A fearsome set up: in 1854, 47 Apache warriors terrorise an area of America three times the size of Texas; they kill settlers of any age and both sexes, except boy children, whom they take with them to raise as warriors. Charlton Heston as Major Dundee sets out to reclaim three such boys. And that's not really his mission statement, which is that Apache should be taken or destroyed. Unfortunately the journey (ie the film) is insanely long, in a road movie cum western type of manner, so large sacle wanderings including battles with a French garrison in Mexico make this an epic trawl - 156 minutes, apparently mercifully cut to that from Peckinpah's own cut - a 4 hour 38 minute sore-bottom-fest.
For me seeing Mario Adorf achieve equal billing with Warren Oates was a big moment. To see how short Adorf appears next to American giants Charlton Heston and James Coburn was a minor shock. Adorf, often powerful in his European roles, plays a daft wee charcater almost; perhaps the character is supposed to be Mexican. Your subconscious mind probably throws this as the most likely. Even Richard Harris seems pretty big by comparison to Adorf, but that is just the silly little hat that Adorf has been given to wear.
Adorf's headgear in Major Dundee improves dramatically when the posse he is seargant of comes to Mexico; and his performance improves too as his character comes into his own. It all begs the question: how could an Austrian make such a good Mexican? What I wouldn't give to meet his agent. Adorf is great in this, but that he passed before Peckinpah is of even greater fascination, and it would be worth knowing the story of how this moment of casting came about.
The film is only probably of interest these days to Peckinpah lovers of whom there are many; but it is affected by many defects, and in the whole Pekcinpah canon, it is probably my least favourite. There is the issue of whether the movie pays off on its build up - it is supposed to be about Dundee's pursuit of the Apache, but the endless sidetracking becomes a little wearisome, as does the introduction of Santa Berger, as a rather pointless love interest. Most comemntators put this down to the evil infuence of the film's producer.
Both a Peckinpah essential and a genre staple, there is at least a hilarious Silm Pickens caricature character in Major Dundee. This is of special importance because it was Peckinpah's comedy that always raised him above the head and shoulders of other directors. He was so good at comic touches that even though they might say they don't like the violence, people often really enjoy his movies.
The film's theme - an obsessive idealist drives himself to destruction, disregarding the effects on others - is straight out of Moby Dick, but Major Dundee is far too ambitious in all. You can however, learn a lot about America and the US in the Civil War period from this; and that's not something that a lot of westerns can say, as they are usually far from historical.