A Major with a Mission.
The 'Mexican Adventure' Western Subgenre.
Don't forget Part One: it discusses
Philip French's concept of Political Westerns, and the films High Noon, Rio Bravo,
Vera Cruz and The Magnificent Seven.
The version released of Sam Peckinpah's 1965
Major Dundee is a monument of confusion, an
American National Epic that was unfortunately killed in the womb. A 3-hour roadshow film whose
shooting schedule was truncated, Dundee's tragic reduction to 123 minutes of poorly
paced and sometimes incomprehensible plotting is a story unto itself. Despite split intentions
(Charlton Heston and Peckinpah seemed to be making two different movies) and inconsistent direction
caused by the beseiged director's own stress meltdown on location, Dundee still emerges
as the film which best expresses American ambitions at the beginning of the larger Vietnam
conflict. Peckinpah was to practically re-make Dundee just four years later as The Wild
Bunch, which critics immediately called a vision of Vietnam.
In Major Dundee we find Peckinpah complicating the 'Mexican adventure' subgenre with
wicked political commentary that only too accurately sums up a liberal's version of America's
real rationale for its involvement in Vietnam. Since it was written in 1963 and filmed in 1964,
Dundee doesn't have the venemous and apocalyptic outlook of The Wild Bunch, but its cynical
stew of motives and motivations make it (especially its uncut script, a Hollywood classic) the
logical successor to
Vera Cruz for radical outrage.
Charlton Heston as Major Amos Dundee represents not just the American military but an
expansionist, aggressive America itself, the Nation popular politics denies exists. The noble
mission in Dundee, the rescue of innocent children kidnapped by marauding Apache Indians,
is a fraud from the word go. Like all the other characters in Dundee's unformed and divided
America, Amos lacks self-identity and seeks to forge his own destiny through willful ambition.
Spouting selfrighteously about the necessity of the rescue (and completely charmed by Reverend
Dahlstrom's quasi-biblical justification for mayhem) Amos lets his self-invented mission be
stopped by neither the Army (it's against orders) nor personal loyalties (he extorts cooperation
from his Confederate nemesis Captain Tyreen with the threat of hanging) nor the advice of his
experts (the likelihood of success against the Apaches in Mexico is less than nil).
This is all because Dundee's real motivation is personal ambition, the desire to seize for himself
the glorious military career denied him by the Union Army which has exiled him as a prison warden far
away from the glory of Gettysburg. Amos needs a War, and Any War will do. An Oliver
North for the 1860's, Dundee basically takes an illegal army into Mexico and allows it to be
decimated by the superior tactics of the Apache on their own ground. To recover, he callously
uses an innocent Mexican village knowing it will be subject to reprisals by the occupying
French (in their first appearance in an American movie since Vera Cruz?). By provoking
a fight with the French he wins for himself what he (and America) have been denied in four years
of pointless and destructive Civil War: Direct confrontation with a European power,
a real competitor with colonial aspirations in the Western Hemisphere that would be well-served by an
America divided into North and South.1
Amos Dundee's mission begins as a blind thrust into the unknown and ends with him fighting an international battle (a real historical fantasy) that makes the command he lost back
at Gettysburg pale by comparison. Fortunately for Amos, even though he has no understanding of
anything but his own ambition, once he crosses the Rio Grande his hodgepodge troop will rally
behind him no matter how ruthless or corrupt he becomes. When faced with the formal hauteur of
the French adversary, American identity-confusion both political (North, South, Texican) and
personal (black, white, Mexican, Indian) melts away and Dundee's motley troop becomes a fighting
unit upon which he can rely. Barely surviving, the troop reenters the United States and Major Dundee the film abruptly ends on an inconclusive note. After an
understanding of Peckinpah's script, Dundee crossing the river vindicated can be seen as America getting a first taste of international conflict, liking it, and ready for more
'adventures' in foreign lands.
March of the four.
The Wild Bunch.
Part of the glory of The Wild Bunch is the fact that it works on so
many levels. It's been discussed from the points of view of its violence, its male-bonding, and
its re-structuring of most of the conventions (especially John Ford conventions) of the American
Western. There truly hasn't been as original a Western ever since; the genre has been in decline
for the past thirty years and high points like
Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves are superior
returns to past forms. The Wild Bunch was for Peckinpah his last chance for vindication
after the shambles his career had become, from Major Dundee onward. It represents a complete
souring politically from the 'liberal intellectualism' of Dundee. Influential auteurist critic
Andrew Sarris dismissed Peckinpah by saying the director considered himself "too intellectual to tell a
story but may still develop a theme." This is exactly what Peckinpah did. As opposed to the
submerged motives and optimistic adventurism of Dundee, The Wild Bunch posits a West of
almost universal venality. Men fight not for idealized principles of North or South, tribe or
Nationality, but for greedy companies, corrupt warlords or outright personal gain. The bit of
average America we see are the self-righteous hypocrites of Starbuck with their phony temperance
march. When protesting the irresponsible actions of the Railroad and its subhuman bounty hunters,
the town elders leap immediately to the subject of monetary compensation for carnage.
In this completely amoral world, faced with an America arming for WW1 and wholesale slaughter
South of the border, the depradations of the little band of outlaws headed by William Holden and
Ernest Borgnine seem petty and insignificant. In
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (the
Italian cut, at least) we were forced to realize that the only qualities distinguishing the
three antagonists one from another were charisma and style - no heroes there. In The Wild
Bunch even the outlaws realize they have a credibility problem and seek to justify their crimes: "We
don't hang nobody." The warlord Mapache is jokingly called "Just another bandit out for all he can get!"
The Wild Bunch resolves itself by extolling the male bonds of loyalty and
devotion as the high values that idealize (if not absolve) its bandit-heroes. This was Peckinpah's
most personal statement and he later seemed to realize he himself was a failure by this measure,
what with his inability to forge a lasting relationship with any of his often - devoted producers.
The Wild Bunch succeeds so well on so many levels of cinematic accomplishment that it is
telling that Peckinpah still adheres to the shortcomings of the 'Mexican Adventure' subgenre.
While delineating a complex Mexico enmeshed in its own civil war, Peckinpah still
trots out some pretty hoary stereotypes, such as the earthy patriarch who lamely intones, "In
Mexico, senor, these are the years of sadness." Once again, the American heroes find themselves
facing down (and prevailing over) endless ranks of rifle-toting Mexicans that cover the
landscape, a la Vera Cruz. The audience laughs at the spectacle in both films; any more
Mexicans and the situation would become a Tex Avery gag.
Peckinpah also betrays a condescending acknowlegement/approval of Mexico as an American
brothel.2 All of the women are whores of one degree or another (well, it's obvious that
Peckinpah hadn't the slightest idea what to do with the Austrian Juarista-Doctor Teresa in Dundee) and Peckinpah delights in presenting a world where macho concerns are paramount. Perhaps the redemption here is Peckinpah's sly placing of a female figure at the center of several male identity crises: Angel's Teresa, and Pike's Aurora, echoed in his tender-tough tregua with the child-whore at the end. But mostly the women are simply there
to betray the men; Angel's own mother-in-law "Turns him in, like some kind of a Judas."
The overkill bloodbath at the end of The Wild Bunch immediately made reviewers think of
Vietnam. In terms of the 'Mexican Adventure' subgenre, it is the film's least fresh
idea. Here once more are the dozens (hundreds) of identical Mexicans mowed down like tenpins, by
a practically invincible American nucleus of shooters. Sheer will allows them to kill fifty
foes for each wound received and then take a dozen direct hits each before succumbing. The scene
is amazing, but somewhat suspect at its core ... when the final battle begins, it resembles
an entrance exam for Valhalla.
The simple outrageousness of Vera Cruz
seems a bit more
honest, even in its sublimated satire: when Lancaster is wounded in the shoulder he has Cooper
'dig the lead out' with a Bowie knife while he watches. A bit of tied rag later, and Lancaster
is as good as new! That scene must have been seen as an intentional gag, but in The Wild Bunch
the prolonged demise of Pike Bishop's gang, perforated like swiss-cheese buckaroos, can only be
taken as exaggeration meant to express their nigh-invulnerable, God-like potency, especially in
contrast to the Mexicans they massacre.
In the end, Peckinpah leaves us with a broad hint that the Bunch's aggression had a potential
positive direction. At curtain time, Sykes and Thornton team up with a group of (presumably)
Villistas comprised of the survivors of Agua Verde and the pure Indios that even the Bunch
realized were superior fighters. Ah, yes, the revolution! If only the Bunch had used their
talents for good! Peckinpah's audience and critics didn't pick up on this suggestion, which
shows that Peckinpah was stymied as much as the next director by the sinkhole of late '60's
Hollywood Revolution-chic. Thank heavens Peckinpah didn't make the hint more explicit or The
Wild Bunch might have suffered the critical drubbing given the (much more popular)
radical-chic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
From the set in '66: Woody and Lee
So this brings Savant full circle back to
The Professionals, which is by no means as
serious as the Peckinpah films, but has a practical edge to its characters and dialogue
that steers it away from the simplistic fantasy of
The Magnificent Seven. Here the four
experts rounded up to rescue the kidnapped bride of a Railroad baron are cheerfully resigned to
their various fates as overtrained bums of one kind or another. Packmaster Robert Ryan barely
relates to people, Soldier of fortune Lee Marvin is disillusioned and wastrel Burt Lancaster
spends a week on a chain gang in his longjohns because that's how he was dressed when he was
arrested. Woody Strode's longbow ace is as close a superhero the American movies have produced.
He looks like an idealized drawing from a Marvel comic book, he's so physically perfect. Yet he's
a loner-bounty hunter as rootless and alienated as any of the others.
The Professionals restages the same Mexican Adventure plot in its bald basics, but is
both more conscious of itself and a little bit more realistic than the others. Having neither
an overwhelming political agenda to express nor wanting to promote any mythmaking, Richard Brooks
instead sticks to the practical facts of the mission. We aren't expected to really believe
the adventure, yet the characters are so vivid and the action so spirited that we are carried
along anyway. The Mexicans portrayed are both bad and good and at least Brooks doesn't sell us
a bill of goods that there are any peons begging to be liberated down there.
A now-famous plot twist makes The Professionals a turning-point film in relation to
politics and Vietnam. (( If you've not seen the film read no further because I can't help but
make this into a spoiler! )) The mission is clearly presented, cut-and-dried. The rich man who
seems to represent all American power is willing to pay to get his kidnapped wife returned. Not
only are the heroes hired by the most important man in Texas, the mission is as noble as
they come. Not only that, the rich husband seems genuinely sympathetic. So off the adventurers
go, risking life and limb and killing a number of fairly respectable Mexican foes along the way.
It's definitely the John Wayne / Green Berets view of Vietnam, so far. The military is
eager to follow its orders and do the right thing, ever trusting in the sincerity and truth of
the mission as presented them by the country they serve.
The Professionals succeed, brilliantly .... only to discover their mission is based on
lies and that they've been completely defrauded. Everything the rich and powerful husband told
them was untrue. They end up without their reward, rejecting their 'employer,' riding off in
limbo to some new and unexplainable future. The Professionals expresses perfectly the
(rightful? self-serving?) sentiment of the American Military that the real enemy in Vietnam
were their betrayers in Washington. As if the Military weren't a major part of the sham ...
What makes all of these films so much fun on this political level is their freewheeling
diversity. Obviously all of them are 'good' movies in that each has entertained millions.
This kind of scrutiny is certainly not necessary to enjoy the films but Savant believes that,
when warranted, it can deepen the experience. Anybody who internalizes a movie
like, for instance, Taxi Driver, without questioning what the heck it's all about is a potential
dangerous person, in Savant's reckoning. In the case of both Peckinpah and Aldrich, I believe
they had vivid desires to present themes and messages beneath the entertainment value of their
films. Perhaps Peckinpah's were nearer the surface simply because in the late '60's Art Cinema
had made such content more acceptable. The argument that the politcal aspect of The Magnificent Seven is nil
because the filmmakers might not have intended it doesn't wash.
Unconscious messages are the best kind, as they're communicated without the ego of a
message-writer getting in the way, as witness dozens of '50s science fiction films or even
a spy spoof such as
Our Man Flint, which says a lot more about American cultural contradictions than a 'serious' political movie, like Fail-Safe.
Savant openly notes that even the most traditional of the films above is a product of 'liberal' Hollywood thinking, and such betrays his own prejudices, I suppose. If the alternative reactionary Westerns (
The Alamo?) had anything remotely interesting
to communicate, maybe Savant would be less 'radical' in his outlook. Hee hee.
1. A Vietnam analogy of the audacity of Dundee's conflict with the French
would happen, say, if John Wayne's troops encountered and fought Russians in Vietnam in The Green Berets.
2. Shared by movies as recent as Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July.
We're supposed to care about the feelings of our wheelchair-bound veteran when he's so basely contemptuous of
the whores he hires in Mexico?
3. And probably the core inspiration, along with Taxi Driver, for a generation of
American Psycho shooters. Speaking of Valhalla, the final battle of Fritz Lang's Kriemheld's
Revenge is similar in staging and outcome to the 'Bloody Porch' battle that concludes The
Wild Bunch. Now that's a fresh title-dropping cinematic allusion if ever there was
International competition, in a river.
Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson