Judge George Hatch finds nothing at all minor about this major release of an underrated Sam Peckinpah classic.
Our review of Major Dundee (Blu-ray), published May 15th, 2013, is also available.
"You thieves, renegades, deserters—and you gentlemen of the South. I want volunteers to fight the Apache Sierra Charriba. I need horse soldiers—men who can ride and men who can shoot. In return, I promise you nothing…saddle sores, short rations, maybe a bullet in your belly…free air to breathe, a fair share of tobacco, quarter pay…and my good will and best offices.—Major Amos Dundee
Since the mid-1950s, Sam Peckinpah had been writing and directing half-hour TV westerns such as The Rifleman and Gunsmoke. He also directed two low-budget feature films, The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962), with the latter receiving so many critical accolades that it turned into a sleeper hit. Those glowing reviews caught the attention of Hollywood bigwigs who started looking at Peckinpah as a promising new talent with potential.
In 1963, Paramount producer Jerry Bresler wanted to make a sprawling Western epic and give it a "road show" release: Limited Engagement Openings, Overture, Intermission, and about three hours of quality on-screen entertainment. Bresler had a 73-page treatment by Julian Fink titled "And Then Came the Tiger!" that he felt had all of the elements he was looking for. He asked Charlton Heston to read it, and Heston agreed to star only if they could find a director with authentic vision and a unique perspective of the Old West, someone who could develop the basic idea into "a richly textured screenplay," complex in character and theme. Bresler screened Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and Heston was hooked.
Peckinpah had proven himself a master at working within the restrictive half-hour TV format; and had imbued his two films with a genuine Western aura. But could he adapt, co-script, coordinate, and direct a sweeping $4.5 million epic? The gestation, shooting, and tragic pre-release tampering of the retitled Major Dundee is almost as exciting—and frustrating—as the film itself.
Sony's stunning new DVD release, Major Dundee: The Extended Version, fills us in on the backstory of this ill-fated production by providing copious extras and detailed commentary. Although it's not a "Director's Cut" per se, it does include about 13 minutes of footage that enhances characterization and fills in some of the plot holes that were left as the result of the studio's brutal butchering of Sam Peckinpah's underrated classic.
Facts of the Case
Having been discredited for inappropriate battlefield behavior during the Civil War, Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur) has been banished to a Union prison stockade in New Mexico, where he's been assigned the ego-deflating position of jailkeeper. When he learns that a family at the nearby Rostes Ranch has been massacred, and that a regiment of his soldiers was decimated trying to protect them, Dundee decides to retaliate.
He recruits a disreputable squad of thieves, cutthroats, and deserters to ride with him into Mexico and track down the Apache, led by their war chief Sierra Charriba. He assigns this disparate group the task of finding mounts and ammunition, going so far as to suggest another Union outpost as a source. Dundee stirs up racial tension when he calls into service seven black cavalrymen who are tired of cleaning stalls and are willing to stand beside a Union officer who fought for their freedom.
He also strikes a deal with Confederate Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris, A Man Called Horse), who convinces the rest of the Southern prisoners to join Dundee's campaign. Dundee and Tyreen had been friends at West Point, but chose different sides when the war broke out and resentment still festers between them.
As his small band of troops move deeper into Mexico, Dundee soon becomes embroiled in another battle with a massive army of French cavalrymen who are battling the Juaristas. They consider Dundee's presence a breach of international law. Dundee musters all of his military prowess to pursue the Apache and fight off the French at the same time. But is his ultimate goal to mete out justice by revenge or simply revel in self-glorification?
In his biography of Sam Peckinpah, If They Move…Kill 'Em, David Weddle notes that Peckinpah and co-screenwriter Oscar Saul "pored over an eleven-volume encyclopedia of the Civil War as well as a file full of notes by various philosophers on the nature and meaning of war." They found one quotation, written by Immanuel Kant, that inspired the primary implicit theme for Major Dundee.
"War requires no particular motive; it appears grafted onto human nature. It passes even for an act of greatness, to which the love of glory alone, without any other motive, impels."
The sparse but revelatory footage included in Major Dundee: The Extended Version turns Dundee's noble vendetta against Sierra Charriba into a self-aggrandizing attempt to earn himself a place in history. The "love of glory alone" is his sole impetus and he'll go to any lengths to secure that recognition and stature. In many ways, the film is much more of an intimate character study than an outright action spectacle
As Weddle and the other Peckinpah aficionados note on the commentary, Major Dundee was intended as both a stylistic homage to the classic westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, and an "all-out assault" on their romanticized themes of men drawn together for a common cause. Under the guise of such a "common cause," Major Dundee assembles his regiment of riffraff and ne'er-do-wells for personal gain. Dundee's troops believe in him and blindly follow orders without realizing that he's willing to sacrifice every last one of them in battle. Only his former friend and military equal, Captain Tyreen, is aware of, and challenges, Dundee's motives. "Amos, have you even stopped to think why they made you a jailer instead of a soldier?," he asks.
Dundee calls Tyreen "a would-be cavalier, an Irish potato farmer with a plumed hat, fighting for a white-columned plantation house you never had and never will." Dundee reminds Tyreen that he took soldiers to fight for the country while Tyreen betrayed it. But Tyreen counters with another jab at Dundee's ultimate strategy. "You're a man who took his kin to fight against their own brothers. Why?" They both know that it's Dundee's narcissistic ego.
Dundee's exaggerated opinion of himself apparent in several scenes, the most obvious being when, after a brief skirmish, he mounts a mule. The commentators note that Peckinpah meant to show that Dundee was stubborn, but, in fact, "looked like a jackass." I think it goes a bit further. Heston is a tall, well-built actor and presents an imposing figure astride a normal-sized horse. When Dundee climbs on the mule, he looks gigantic and believes he's making himself loom larger over his men. As he moseys through the campground, one soldier tumbles down a small incline in front of him. "Did you get hit, soldier?" "No, sir. One of them damn mules kicked me!" So, again, Dundee is showing absolute control over a particularly unpredictable animal. His intention is to generate more confidence among his troops as he plans to lead them through future "unpredictable" circumstances.
One of the best scenes in the film takes place at night when a Confederate soldier demands that the black cavalry man, Aesop (Brock Peters, The Pawnbroker), remove his boots. "You forget your manners, boy?" Dundee just watches, apparently intending to let the incident play itself out. But the Rev. Dahlstrom (R. G. Armstrong, The Ballad of Cable Hogue) intervenes, "Let me take care of that son." He grabs the soldier's leg and twists him over the campfire, then, by the seat of his pants, tosses him onto the other Confederates. The tension builds when Sgt. Chillum (Ben Johnson, Junior Bonner) pulls a gun. "You kick up a lot of dust with your sermon, Preacher." Sgt. Gomez (Mario Adorf, The Tin Drum) says, "You Southern trash better sit down!" With a mini-Civil War on the verge of breaking out, Dundee is content to stay on the sidelines; after all, breaking up this "squabble" will do nothing to enhance his calculated and ambitious ulterior motive. It's Captain Tyreen who steps in to quell the hostilities.
Tyreen goes a step further by personally commending Aesop on his handling of a river crossing earlier that day. It's a simple but noble move, and one made in front of his Confederates. Realizing that Tyreen is the better man and soldier, a somewhat chagrined Dundee tells him, "That gesture was necessary. I'm sorry it was so painful for you." Proving himself even more of a leader, Tyreen says, "Mr. Aesop is a fine soldier. It won't happen again." Tyreen, in fact, constantly reminds his Rebels that both he and they have sworn allegiance to Dundee for this mission and will follow the Major's orders.
When Confederate deserter O.W. Hadley (Warren Oates, Cockfighter) is captured and brought back to camp, Dundee instructs a soldier to knock him off his horse. "I don't want to have to look up at him." Hadley makes excuses and pleads for his life, but Dundee calls for an execution. "Have the men draw lots for a firing squad." Then he graciously adds, "The Confederates need not be included." While the men argue, Tyreen again takes control of the situation, by shooting Hadley himself.
Although he knows that almost any man under his command would stab him in the back at first opportunity, Major Dundee is also a provocateur, even toward his trusted scout, the one-armed Sam Potts (James Coburn, Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round). During an escalating knife fight with the Apache scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz, Who'll Stop The Rain), Dundee warns, "I think he's going to take you, Samuel. You know why? Because the artillery is betting on you. Did you know that Lt. Graham bet five dollars on you? Ever hear of an artilleryman winning a bet, a girl or a war?" "Who bet against me?" asks Potts. "Me." replies Dundee.
As an inspirational leader, Dundee is a self-deluded fraud. As a military official, he's incompetent, and as a character who should engage our sympathy, he's a total failure, blinded by his own megalomania and quest for historic recognition at any cost.
Peckinpah originally intended Major Dundee to be a Western counterpart to epics like Lawrence of Arabia in which introspective characterization would be on a par with spectacularly staged action set pieces. Peckinpah failed to strike that balance, resulting in a confused portrayal of Dundee and a lopsided depiction of events.
There was never a finished screenplay for Dundee and Peckinpah believed he could improvise his way through the crucial "third act." His inexperience turned into outright unprofessionalism early on, and this quickly became obvious to the studio heads when he squandered half of the original budget traveling through Mexico scouting out the proper locations for individual scenes.
Peckinpah was a perfectionist, but not a realist, and that was his downfall. Like Major Dundee, Peckinpah deluded himself into believing that if he could deliver a handful of great scenes, the studio would back off and continue to finance the production. He wasn't able to prove himself, and the film was finally taken out of his hands. But overall, Major Dundee: The Extended Version gives us a better idea of what Peckinpah had intended to be his first complex masterwork.
Although the script falters, the lead actors and supporting cast do not. Richard Harris delivers a riveting portrayal of Captain Tyreen. He manages to checkmate Charlton Heston's Dundee at every confrontation, both in character and performance, as the director intended. The commentators note that one of Peckinpah's frequent motifs was to have two characters represent opposite sides of the same personality. It's most evident in Ride the High Country, in which two former lawmen, way past their prime, must decide whether to accept what comes their way or take a stab at breaking the law to secure a financial future.
Harris's Captain Tyreen is everything Heston's Major Dundee is not; he's the flip side of the coin. Tyreen is decisive under pressure, contemplative, and anticipatory in his decisions, and, most importantly, he's earned the trust and respect of his soldiers. By the end of the film, both the Union troops and the scroungy squad of reprobates Dundee has mustered look toward Tyreen for leadership.
Tyreen is also a man of his word and he fights alongside Dundee as he had pledged. In an emotional finale, when a Union cavalryman carrying the Stars-and Stripes is killed, Tyreen retrieves the flag and passes it over to Dundee. These are not Tyreen's "colors" but, as a true gentleman and soldier, he maintains his loyalty to the end. Richard Harris is absolutely dynamic in this role and dominates every scene he's in.
James Coburn and the actors who would become Peckinpah regulars—Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L. Q. Jones, Strother Martin and Dub Taylor—all enhance an uncanny, realistic feel for the Old West that Peckinpah was striving for. Senta Berger is less effective in a brief romantic role, an interlude that almost seems out-of-place in the context of the film. As I understand it, her scenes were written in to ensure an overseas marketability.
Sony's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is near perfect. Two of the restored nighttime sequences are extremely dark and lack clear resolution, but, in general, the print looks in fine shape. It's a shame that Peckinpah was assigned his technical crew because the cinematography by Sam Leavitt (Anatomy Of A Murder) falls short of the work done by Peckinpah's cinematic soul mate, Lucien Ballard, who shot a half-dozen of his films, including Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Leavitt's blue skies and green trees look rather dull and commonplace in comparison.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack features a new score composed by Christopher Caliendo and it is an outstanding contribution to the Extended Version of the film. His score is subtle and somber and never overwhelms the dialogue. The original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof (The Virginian) is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. It's interesting to use your remote to switch between scores during key sequences, like battles, tense confrontations, and even a token love scene with Dundee and Teresa (Senta Berger, Cross of Iron. The commentators call Amfitheatrof's score "one of the worst ever written." It's abrasive and intruding and almost always sounds as if it's trying to upstage the visuals, while Caliendo's score fits in smoothly and complements every aspect of this extended version.
The informative commentary is by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, the group whose excellent insights also can be heard on Junior Bonner and The Osterman Weekend. At times, I felt they were overdoing their praise for Bonner but you won't find any of that here. They're surprisingly forthright in acknowledging the film's faults and Peckinpah's inexperience in helming an epic. They admit that, "There are a lot of puzzling choices he made in this movie." When not being scene specific, they go into detail about the film's ill-fated production, from budget cuts to Peckinpah's fights with Bresler and the studio. One surprising anecdote reveals that Heston once became so infuriated with the director he galloped toward him waving a saber. But when the studio threatened to replace the director, Heston told them he'd quit. He also reimbursed his salary when the film started going over-budget.
The other extras include Deleted and Extended Scenes and Silent Extended Outtakes that help fill out other areas of the story that could not be included in the restored footage. There is a fascinating 20-minute excerpt from Mike Siegel's documentary Passion & Poetry—The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah that focuses solely on Dundee. Riding for a Fall is interesting featurette about a few of the stunts in the film. Interviews with some of the actors reveal more about Peckinpah the man rather than the director. Senta Berger remembers her genuine concern over Peckinpah's infatuation with Begonia Palacios, the young Mexican actress who had a small role in the film. Several of the director's regulars seem intent on enhancing the "legend of Sam Peckinpah," citing dubious off-screen adventures.
Artwork, promotional stills, a promo reel excerpt, and trailers for both the original 1965 release and the 2005 re-release round out the Extras. It's really a terrific package, well thought out and smartly put together. A welcome surprise inside the keepcase is four-page booklet of liner notes titled "Peckinpah's Wounded Masterpiece" by Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant. I've provided a link to his incredibly detailed analysis of the film under Accomplices.
Major Dundee: The Extended Version is surely one of Sam Peckinpah's least recognized efforts, often overlooked and underrated because it doesn't carry his personal stamp. His other important films were pastoral and elegiac (Ride the High Country) and (Junior Bonner), tragicomic (The Ballad of Cable Hogue), or provocatively violent (The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs). After Dundee was ripped apart by the studio, Peckinpah basically disowned the film, and said he wouldn't even consider an offer to restore it.
Sony has done the best possible job of taking on that task. Although their keepcase advertising is slightly misleading—"at last presented as the legendary director intended!"—Major Dundee: The Extended Version is as close as we're going to get to Peckinpah's original vision.
Not guilty! Ride, Dundee, ride!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Peckinpah historians David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Nick Redman, and Paul Seydor
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