Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah
Based on a Story by: Harry Julian Fink
Starring: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Michael Anderson Jr, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, Brock Peters, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens
Running Time: 122 mins (theatrical) 136 mins (extended version)
Sam Peckinpah had more than his share of problems with studio interference and clashes with producers during his 20-odd years as a film director. His first notable taste of this came with the third feature he helmed, Major Dundee.
Peckinpah came across the script for the film in late 1963 and began changing it to suit his tastes, alongside screenwriter Oscar Saul. The project soon came to attract the attention of megastar Charlton Heston, who thought very highly of Peckinpah’s previous film, Ride the High Country, so wanted to work with the director. It moved quickly into production at this stage, with a fairly hefty budget, and all the hallmarks of being a major work by this up-and-coming filmmaker.
However, for various reasons best explained in the countless hours of extra features included in Arrow’s forthcoming Blu-ray release of the film, the production didn’t go to plan. During the shoot, Columbia, the studio behind the film, even tried to fire Peckinpah but Heston, who still had faith in the director, offered to give up his salary to make up for the budget, which was spiralling out of control. Reportedly, Heston didn’t think they’d actually take him up on the offer, only doing it to show his dedication and help swing them around to keeping Peckinpah on, but the penny-pinching heads at Columbia held him to it and the actor worked on the lengthy, gruelling shoot for nothing.
The worse was yet to come though, when Peckinpah’s first cut came in at 4 and a half hours before getting trimmed to 155 minutes. This was still too long for the studio and they, having had enough of the director’s antics during the shoot, kicked him off the project and swiftly hacked the film up to a supposedly more crowd-pleasing 122 minutes, ready for release.
The film opened to largely poor reviews and a disappointing box office, setting Peckinpah back after his promising sophomore effort, Ride the High Country.
However, the director’s next feature, The Wild Bunch, would prove much more successful with critics (at least over time) and there has been some re-evaluation of Major Dundee in later years. To help better appreciate Peckinpah’s work on the film, an extended version of Major Dundee was put together in 2005. The full 155-minute cut is assumed lost forever, but the Film Forum theatre managed to find a 136-minute version of the film (actually a cut authorized by producer Jerry Bresler, who clashed with Peckinpah throughout the production, so it’s certainly not a director’s cut). On top of the extra 19 minutes of footage, Film Forum commissioned a new score by Christopher Caliendo. This was done because Peckinpah is known to not have been happy with the original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof.
Arrow Video are releasing both this extended edition and the original theatrical cut of Major Dundee on limited edition Blu-ray in the UK. I took a look, to see whether the film was worthy of reappraisal.
Set during the American Civil War, Major Dundee sees Charlton Heston play the titular character, who is a Union cavalry officer who has been demoted to the position of head of a prisoner-of-war camp in New Mexico, after an unexplained issue during the Battle of Gettysburg.
After a tribe of Apache, led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), wipe out a relief column of cavalry and a family of ranchers, Dundee swears to track down and capture or kill Charriba. Though against his duties as head of the prison camp, Dundee believes the action will win him enough praise by the top brass to get him back on the front lines.
Dundee doesn’t have the troops to take on Charriba and his Apaches though, so is forced to employ a team of Confederate prisoners as his soldiers. Heading these is Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), who was Dundee’s friend turned rival from West Point.
As the motley crew of soldiers and prisoners head out to find the Apache, tensions rise between the Union and Confederate members among the group, particularly Dundee and Tyreen.
You can certainly see the potential in Major Dundee. The clash between the various sides of the Major’s disparate band of reluctant cohorts, including a group of black soldiers, makes for an interesting dynamic and themes. The internal conflict between political beliefs and racial differences is still hugely relevant today, so in that sense, the film has aged well.
I also admired the fact its central, titular character is deeply flawed. Dundee is not hunting down the Apache for honour or retribution. He’s going against orders to better his career. He’s not even a great leader. He does little to quell the infighting, only stirring up trouble himself and falls into a destructive state of self-pity towards the end that threatens to derail everything (including the film, but I’ll get to that).
However, away from its themes and characters, the film is riddled with problems. One of the worst offenders is the storytelling. You could blame the studio for their hack job on the edit but, by all accounts, the script wasn’t ready when it went into production. The ending hadn’t been nailed down, in particular.
Right from the offset the film stumbles, opening with text and narration swiftly offloading our backstory and jumping into the aftermath of the massacre at the ranch. Reportedly, Peckinpah planned to open the film by showing the massacre, which I believe would have made for a much more powerful introduction and given a stronger justification for much of what comes afterwards.
The rest of the first half of the film is strong though. The character dynamics mentioned previously keep things interesting and the location photography and overall scale of the production are impressive. The cast is great too, though some of Peckinpah’s excellent stock company players, such as Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones and Slim Pickens, are woefully underused.
However, around the mid-section, a love interest is introduced in the form of Senta Berger as Teresa Santiago. She’s a strong character, which is rare in a Peckinpah film (he’s very much a ‘man’s man’) but the love triangle between her, Dundee and Tyreen is forced and terribly out of place in the otherwise dark film. It just feels added-on by the studio and dampens the pace and drive of the film.
Speaking of which, the film’s narrative takes a huge nosedive when Dundee spends several scenes wallowing in misery, following an injury and surprise attack. This drunken episode in a Mexican town really slows things down and feels out of place as the film approaches its denouement.
Not helping the second half is the finale, which ties up the Charriba thread in an embarrassingly simple and underwhelming fashion, then follows this up with a bizarre second finale that doesn’t feel like it should be the end of the film.
These final battles, along with the other clashes in the film, are lacklustre in general. Those going into Major Dundee expecting balletic violence akin to The Wild Bunch will be sorely disappointed. There is a lot of blood, which wasn’t common in tentpole films like this back in the day, but the actual fighting is directed with little panache. Supposedly Peckinpah used slow-motion cameras regularly on the shoot, so perhaps his original cut had some more interesting footage and the Columbia bigwigs took out much of the violence, but we’ll never know for certain.
One thing we do know for certain is that Peckinpah was right to hate Amfitheatrof’s score. It’s available here over both the extended and theatrical versions of the film and it’s truly terrible. Clichéd themes based on stereotypical tunes of the era are plastered throughout and it has a triumphant militaristic sound and comic asides that don’t fit the dark edge of the film at all. There’s also a strange, distracting repeated use of an electronic musical device that signals any mention or arrival of the Apaches. Don’t even get me started on the God-awful opening theme song.
Caliendo’s new score, though a touch too modern-sounding at times (the 5.1 mix doesn’t help), is a notable improvement. Toned down and not overused, it’s much more effective in complementing the drama.
Overall, Major Dundee does feel like a missed opportunity. Its strong, still-relevant themes, conflicted, flawed characters and grand scale are admirable and engaging. However, with too many story issues and a tacked-on love interest, the film ultimately fails to satisfy.
Major Dundee is out on 28th June on Limited Edition Blu-ray, released by Arrow Video. You can order it directly from the Arrow store here. With regards to the picture quality, detail and sharpness is a little hit and miss, though I think it’s standard for exterior shots in films of the period to look a little soft. Interior close-ups largely look great. I found the contrast levels a little high though, with strong blacks shrouding some of the detail. There’s an earlier re-release trailer from 2005 on the disc and, though not quite as cleaned up as the feature transfer here, I actually preferred the contrast in this, as it allows for a higher dynamic range and greater detail.
For audio, you get a choice between the new score by Christopher Caliendo in 5.1 and the original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof in mono. It’s a shame that the new score wasn’t available on a mono track to keep it in line with the film’s original audio, but I understand why a new score would keep with modern practices.
TWO-DISC LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY CONTENTS
– The 136-minute Extended Version of the film from a 4K scan, as well as the original 122-minute Theatrical Version
– 60-page perfect bound booklet featuring new writing by Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr plus select archive material
– Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
– Fold-out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
DISC ONE – EXTENDED VERSION
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 4K scan by Sony Pictures
– DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround audio with new score by Christopher Caliendo
– Lossless original mono audio with original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Audio commentary with Nick Redman, David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor
– Audio commentary by historian and critics Glenn Erickson & Alan K. Rode
– Audio commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson
– Moby Dick on Horseback, a brand new visual essay by David Cairns
– Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey, a feature-length documentary about the making of Major Dundee by Mike Siegel, featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G.Armstrong, Gordon Dawson
– Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes, nine actors talk about working with legendary director Sam Peckinpah, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, Isela Vega
– Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project, in which filmmaker Mike Siegel talks about his beginnings and his ongoing historical project about director Sam Peckinpah
– Extensive stills galleries, featuring rare on set, behind the scenes, and marketing materials
– 2005 re-release trailer
DISC TWO – THEATRICAL VERSION (LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 2K scan
– Lossless original mono audio
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Riding for a Fall, a vintage behind the scenes featurette
– Extended/deleted scenes
– Silent Outtakes
– Select extended/deleted scenes and outtakes with commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson giving context on how they were intended to appear in Peckinpah’s vision of the film
– Original US, UK and German theatrical trailers
– Stills gallery
In the group commentary, the contributors are honest about the film’s shortcomings and don’t claim the extra missing material would have made it a masterpiece. It’s a highly analytic track, looking at framing, character, themes etc. I enjoyed it quite a lot.
Glenn Erickson appears in the other two commentaries. His solo track largely focuses on the changes made to the original script, as well as other production details, whilst the track he recorded with Alan K. Rode is more conversational and analytic. Both are well worth a listen.
The feature-length documentary ‘Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey’ is excellent. It assembles a fine lineup of cast and a couple of crew members from the film. Heston is missing (and Peckinpah of course – he died in 1984) but the contributors that do appear give honest, enjoyable accounts of the troubled shoot.
The ‘Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes’ piece contains some soundbites and offcuts from the documentary, providing an affectionate but not sugar-coated series of stories about the director.
There’s also a 45min interview with Mike Siegel, the maker of the documentary and anecdotes video, which are both part of a series of Peckinpah documentaries he’s been working on for years. The interview is a surprisingly strong addition to the set. Siegel has a fascinating story to tell about his life in film and his connection to and love for the work of Sam Peckinpah. He’s an incredibly passionate man, so the piece is a pleasure to watch for like-minded movie fans like myself.
The extra extended/deleted scenes on disc 2, particularly when viewed with the commentary, help show some of what is still missing from Peckinpah’s original 155-minute cut. Most notably, we see scraps of how the film was supposed to open. The original plan certainly sounds like it would have been more effective than the weak opening we do get with text and narration bringing us into the aftermath of an event we could have done with seeing.
The vintage stunt featurette is rough quality and boasts a corny voiceover but it’s great to see some behind the scenes footage of the shoot and examine how some of the old school stunt work was done.
I didn’t get a copy of the book to comment on that, unfortunately.
So, an incredibly comprehensive set of special features to help fully understand what happened to Major Dundee, a film that could have been another Peckinpah masterpiece, but ended up a deeply flawed missed opportunity. As such, though the film isn’t amazing, the Limited Edition Blu-ray is still well worth getting your hands on, just to find out more about the troubled production.