Major Dundee Part Two

majcvrDuring the American Civil War, an unspecified incident at Gettysburg has resulted in Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) side-lined in charge of a prison in remote Eastern New Mexico. Frustrated and feeling ill-done by the ignominy of his position, he latches onto a series of Apache raids which have culminated in a massacre near the prison as an opportunity to salvage his reputation. Abandoning his charged duty in order to gather a motley force of Union volunteers, Confederate prisoners ‘encouraged’ to volunteer, and local thieves and drunks, to hunt down and kill the Apache Indian chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his warriors, while also rescuing three children captured in the latest Apache attack. As he chases the Apache bandits across the border into Mexico, he then also has to contend with being horribly out-numbered by thousands of French troops that are also in Mexico and threaten him as a foreign transgressor. Either Dundee returns as a conquering hero or he will be facing probable court-martial and infamy.

Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is, as I discussed in Part One of this review, a flawed film that under better circumstances might have been a masterpiece: its premise is a fascinating study of the Old West and the ills of American military intervention and hubris (quite timely bearing in mind the film was made and released as the Vietnam War was escalating). The film is full of interesting characters and blessed by a very strong cast which, as well as Heston, includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. Visually it is very impressive, with the wide-open vistas typical of the best Westerns, and authentic-looking sets and costumes. Its darkly cynical central viewpoint echoes that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns but with its American cast and locations it looks rather like a John Ford movie.

Unfortunately, its becomes pretty clear as the film progresses that when it started filming, the script wasn’t actually finished, and as the film goes on, it progressively falls apart. The cast is very large with many characters. Richard Harris’ Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen is a perpetual thorn in Dundee’s side- the men have a long history together dating back to their youth at West Point, a friendship broken by the Civil War and Tyreen choosing the ‘other side.’ Dundee’s band of solders includes several negro solders (including Brock Peters as Aesop) that leads to inevitable friction between the Confederate prisoners and black solders in Union uniform. Actress Senta Berger as Teresa joins the film at its midpoint, a supremely unlikely romantic thread suddenly appearing as if from some other movie, quickly dismissed to little narrative point at all. Sub-plots regards an out of his depth rookie officer, a possibly untrustworthy Indian scout, and a Confederate who tries to desert, add to the busy mix.  

With so many characters and narrative arcs being set up, it would have proved difficult for even a fully-realised script to maintain them all into a properly balanced film, but left unfinished, it results in character arcs set up in the first third being left unresolved, and some character decisions in the last third coming out of nowhere and frustratingly undeserved. Its really very frustrating that there is such a great film in here, if only it had been made in better circumstances, and its evident that too much was left unwritten, too much left un-filmed, and the film cobbled together in an editing room from which Peckinpah himself was excluded, with some stunts and violence being excised to appease the studio heads only further damaging its awkward finale. Even more damning, the film was saddled with a terribly ill-judged score with a vocal march/theme that undermines everything Peckinpah likely intended, almost making the film a parody, comical ‘stings’ whenever Apaches turn up onscreen more suited to an episode of the 1960s Batman tv series.

However, a restoration just after the millennium left an extended version (on disc one of this set) being the way to watch and discover the film, restoring ten to fifteen minutes of footage and replacing that horrible music score. It remains far from the roadshow epic the film was originally intended to be, but much superior to the theatrical version that resides on this set’s second disc: I watched some of this and was quite appalled. The extended version is far from perfect, but its clearly much improved from the film audiences saw on its original presentation, and I really enjoyed the film, for all its faults. Sometimes the problems within flawed films only add to their allure, their fascination, and that’s possibly the case with Major Dundee. I suppose much of the interest in the film derides from director Peckinpah’s later films and naturally the films disastrous production, rather than the actual quality of the film itself, but really, in the extended version its not a bad film at all, rather its a flawed one with suggestions of greatness. Regardless of Peckinpah’s part in the proceedings, Heston (who actually had forgone his own salary for the picture, doing it for nothing in order to keep Peckinpah on, at least until filming was finished as best it could) is always worth watching: one of those iconic stars of the screen his casting is both perfect and ironic, considering the flaws in his character. 

Garcia at last

garcia12017.31: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia -its all there in that horrific, oh so typical 1970s b-movie title- is something of a masterpiece.  But it’s rare that watching something you can admire so much can make you feel so dirty too. It must be something like sitting next to director Sam Peckinpah whilst watching it and realising that he’s a thoroughly nasty individual who you’d prefer not to ever meet again. It’s certainly a rare thing nowadays, watching a film and feeling that, rather than seeing something generated by a committee, you are stepping into someone’s sole creative vision, unpleasant as it may be. If Peckinpah was indeed haunted by his demons, then they are all up on that screen to be seen by all.

Peckinpah was no doubt a fascinating, disturbed individual- Arrow’s superlative Blu-ray features ten hours of interview footage about the director that is much too daunting for me to tackle right now, if ever. I’m sure Peckinpah had his redeeming features, but by the time he made Garcia he was an alcoholic and the booze had pretty much destroyed him- its surely no accident that Warren Oates in the role of Bennie looks so like Peckinpah with his dark shades etc, the film approximating some kind of autobiographical features as Bennie spirals towards his doom.

This is a film to provoke as much as entertain, turn away as much as enthrall. There are sudden moments of violence towards women, for instance, that are quite harrowing to watch- Garcia often feels like an artifact from some distant age. Its really quite brutal, a dark fury running throughout- a rage against life, against women, against booze, against God.

And yet you can’t take your eyes from it.

So, Warren Oates is Bennie, a washed-up piano player falling into a liquor-soaked oblivion in a dead-end Mexican bar, having spent his life digging himself into a deep hole he can’t climb out of. A powerful Mexican crime-lord, El Jefe, discovering his daughter is pregnant has demanded the head of the man responsible- Alfredo Garcia. The reward is huge enough to set dozens of desperate men on the hunt, including two bounty hunters who stumble into Bennie’s bar looking for clues. Bennie thinks he has a lead- his girlfriend, a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), knows Garcia, and she subsequently tells him that Garcia is already dead.

Bennie decides to turn this to his advantage- the money from the reward could rescue Elita and him from their dead-end lives, so they jump in his car and travel across country to find Garcia’s grave, dig up the body and take his head back to El Jefe. Along the way they have to dodge bounty hunters and other bad guys they stumble across- but Bennie is a drunken fool shit out of luck, and all he manages to do is get people around him killed as he digs himself deeper into that hole he is already in. By the end of the film, all Bennie has is the sack containing the decomposing head, swarmed by flies in the relentless desert heat- even as he succumbs to madness, perhaps his prize could still finally be his way of getting even?

garcia2Garcia is a hard, twisted film. Its the kind of film Tarantino must wish he could write and direct- there is something horribly authentic about its internal logic, its mindset. Life is venal, cheap, dirty- this is a world in which men have no redeeming features at all. Women are repeatedly demeaned and marginalised, but there is also some purity to them, even the prostitute Elita, while the men are pretty much all no-good, greedy fools dominated by their lust for wealth and women- except for the two bounty-hunters that approach Bennie at the beginning. It is suggestive that they are homosexuals, something they are secretive and ashamed of, manifested by a violent hatred of women (one of them beating a prostitute unconscious for provocatively touching him).

Its utterly bizarre and quite unlike any film made in the last few decades, a throwback to a time -1970s American cinema- and a director who seemed to belong to some other era. Its not a Western, it’s not a film-noir, and yet it is both, as well as being rather horrific. The curious thing about watching films as old as this now -it dates from 1974- is how you can in hindsight trace its impact on subsequent cinema and film-makers. There is a scene for instance, with a naked, post-traumatic Elita sobbing under the spray of a shower, comforted by Bennie, which is clearly the ‘inspiration’ for a scene and imagery in 2006’s Casino Royal. There’s no doubt that Peckinpah, for all his faults and demons, cast a long shadow over cinema, and Garcia is likely his masterpiece. But it’s certainly not easy to stomach.