Sam Peckinpah's mauled epic marks the beginning of his compulsive headbutting with studios, and a key link between the lyrical Western kiss-off of Ride the High Country and the savage implosion of The Wild Bunch. The period, narrated by callow Cavalry bugler Michael Anderson, Jr., is 1864-1865, the Civil War barely over and titular martinet Charlton Heston presiding grumpily over a prison camp for some vague Gettysburg business. Boys were kidnapped by renegade Apache in the opening slaughter, and Heston, in stubbornly wrongheaded control, assembles a ragtag bunch to follow pursuit into Mexico, recruiting horse thieves, drunks, freed slaves, and, most notably, Confederate prisoners, chief among whom is flakey Richard Harris, half Irish immigrant, half Southern dandy, all former-bud-cum-mortal-enemy. Tensions run high between blue-bellies and Southern trash, though, as they mosey down into Emperor Maximilian's territory, the crew (a roll call of Peckinpah's Death of the West Soul Players: James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, et al) gets a short-lived idyll at the local pueblo, where the director's idealization of Mexican peasant life takes over and Heston and Harris battle over German widow Senta Berger. Despite the century-long difference, the wobbly narrative is a jumbled mirror of '60s unrest, internally warring groups warbling dueling anthems while off on an unacknowledged imperialist trip, under the command of a disillusioned bullethead. Paradoxically, it's also Peckinpah's most Fordian movie, bits from The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers worked in, "Shall We Gather at the River" moaned over a mass grave, Jim Hutton as a comically ramrod lieutenant working the Jeffrey Hunter role. Scarcely as complex as the master's own Cavalry movies, the film derives its richness from Peckinpah's attempts at evoking the genre's simplicity at a conflicted time when the country's Vietnam involvement was ushering in bloodshed more than matching Harris' on-screen condemnation of a "hopeless war." With Mario Adorf, Brock Peters, and Karl Swenson.
--- Fernando F. Croce