Apaches across the Rio Grande, entering a Mexico that’s under French rule. When not fighting Tyreen for the attention of the sexiest German widow south of the border (Senta Berger) or imbibing his way through a post-injury lost weekend, Dundee faces well-equipped French troops who substantially outnumber his men. Twelve minutes of added footage may make Major Dundee: The Extended Version more coherent than the original, but this still isn’t the movie Peckinpah intended: With his budget cut by a third just before he began shooting, the director was unable even to film some scripted scenes. What he did complete is an amusingly outlandish mix of old-Hollywood camp and ’60s urgency in which stagy heroic bromides alternate with chaotic battle scenes. The weirdest period touch, however, turns out to be brand-new: Composer Christopher Caliendo has replaced the original score, which Peckinpah hated, with one that neatly contrasts jaunty Americana with the sort of atonal skittering associated with classic film noir. —Mark Jenkins