Friday, February 13, 2009

Major Dundee

Major Dundee posterThe title character of Major Dundee (1965) induces emotions atypical for a Western hero: he can be both pitied for his broken yet dogged spirit, and derided for his poor moral and tactical judgment. At the same time, Major Dundee fits the archetype of the hard-eyed and world-weary cowboy who is driven by two things: serving justice where others have failed, and achieving atonement for his murky past. This dual mission takes the form of heading to Mexico with with a ragtag army of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners and common criminals, in order to hunt down Sierra Charriba, an Apache warrior who has been terrorizing the southern United States.

Major Dundee opens with Charriba and his Apache warriors raiding a New Mexico settlement; the fire-gutted buildings, blood-streaked man hanging upside-down, and the prone girl riddled arrows tell the viewer that they are wantonly brutal and thus deserving of vengeance. Upon witnessing this massacre, and hearing that the Apache have kidnapped the male children, Dundee resolves to settle scores with Charriba. The film is set towards the end of the Civil War, and to discipline Dundee for a breach in conduct he has been stationed in a prison for Confederate soldiers. Here he builds his army to capture Charriba, offering Union soldiers relief from their prison duties and the prisoners with parole. Dundee is warned that he will be shot for pursuing this dangerous course of action but, protocol be damned, he goes ahead. Soon he has amassed supplies and selected his men, notably Captain Tyreen and his band of Confederates, who have painfully swallowed their pride and agreed to help Dundee only until Charriba is taken or destroyed.

Five weeks into Mexico, where the Apache retreat for the winter, Dundee and his men lose track of Charriba. Unexpectedly, the kidnapped boys are recovered when an Apache brings them to the camp, but the good faith is shown to be false when they are ambushed and suffer dispiriting losses. Needing supplies, they stop by a Mexican town, but find an impoverished people under the thumb of the French colonial military. Dundee liberates the town, no doubt largely motivated by the beauty of its spokesperson, the expatriate Theresa Maria Santigo. A bountiful fiesta ensues late into the night. Sadly, after the gang relocates to another camp, the town is smote with a French reprisal. At this point Dundee, whose personal motives and soundness of judgment has been questioned by his dogged pursuit of Charriba despite loss of life, finds himself in moral dire straits. One of his lieutenants recovers a deserter among Tyreen’s men, as well as Theresa who fled the re-occupied town. Dundee is resolute on executing the deserter, despite Tyreen’s earnest appeals, and then Dundee is discovered shot by an Apache while having a post-coital dip in the lagoon with Theresa outside his own picket lines.

To have the arrowhead removed, Dundee is brought to Durango, where he falls into a perpetual drunken stupor and dismays Teresa by having sex with his Mexican nurse. When the French catch on to his presence Tyreen rescues him, despite his desperate, inebriated pleas to be left to perish. When he sobers up, the army lures Charriba into attacking their camp while they are supposedly asleep, only to launch an assault once they have the Apaches surrounded. Surprisingly, the legendary Charriba is killed not by Dundee or Tyreen, but a fresh-faced young soldier who shoots him unawares, then watches his rag-doll body tumble downhill. After the villian’s anticlimactic death, the army gallops back to the United States, but find themselves sandwiched between French military units chasing them behind and blocking the Rio Grande in front. Pitting their American ingenuity and determination against the superior numbers of the French, they manage to break through to American soil. Captain Tyreen looses his life valiantly, and Dundee leads on whoever is left of his ragtag army, without a hint of what future lies ahead.

Major Dundee is set during an epoch of great changes to the political map: the Mexico-U.S. border shifted, the U.S. underwent a Civil War, Mexico experienced an imposed French monarchy, and the U.S. fought to contain Native American tribes on reservations. The political entities involved in this turmoil are distinctly characterized in the film. The French are portrayed as a cold-blooded and rapacious colonial power, yet a law abiding one; they accuse Dundee of committing an “outrageous breach of international law” when he attacks them in Mexico, and do not chase Dundee across the border. The Americans, on the other hand, are maverick justice-seekers who liberate the underdog and chase down criminals regardless of their jurisdiction. The Apache also freely cross the border, but it is not suggested that their vagrancy and anti-American rancor may result from the persecution and displacement of their people.

Mexico is cast as the perpetual victim of looting and power struggles, and a place where the harshness of reality is easily soothed by liquor and women. As Theresa complains, “There seems to be no end of it. We’ve been attacked by Apaches, by local bandits, by freebooters from Texas, then liberated by the French and now the United States Cavalry.” Mexico is a revolving door for foreign criminals, oppressors and liberators and has become a beaten-down and impoverished nation as a result. Despite this, the Mexicans of Major Dundee are ready to have an extravagant fiesta at the drop of a hat, and the three female characters, the only characters from Mexico that receive significant screen time, readily give themselves to the American soldiers. However, this adventurer’s paradise cannot be enjoyed for long, as our heroes have to hightail it back to the Rio Grande the moment that the mission is complete. In Mexico, as Octavio Paz aficionados will agree, the fiesta and death are never far apart.

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