Twilight Time // 1965 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // May 15th, 2013
The epic story of the great South-West!
Few filmmakers have more great "lost" movies than Sam Peckinpah, whose every movie it seems was released in some form other than the one he originally intended. From The Wild Bunch to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to The Osterman Weekend, Peckinpah was never a stranger to studio interference and movies being taken away from him. The same goes for Major Dundee, one of his most ambitious movies and his first bad experience with a studio. Thanks to the new Blu-ray from Twilight Time, fans have a chance to compare the theatrical cut of the movie with the longer 2005 restoration in one HD package.
In the Civil War Southwest, Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) has been stationed at a prisoner of war camp after being relieved of his command. When dozens of soldiers and civilians are slaughtered by Apache Indians, Dundee vows revenge and gathers an army of men to track down those responsible for the murders. Among his soldiers are the imprisoned Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris, Unforgiven), who has become a rival of Dundee but who agrees to put aside their differences until after the war chief Charriba (Michael Pate, Hondo) has been killed. The men begin their unsanctioned, exhausting, sometimes hopeless quest to find and kill the Apaches -- if the discord among them doesn't tear them apart first.
Major Dundee is not one of Sam Peckinpah's best films. That would be a tall order from a guy whose body of work includes The Wild Bunch,Straw Dogs, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. He has no shortage of great movies. But Major Dundee is a good movie, and a fascinating look not just into Peckinpah's career but into the way he saw the world. It takes a very common '60s genre -- the historical epic -- and filters it through the eyes of the one and only "Bloody Sam."
After a fantastic opening title sequence -- the placement of the title is brilliant, and the way that Peckinpah literally burns a hole through the screen throws down the gauntlet not just for Major Dundee but for his entire career -- the film settles into an interesting if uneven portrait of revenge and leadership. The movie is a lot of setups and little payoff, which is effective as a commentary on the nature of pursuing revenge but doesn't always make for a satisfying viewing experience. Major Dundee works best in how it fits into Peckinpah's filmography. He rarely (if ever) attempted something of this scope again, and it's clear that he was attempting to make a sweeping historical epic but couldn't resist being Peckinpah. His best movies zero in on character more: think about The Ballad of Cable Hogue or even The Wild Bunch, which almost rivals Major Dundee in ambition but with spends more time trying to understand the men at its center. As much as Major Dundee tries to paint a portrait of a complicated man, it falls short in this area. Dundee doesn't come across as all that interesting or complex, and Heston plays it as more of a movie star part.
Charlton Heston is effective in the title role on inasmuch as he's playing against his celebrity -- he seems to have been cast more as an icon than as an actor. His performance is fine, but takes on significance because of who Heston was, not what he could do. There are plenty of audiences who could watch the movie and take it at face value -- that Dundee is a badass who lives by a code and will stop at nothing to accomplish his goals -- but it's clear that Peckinpah has more on his mind than that. Casting the guy who played Ben-Hur and Moses in The Ten Commandments as Dundee, a man who is obstinate and sometimes cruel and filled with murderous rage, is a subversive stroke of genius. Peckinpah turns Heston's celebrity against him to powerful effect. Heston is surrounded by a murderer's row of incredible badass character actors, including Richard Harris, Slim Pickens, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Brock Peters and the incomparable Warren Oates. Even if you can find nothing else to like in the movie, it's worth seeing just to spend time with this group of men.
The film arrives on Blu-ray in a limited run of 3,000 from Twilight Time, a boutique studio that has asserted itself as a major force of slightly more obscure but important movies. The package includes two Blu-ray discs with two different cuts of the movie: the 123 minute theatrical cut from 1965 on the first disc and the 2005 restored cut that runs 136 minutes on the second. Both versions look good, not great, with accurate colors and a pleasing filmic look -- many of Peckinpah's westerns appear to have been dragged through the desert and the mud (by design), and Twilight Time has reproduced that look here. Some of the "new" material in the restored cut stands out as looking slightly worse than the rest of the move, but it's never too distracting. The restored cut offers a lossless 5.1 surround track, which does a good job of building up the film's sound design and showcasing Christopher Caliendo's new score without being too "showy." The original cut gets a lossless mono track that's much more faithful to the theatrical presentation. It lacks the sweep of the surround offering, but it gets the job done.
The extended cut is accompanied by a commentary track from Peckinpah historians David Weddle, Garner Simmons and Nick Redman, who deliver a lively and informative track about the film's production and actually disagree a little on some of the film's meanings and themes. It's a really interesting discussion and actually gives the viewer a deeper appreciation and understanding of the film. Also on the disc is an option to play the film with an isolated score from Christopher Caliendo, who provided a completely different score from the original (by Daniele Amfitheatrof) for the 2005 restoration. Just the differences in scores is worth studying, so kudos to Twilight Time for bringing it to the forefront. The 2005 reissue trailer fills out the supplemental section on the first disc.
The second disc contains the theatrical cut with Amfitheatrof's score, which can also be isolated on a separate track. It's an unusual score, and it's understandable why it would be replaced on the reissue, but there are things to like about it. Like comparing the two cuts, it's a curiosity of film history and worth checking out. Also included is an extended scene and one deleted scene that's actually unfinished, as well as some outtakes (played without sound) and a look at the trailer artwork. The original theatrical trailer is included on this disc.
Major Dundee was reportedly among Peckinpah's favorites of his films, and it's easy to understand why. It was such a massive undertaking, so ambitious in scope and so troubled and exhausting a production that Peckinpah is Dundee -- a guy who ran his troops ragged to accomplish a goal at any price. Watching the movie on that level, it's something of a masterpiece. Twilight Time has done a great job with a Blu-ray that should please not just fans of the movie but film historians everywhere. Pick on up before the limited run of 3,000 sells out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Extended Cut
* Deleted Scenes
* Isolated Score