According to star Charlton Heston, the script for Major Dundee was only partially finished and "badly needing work" when he signed on. Producers brought in former TV Western director Peckinpah to complete the script and direct, largely on the strength of Ride the High Country (1962), a modestly-budgeted Western he made with Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in the twilight of their long careers (it turned out to be Scott's last movie). Although an excellent writer, Peckinpah had to contend with the pressure of prepping his first big-budget production while sharing an office with Heston, who continually offered unsolicited advice on casting and the script. Even this early in his career, Peckinpah was known as a maverick who didn't trust producers or studio executives and was a heavy drinker with a volatile temper to boot. At the same time, he didn't do much to endear himself to his colleagues on the set, either. According to Heston, Peckinpah tended to "quarrel with the actors and fire the technicians." And Heston himself had numerous run-ins with the director during the grueling location shoot in Mexico, nearly running Peckinpah down on a horse at one point. In his autobiography, In the Arena, Heston wrote "A lot of things went wrong with Dundee; Sam was responsible for most of them. A lot of things went right with it; Sam was responsible for most of those, too. He was...a difficult but very talented man."
The actor also addressed the film's troubled production and numerous on-set conflicts: "One of the most crucial, though none of us realized it at the time, was that Columbia, Sam and I all really had different pictures in mind. Columbia, reasonably enough, wanted a cavalry/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. That's the movie that was steaming in his psyche." In fact, many people consider the later movie a reworking of Major Dundee, and a chance for Peckinpah to explore themes and find his own directorial style without studio meddling. In the end, the director asked to have his name taken off Major Dundee after the studio took the final cut away from him and, citing budget overruns, refused to allow him to shoot the additional scenes he requested.
Nevertheless, the major strengths of Major Dundee lie in its excellent ensemble cast. Several character actors from this film - Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, and Dub Taylor - would go on to work on The Wild Bunch. Along with fellow Dundee cast members Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong, these actors formed an unofficial Peckinpah stock company, each appearing in four to five of the director's films.
For the role of the local girl with whom the company bugler falls in love, Peckinpah wanted a young actress involved at the time with director Budd Boetticher, who was shooting Arruza (1972) in Mexico. In A Portrait in Montage: Peckinpah by Garner Simmons, the director recalled, "So Budd came by and said, 'She's not going to work for you!' And I had to find another actress to play the part. So I was shown a picture of a young Mexican actress and flamenco dancer named Begonia Palacios. She was beautiful, and I ran a picture she made in Mexico, and....I cast her in the picture and later married her - not once, but three times;twice in civil court, once in a church;. So I always tell Budd when I see him, 'Man, you really know how to f*ck a guy up!"
Richard Harris was relatively new to American movies when he made Major Dundee, his first Western. Before signing to appear in Peckinpah's film, he played the lead in Lindsay Anderson's critically acclaimed drama, This Sporting Life (1963) and he had memorable roles in the ensemble casts of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). Harris was actually on location for Major Dundee when he learned he had received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for This Sporting Life, yelling, "I've struck a blow for the Irish rebellion!"
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Editing: William Lyon, Don Starling, Howard Kunin
Production Design: Alfred Ybarra
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Charlton Heston (Major Dundee), Richard Harris (Capt. Tyreen), Jim Hutton (Lt. Graham), James Coburn (Samuel Potts), Senta Berger (Teresa Santiago), Warren Oates (O.W. Hadley), Michael Anderson, Jr. (Tim Ryan), Mario Adorf (Sergeant Gomez), Brock Peters (Aesop), Slim Pickens (Wiley), Ben Johnson (Sergeant Chillum), R.G. Armstrong (Reverend Dahlstrom), L.Q. Jones (Arthur Hadley), Dub Taylor (Benjamin Priam).
by Rob Nixon