Romance in Durango

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Major Dundee (1965)

Sam Peckinpah’s third film is usually considered a failed draft of what would be more fully realised as The Wild Bunch (1969). Peckinpah’s behaviour was too erratic, and his producers and budget too inflexible, for the earlier film to be finished to anybody’s satisfaction. But what survives, particularly in the 2005 extended version, is compelling. Major Dundee is the first film set in Peckinpah’s Mexico. His dark vision of the country is a land of escape, lawlessness, corruption, sexual decadence, alcoholism, and some measure of purity.

Peckinpah was engaging with the tradition of John Huston, who first went to Mexico in 1925, a few years after the end of the revolution. Vera Cruz, Huston remembered in his autobiography An Open Book, “had a blasted, pitted look. Buzzards fed in the streets, which were the same unrelieved color as the tin-roofed adobe houses.” Beggars cruised the cafe tables, just one aspect of “the bleak, dire kind” of poverty “that revolution leaves in its wake.” Irrepressible and lusty, Huston took the train to Mexico City and befriended a colonel who gave him an honorary commission in the Mexican army. That way he could train as a horseman with the calvalry. During poker games with high ranking military officers, “someone usually drew and cocked a pistol, turned the lights out and threw the pistol up so that it hit the ceiling. It would go off upon striking either the ceiling or the floor, and then the lights were turned on to see who, if anyone, had been unlucky.” Huston escaped a duel and discovered a passion for pre-Colombian Mexican artefacts; in later years he would smuggle out antiquities of dubious authenticity. On another trip he rode a mule train from Acapulco to Mexico City. He witnessed bandits rounded up to be executed by rurales.

Huston’s colourful memories of Mexico in the 1920s gave him firsthand details to draw upon when he made a film of B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. Huston sought an unusual level of authenticity for a Hollywood film: he shot on location in Tampico, hired real Mexican actors for supporting roles, even used unsubtitled Spanish dialogue in some sequences. Set just after the Mexican Civil War, Sierra Madre became the foundational movie of the desperate-gringo-south-of-the-border genre and an influential expression of a mythical Hollywood landscape. In this ‘Mexico’, the West could still be found long after the US frontier had been conquered. We visit it again in Vera Cruz (1954), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Professionals (1966). (Read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992) for the best elaboration of the evolution and political significance of this cinematic landscape.) Huston himself revisited the landscape in The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Under the Volcano (1984) — and all of this without ever bothering to learn Spanish.

Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Mexico’ does not reject the Hollywood myth but makes it grittier, more violent, and so static that almost nothing changes from the 1860s to the 1970s. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a brilliant, bizarre, and extremely violent reworking of Huston’s Sierra Madre, intentionally blurs the place and the time at the film’s outset. The script begins at a hacienda: “IS IT SPAIN — Maybe ITALY — or possibly MEXICO — or BRAZIL — or ARGENTINA — or…? It is not Mexico.” But it is! At the conclusion of a brutal scene in which a pregnant teenage girl is stripped and tortured by her father into revealing the name of her lover, his henchmen leave to seek the man’s head. “BUT NOT BY HORSE,” says the script. “MERCEDES, FERRARIES [sic.], CORVETTES and even a Limo or two provide transportation. Because it’s today, baby, not 1880, and like it or not, exactly this kind of bullshit still exists.”

A decade earlier, in early 1964, Peckinpah had shot Major Dundee on location in Mexico. The screenplay, originally by Harry Fink, was greenlit by Columbia Pictures before it was finished. On the strength of Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah was invited to take over the script and direct the film. He took the company south of the border. Lead actor Charlton Heston, in his autobiography In The Arena, recalled that their script conferences often wound up in grimy brothels. Heston sat out these sordid evenings drinking beer. He didn’t share Peckinpah’s taste for very young prostitutes.

Plot-wise Major Dundee is a pastiche of classic westerns. Like John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), it follows the US Cavalry hunting Apaches in border territory. After unspecified actions at the Battle of Gettysburg, Major Dundee has been unofficially demoted to a jailer at a fort in New Mexico in the middle of the American Civil War. But then a family of ranchers and a group of soldiers are slaughtered by Sierra Chariba’s band of Apaches. Borrowing a page or two from Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Chariba also kidnaps white children. Dundee eagerly raises an army — Union soldiers, black soldiers, and a group of Confederate prisoners led by Lt Tyrene (Richard Harris), Dundee’s former friend. His quest for Chariba and the children quickly reaches Mexican territory, as hatred and mistrust grow between the soldiers. He essential starts a war with the occupying French — all to promote his own military glory.

Heston reflected:

Columbia, Sam and I all really had different pictures in mind. Columbia, reasonably enough, wanted a Calvary/Indians film as much like Jack Ford’s best as possible. I wanted to be the first to make a film that really explored the Civil War. Sam, though he never said anything like this, really wanted to make The Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah lost the right to final cut on Major Dundee, which wasn’t really finished at all; it splutters towards an only minimally coherent ending. The story loses focus after Dundee is wounded in the leg by an arrow during a tryst with a beautiful Austrian widow played by Senta Berger. Still, I’ve always been fascinated by Dundee’s subsequent self-destructive lost weekend in French-occupied Durango (much restored for the 2005 version). Here is Peckinpah’s attempt to personalise the generic story material and the landscape, the plot be damned.

“You make an unlikely-looking Mexican,” Sgt. Gomez tells Dundee as he lies wounded in Durango and considers fleeing in disguise. (That might have been a joke about Heston’s earlier role as the narcotics agent Vargas in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958); written as a cosmopolitan Carlos Fuentes-type, Heston played him without an accent, albeit with dark makeup.) So Dundee stays in Durango, gets drunker, wallows in self-pity. He takes his nurse to bed. It would be overstating things to say Dundee has been drawn away from his quest for Chariba like Odysseus to the island of Calypso — his dignified and largely passive Mexican lover, played by Aurora Clavel, is far from a seductress. Nevertheless, there is something of that mythical quality to Dundee’s fall. In Peckinpah’s Mexico things quickly go to seed. Dundee winds up a bum in a dive bar. Identity begins to dissolve in whisky.

Heston, a conscientious but stiff and limited actor, is well cast as a soldier who leads through intimidation rather than inspiration. Senta Berger is a far better actress than her character really deserves. With her discovery of Dundee’s affair during his Durango convalescence, Berger forever vanishes from the film. The script’s well-developed tensions then fall apart. Tyrene dies bravely in a fight with the French at the Rio Grande, evading what should have been an inevitable showdown with Dundee. Major Dundee is a small man who seeks greatness — an ego-driven monster — but there is no reckoning for his colossal irresponsibility.

The original 1965 score by Daniele Amfitheatrof is terrible. The longer preview version of the film, rediscovered and released in 2005, was specially rescored by Christopher Caliendo. This version of the film is the best one in existence but is still not Peckinpah’s version. He never was able to finish the movie.

Peckinpah would return to Mexico many times, lastly in Alfredo Garcia, which imagines a more pathetic version of Sierra Madre’s gold-lusting Fred C. Dobbs. The great Warren Oates puts Heston to shame as a lowlife gringo in Mexico still seeking the prize.

Seville, January 2018

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