Ambition, made of sterner stuff, is the solder’s virtue that chooses gain, which darkens him. Bravery, comprised of nobler spirit, is the solder’s honor that elevates the soldier’s merit to the echelon of Homeric virtue of arete, the excellence of man leading to achieving a supernatural feat of heroism. An excellent soldier with arete knows no boundary of political, religious, social, or racial division and transcends the subjectivity of time. Major Dundee (1965), an American western film directed by Sam Peckinpah, cogently translates a balanced, objective equilibrium to test the validity of the soldiers’ virtues on the continuum of the Homeric arete in the background setting of the American Civil War.
Major Amos Charles Dundee of the Union Army (played by Charlton Heston) is a man of primitive ambition of glory sent to head a squalid prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory. There he meets his former friend turned foe Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen (played by Richard Harris), who bears a grudge against Major Dundee for his betrayal of friendship. The notable tension between the two always remains even after their uneasy but necessary collaboration. Still, the esprit de corps consisting of unlikely but able-bodied characters sets to take out the Apache War Party in the new territories. Major Dundee sets out for the campaign not of pure divine patriotism but his glory despite his contentions with Captain Tyreen, who is more morally honorable and culturally sophisticated than himself.
It is Captain Tyreen, the renegade leader of the southern rebels who embodies the model of the arete, combined with moral integrity and soldierly fitness fabulously demonstrated in his effortlessly stylish habiliment. He is a dandy gentleman with decency and learning and an exemplary soldier and leader with justice and bravery. The refinement of civility as incarnate in the figure of Captain Tyreen is vividly contrasted with the rough intransigence of Major Dundee through the exterior appearances and actions of the two opposite characters. Even Captain Tyreen’s attitude toward the colored Union soldiers surpasses Major Dundee’s languid attitude toward his colored soldiers fighting for the same cause.
“Major Dundee” is a new type of western that abandons its common thematic elements consisting of noble savages, self-righteous lone gunslingers, the arch-villains, and beautiful women in pursuit. It is a new type of western that begins to be aware of the societal changes in the reflection of the nature of humanity with bold actions of likable bravado and admiring characters that are not circumscribed in the extreme ambit of norms and conventions with an artistic touch of vivid realism. Despite the rather unsatisfying commercial success of the film when it first came out, I find this film both entertaining and thoughtful in the historical background of the Civil War, showing true bravery equipped with respectful integrity of a person, friend or foe. There is no better sign of excellence in man than the bare demonstration of the act.