Almost a Major Mistake
It's worth knowing that the "Major Dundee" production had its problems, not just because director Peckinpah was hard to work with but the studio basically moving the goal posts. They cut the budget and reduced the shooting schedule and in post production cut out scenes to shorten its running length. The outcome of all of this is that whilst "Major Dundee" is entertaining it is also disjointed, a bit messy and not the epic tale that it should be.
As the Civil War edges closer to an end Maj. Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston - Ben-Hur) is less than amused at being put in charge of transporting Confederate prisoners and so when his unit comes across a base raided by Apaches he doesn't need much cause to declare war. Putting to together a small force of soldiers, prisoners and civilians including Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris - The Guns of Navarone) they track the Apaches down to Mexico where they also find themselves declaring war of the French Cavalry.
Now in a way you don't expect Sam Peckinpah to direct an ordinary movie and as such "Major Dundee" is not an ordinary western. At the centre of this movie we have the character Maj. Amos Charles Dundee a flawed character who having been put in charge of taking confederate prisoners from one place to another decides to stage a mini war on the Apache's because being little more than a jailer is an insult. And there is the tense relationship between Dundee and Confederate prisoner Capt. Benjamin Tyreen, they were once friends divided by war, and he's willing to execute Tyreen is he doesn't agree to join his mini war against the Apaches.
But then whilst "Major Dundee" starts with the formation of a group of men, soldiers, prisoners and civilians to go after the Apaches along the way they end up taking on the French Cavalry in Mexico. So whilst there is standard western elements to "Major Dundee" the characters and the way it progresses is by no means what you may expect. Relationships form, they meet people along the way and things don't turn out how Dundee or we the audience expect.
All of which would be great if "Major Dundee" didn't feel like it had been chopped to pieces in the editing. Where you expect one element of story to develop into another there is next to nothing making it feel like huge chunks of narrative has been left out. Of course some of this would have happened due to Peckinpah facing a suddenly reduced budget and shooting schedule but even so "Major Dundee" is one movie which really doesn't flow. And as such it makes you wonder what Peckinpah could have done with this story given the time and money to make it the epic which it so clearly could have been.
The thing which makes "Major Dundee" work is the sense of tension which comes across and I am sure some of this must have come from the actors having to deal with Peckinpah who was known for being difficult. You can sense that Charlton Heston as Dundee was constantly on the verge of snapping and that seething anger makes his performance feel alive as if at any moment he could erupt and do someone some serious damage. Ironically Richard Harris as Capt. Benjamin Tyreen is almost the opposite and you wonder whether his love of drink made him comfortable with Peckinpah. Whatever the reason the sense of tension which comes from Heston as well as other stars works brilliantly with the more easy going nature of Harris and Jim Hutton.
What this all boils down to is that "Major Dundee" is a good movie but not the major movie it so easily could and should have been. To put it simply production issues caused it to end up more like the basic elements of a movie with the bits which made it all come together being discarded. But despite this it has a brilliant atmosphere and it is that sense that the actors were close to snapping which makes it so entertaining.