Charlton Heston did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Major Amos Dundee in Major Dundee.
Charlton Heston, known for his roles as steadfast leads, seems well enough equipped for the role of the tough Union officer, however this is a bit atypical, particularly for the time for him, given it is a film by Sam Peckinpah, and his leads are never simple heroes. Heston's presence here makes for an interesting one in the film in the way it is used with the character of Major Dundee. Now on the surface Heston is in prime Heston form. He has all his stature, and the power of screen presence that is a consistent factor in all of his performances, even in lesser ones. Heston's innate confidence suits well Dundee as we first meet him in charge of a fort deep into west and out of the way of the main civil war, with the primary mission in housing a group of confederates lead by Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). Heston's blunt approach works effectively in establishing Dundee as this blunt force of will early on. Heston makes the character's determination convincing which is particularly important to the plot where he makes his mortal enemies work for him. Heston delivers in presenting Dundee as this unshakable force from the outset.
The point of Dundee is interesting though as watching it you initially believe the man as well given just how Heston brims with such a confidence. This is even as the film hints that the man is far more flawed than how he presents himself suggests. After all why would such a formidable soldier be practically a prison warden then, it is hinted at that his actions in the battle of Gettysburg were for his own glory than the overall success of the war. This actually can be taken as his motivation to avenge the massacre since Heston portrays this as somewhat dispassionate. In that he never portrays a direct anger or anguish towards those who died, rather his determination seems to only surround the idea of the daring of the task which involves catching such a sly prey, which even involves going into Mexico and risking coming afoul the French army posted there. Heston does not convey those humane ideas as settling at any point into Dundee's mind rather only seemingly the idea of the potential glory in the task through the strength of a man absolutely certain in this resolve. This choice is actually the proper one for the character, and again though watching the film it would seem this is because Heston is just making Dundee this type of unflappable hero, however that is not the case.
The truth is revealed as the film goes on but examining this performance it is two faced once you know this truth. During the beginning of the journey there are moments where Dundee is quiet honestly a jerk, and Heston doesn't hold back in these scenes. He's frankly cold in moments as he lobs insults at one of his men because he comes from the artillery, or questioning the loyalty of one of the Apache working with his battalion. At initial glance this may seem just a man who sufers no fools, but with the understanding of the whole of Dundee it is a palatable egotism that Heston reflects in his performance. Now to be sure this is not a case of Heston making this a pure negative rather he does find the complexity of this brashness of a soldier. On one point Heston does realize essentially the usefulness of this in any scene in which he initially comes to a battle of wills with Tyreen. The intensity of the man's daring that Heston provides shows effectively his ability to keep them inline. This is also seen in his moments of strategy against the enemy which Heston conveys the worthwhile nature of his passion for victory. There is a darkness within this though as Heston reveals such a lack of empathy as a man perhaps willing to risk everyone lives if it means a great victory.
Now I will say in part this is a performance that is aided greatly by his frequent scene partner in Richard Harris. As Stephen Boyd did in Ben-Hur, Harris provides the right type of foil against Heston's more direct work. What Harris does, which I will get more detailed on later, is essential in creating some of the complexity of the character of Dundee by the way he challenges the typical Heston presence. To be fair, unlike as Ben-Hur where he stays much more the hero, though here Heston challenges it a bit himself. This is mostly seen through a needed diversion where Dundee is wounded and must be taken to hospital in Mexico. In typical Peckinpah form this challenges the values of Dundee when he is without his army, without his pride, without even his physical power as a man. Heston does deliver in breaking down his presence to powerfully reveal a more vulnerable man as he struggles to stand and is even caught in caring for the results of his actions for a moment. Heston gives these scenes the impact they need, however I don't think he quite lets them influence the rest of his work enough. He tones the egotism a bit, but the last act should have brought a far more changed Dundee. We get a little change, but there was a greater potential there that perhaps a William Holden in the role could have brought out as he did in his own collaboration with Peckinpah. This stands as a good performance still from Heston which does subvert his work to an extent, but perhaps not enough.