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  • Make War, Not Love: Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee and Cross of Iron
  • Bernard F. Dukore (bio)

Of Sam Peckinpah’s fourteen feature films, two—Major Dundee (1965) and Cross of Iron (1977), released a dozen years apart—deal with soldiers. In both the protagonist leaves a combat zone to be treated by a doctor for a wound, and in both the protagonist is romantically involved with a woman who is associated with the medical profession: in the first a doctor’s widow, in the second a nurse. Furthermore, both women are played by the same actress, Senta Berger. Are these similarities more than coincidences? Might Peckinpah in the later film, consciously or not, have been trying to work out effectively what he had botched in the earlier one?

From the outset, critics identified the foremost problems of Major Dundee. When it was first screened for the press in Hollywood on 25 February 1965, the uncredited Variety reviewer’s précis stated, “Rugged action but continuity at times ragged and too many delaying sequences” (“Major Dundee” 7). The chief ragged, not rugged, delaying sequence is set in Durango, where, in the film’s last half hour, Dundee goes for medical treatment. Jerry Bresler, who produced the film for Columbia Pictures, deleted so much of this sequence that for years the film’s admirers hoped the restored footage would make more sense of it and confirm their suspicion that the movie might be one of Peckinpah’s major works. According to its star, Charlton Heston, “There’s the smell of a great film in there somewhere, among the ruins” (216). More than ten years ago, I concluded that Heston had rightly emphasized both the greatness and the ruins (Dukore 2). Another delaying sequence, immediately preceding the one in Durango, is a romantic interlude.

Somewhere in the movie’s development, said Variety, “the central premise was sidetracked and a maze of little-meaning action substituted. What started out as a straight story-line (or at least, idea)—a troop of U.S. Cavalry chasing a murderous Apache and his band into Mexico to rescue three kidnapped white children and avenge an Indian massacre—devolves into a series of sub-plots and tedious, poorly-edited footage in which much of the continuity is lost.” The review praises Peckinpah’s direction of individual scenes as “mostly vigorous” but unable to “overcome the weakness of [the] screenplay of whose responsibility he bears a share” (“Major Dundee” 7). This appraisal, which is just, foreshadows future criticism.

Variety lists the running time as 134 minutes, which is the same running time as the extended version that played in selected cities in 2005 and was released the same year on DVD. Perhaps those who attended the Hollywood press screening saw this version. Regardless of whether they did, Variety judged that Major Dundee “would benefit by a good 20 to 25-minute snap-up, especially of sequences having [End Page 50] virtually no bearing on main plot and which serve to reduce pace to a crawl” (7). In either case, Bresler further mutilated the movie, particularly the snap-up, by about another dozen minutes before its official opening.

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Photo 1.

Charlton Heston in the title role of Major Dundee (1965).

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Photo 2.

James Coburn as Sergeant Rolf Steiner in Cross of Iron (1977).

The day after its American premiere in New York City on 7 April 1965, the New York Times listed its running time as 124 minutes (since such details are sometimes inaccurate, it may have been the 122-minute version later released on VHS). The lead paragraph in Eugene Archer’s Times review echoed Variety by stressing the film’s “choppy continuity that finally negates its impact.” In greater detail than Variety, the Times praised the director’s work and condemned the script. Major Dundee has “a superior visual texture,” said Archer, who credited Peckinpah “for seeking a fresh approach to the Western” in a film that was “bursting at the seams with evidence of a new filmmaker’s ambition.” Peckinpah’s West “is an ugly place,” and his camera “searches intractably for...


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