One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Free State Of Jones looks back on the Civil War (no, not that one), so we look back on earlier Civil War movies.
Aw, hell, Major, you’re just doin’ what you gots to do! But goddamn your soul for it anyway, and God bless Robert E. Lee!
It’s a fact that most movies about the Civil War are about the Confederate side; the toxic mythology of the Lost Cause has close ties to the history of American film, going back to before Birth Of A Nation. It has an air of romanticized tragedy that filmmakers can’t seem to resist, even when they should know better: burning cities and ransacked plantations; defeated soldiers returning home after losing the war; the otherness of the aristocracy, which has captivated Americans ever since this country ditched monarchic rule. The devil has all the good music, and the South has all the good stories—or at least that’s how conventional wisdom goes, given how many movies recycle the same imagery of antebellum idyll and Yankee incursion, creating a kind of shared universe.
Ever the contrarian, Sam Peckinpah picked as his first big-budget production a Civil War film set so far away from the battlefields that its characters are only dimly aware that the war might be drawing to a close. News traveled slowly then and was often mistrusted; it’s easy to forget that at the time of Lincoln’s assassination, much of the Confederate States Army was unaware of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, and battles were still being fought. But the men of Major Dundee aren’t merely behind on the news. No, they seem to exist in their own apocalyptic world.
Intended by Peckinpah as a kind of Moby Dick of John Ford-style cavalry Westerns, Major Dundee stars Charlton Heston as the title character, a disgraced Union officer banished to what is now New Mexico to guard Confederate prisoners of war, including his old West Point rival, Tyreen (Richard Harris). Seeing an Apache raid as his chance at victory, Dundee assembles his own ragtag regiment of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, criminals, and Indian scouts and sets off into Mexico in self-destructive pursuit of glory, bungling his way into the then-ongoing Franco-Mexican War.
In a bold gambit, Major Dundee resolves this illegal expedition’s stated goal—to rescue some children taken during a raid—about halfway through, leaving Dundee with even less of a logical reason to keep going. Far from the frontlines, conflicts, and the familiar imagery of the Civil War, the careerist Dundee and the aristocratic Tyreen come across like parodies of the iconography that ended up being created around the war. (Heston and Harris deliver some of their finest performances in the film, aided by a cast that includes Warren Oates, James Coburn, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and Brock Peters.) They are fighting for the kind of glory—or, in Tyreen’s case, Lost Cause chivalry—that the Civil War was supposed to bestow on its participants, in a border landscape where they don’t belong.
In some ways as quixotic as its eponymous antihero, Peckinpah’s sprawling deconstruction of Civil War myth went way over budget and was cut without his input, and the widely available posthumous restoration still runs 20 minutes shorter than the original version. He wouldn’t make another movie for four years, an eternity for someone who was supposed to be an up-and-coming director. That movie would represent a refinement of Major Dundee’s themes; it was called The Wild Bunch.
Availability: Both the theatrical cut and extended version of Major Dundee are available on Blu-ray and DVD and can be obtained through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. Major Dundee can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.