I recall so well the braggadocios accolades that accompanied the 2005 ‘restoration’ of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965); the much maligned western drama unceremoniously dumped on the market where it instantly became something of a colossal flop. Peckinpah had run into opposition from Columbia – the studio footing the bills – and non-compliance from his producer Jerry Bresler (a yes man for the front office). But in 2005, some seventeen years after Peckingpah’s death, critics like Boston’s Chris Fujwara and The Washington Post’s Steven Hunter were falling all over themselves with superlatives extolling the restored version as “magnificent…a unique piece of threatening…alcoholic cinema” with “high-end adult” themes and “a better grade of savagery” carrying with it the ballast of “actual ideas…back in all the fractured glory and confidence.”
I would just like to go on record as saying that the only thing “fractured” herein is the movie – either in its theatrical or restored cut – the latter an approximation of what Peckinpah might have hoped for had his own steady hand been on the moviola. Yet I cannot even lay as much claim or faith in Peckinpah’s personal aspirations for Major Dundee – having begun it, as he did, without a finished script and basically shooting with only a very fragmented vision of the end result bouncing around in his head. In hindsight, Peckinpah’ unwillingness to revisit the film years later seems to attest to his own painful divorce from this artistic implosion of ‘high-end savagery’ – a film that doubtless Peckinpah found nearly impossible to reappraise honestly without nursing a very large bottle of scotch.
Peckinpah had initially assigned the script writing duties to Harry Julian Fink – a middling writer at best who had been more prolific in television than movies. Dissatisfied with Fink’s prose – for, at 163 pages they did tend to ramble on…and on – Peckinpah undertook to edit down the material himself with assistance from Oscar Saul – by no means a heavy hitter, but with more movie credits to his name. Yet the results of all this perpetual tinkering seem to have given way to the old adage of “too many cooks spoiling the broth”. While Peckinpah had ambitions to create a sweeping epic masterpiece in the western genre, comparable to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962 – and Peckinpah’s favorite movie), what he ultimately succeeded in resurrecting was the modest Monogram B-programmer with an A-list roster and production values that nearly sank the studio.
Major Dundee is an intimate western drama. Yet, in casting Charlton Heston as his title character Peckinpah all but diffuses the ill-fated chimerical saga into one where its larger-than-life protagonist is unable to part the wilderness and lead his people onward without sacrificing his own powers as a major star. Heston championed Peckinpah’s vision for the movie when no one else seemed even mildly interested in making the movie. But he was to regret this decision when the director embarked upon his own irascible odyssey for perfection. Heston’s towering performance – however subtly nuanced – is nevertheless working against type. Not that Heston ever played a steely-eyed bastard before. In fact, he had, convincingly for William Wyler, and in another western, The Big Country (1958).
But Charlton Heston and Maj. Amos Charles Dundee just don’t seem to go together. Heston gives a very credible performance, only the starch in those army britches is just too stiff; the character never evolving beyond a very cold-hearted martinet who briefly loses himself in the arms of a Hispanic prostitute (Aurora Clavell); and this after having already seduced the top-heavy Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger) during an afternoon swim. The inability of the screenplay to give us even an ounce of sympathy for this cruel taskmaster and Heston’s unapologetic adherence to the character as written yields a characterization dangerously close to becoming the villain of the piece. Indeed, by the last act the audience is more apt to root for the doomed southern Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) – who meets with a vicious, if heroic fate – than the unrepentant Dundee, still willing to sacrifice every last man in his detail to save his own face by apprehending the blood-thirsty Apache marauder, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate).
Harris’ performance is the standout in the film – full of contempt for Dundee’s methods but not without more than a modicum of self-loathing that challenges the audience to dig a bit deeper into his motivations and ultimately come to respect Tyreen’s sacrifice. The others in the cast, Jim Hutton as the regimented Lieutenant Graham, Michael Anderson Jr. as bugler Tim Ryan (on whose surviving diaries the film’s narrative is supposedly based), and particularly James Coburn’s masterful rendering of the one-armed native guide, Samuel Potts – these offer the briefest of reprieves and escape from Dundee’s thriving oppressions. But in the end, they’re not enough to make us forget what a terrific monument to the damned Dundee is; a polarizing force who maintains the flimsiest tyrannical control over his men using nothing greater than the art of intimidation to keep them resentful, but also, regrettably, in line.
Adding to Peckinpah’s woes, Columbia chose to slash the film’s budget by a million and cut his shooting schedule down by fifteen days, just two days before principal photography was about to begin. Peckinpah’s ability to work under such conditions bears out his commitment – not simply to the actors or the film – but to will a finished product more finely wrought than the average fair of its day, yet painfully out of step with what the paying public wanted to see. The other great sin foisted upon the production, after Columbia executives decided to oust Peckinpah from the director’s chair and recut the movie themselves, is its jaunty Daniele Amfiteatrof score – full of rousing marches and other rambunctious orchestrations better suited for a Mexican fiesta on Olivera Street than the somber depiction of one man’s spiral into a kind of self-imposed purgatory. For the 2005 ‘restoration’ a new score was commissioned from Christopher Caliendo, more in keeping with Peckinpah’s vision for the film.
Yet that vision remains myopic at best – the story hardly improved by the added 14 minutes of ‘lost’ footage reinstated into the film. There’s simply more to consider and – unfortunately – less to admire. Howard Kunin, William A. Lyon and Donald W. Starling’s editing retreats into a series of visually overlapping montages. We are exposed to Sam Leavitt’s breathtaking cinematography; the sprawling Mexican landscapes imperfectly cut down into snippets awkwardly running into each other like jigsaw puzzle pieces that don’t fit but are being forcibly made to give the appearance of a perfect interlock.
The story, such as it is, involves Union cavalry officer Major Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston); mildly disgraced at the Battle of Gettysburg and relegated to the wilds of New Mexico where he micro-manages a prisoner of war camp. Prior to the main title sequence we witness the blood-thirsty Apache leader, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his men massacre a small village of ranchers – men, women and female children – as well as Union cavalry sent there to protect them. Hence, when Dundee arrives with guide Samuel Potts (James Coburn) he is committed to digging a mass grave. Upon returning to the camp Dundee decides to enlist as many of his prisoners for a special detail to hunt down Charriba. But Dundee’s motives are hardly altruistic or even in service of achieving justice for the fallen. Instead, his is an enterprising plan to rebuild his own tarnished reputation as a great military man and hopefully to elevate the army’s opinion of him from these currently abysmal circumstances.
Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) is hardly fooled by Dundee. Yet he remains chivalrous to a fault. Tyreen’s innate hatred of Dundee stems from an incident before the war when the Major cast his deciding vote in Tyreen's court-martial from the U.S. Army for participating in a duel. In the theatrical cut our first encounter with Tyreen occurs after Dundee has already returned to base camp. He admonishes Tyreen’s refusal – and that of his fellow Confederates - to enlist in the cause of murdering Charriba. In the extended cut we meet Tyreen and these men as they strike a guard in their feeble escape attempt. Apprehended by Dundee and brought back in chains Tyreen and his men are informed that the guard they meant to merely wound has died of his injuries. Having been told by Tyreen that he would rather hang than serve, Dundee accepts Tyreen’s terms and begins to build his gallows. This stalemate is eventually broken by Tyreen, who physically assaults Dundee while still in chains and confers on him the terms for his complicity in the plot. Tyreen and his men will hunt until the last Apache is dead, but with the understanding of a full pardon awaiting them at the other end.
Although Dundee never actually agrees to these conditions he does not outwardly reject them either. Tyreen also promises that when the war against the Apache has ended his own private war against Dundee will result in the Major’s execution. Begrudgingly valued for his soldiering, as well as his gumption, a weird détente occurs between Dundee and Tyreen – tenuous at best, and infrequently threatening to break under pressure. Still, when push comes to shove, both men represent a united front that adheres to the mark of valor ascribed true military men. This is one of the oddities of the screenplay, for Tyreen repeatedly tells Dundee that he has no country after the civil war and seemingly zero loyalties to the newly formed United States of America.
The strained alliance between the men is divided along lines of class – cavalry vs. prisoners – further splintered by ‘north vs. south’ and ‘colored vs. white’. When these factions are not busy warring with each other they infrequently engage the Apache in several disastrous battles that brutalize the men and inflict many casualties. Charriba and his posse retreat to Mexico, garrisoned by French troops loyal to Emperor Maximilian. Knowing that to cross the border means a direct confrontation, Dundee nevertheless orders his men across the Rio Grande, into a small impoverished town overseen by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger) whose husband was executed for supporting Benito Juárez’s rebels.
In a previous altercation with Charriba, Dundee lost most of his garrisons’ supplies – badly needed foodstuffs he was hoping to recoup in the village. Instead, Dundee shares what little remains with the impoverished villagers, allowing French forces to escape for backup. When these do indeed return to the village Dundee ambushes them by night, taking his lion’s share of badly-needed supplies. Although Tyreen is cordial to Teresa, it is Dundee who conquers her heart – albeit very briefly. In an unguarded moment Dundee is wounded in the leg by Charriba’s arrow and forced to hold up in the French-occupied village of Durango – presumably for weeks – while Tyreen moves the men onward in search of this Apache viper. Losing himself in drink and self-pity, Dundee is discovered in the arms of a Spanish prostitute Melinche (Aurora Clavell) by Teresa who abruptly ends their vacuous affair, telling Dundee that for some men “the war will never be over.”
Capt. Tyreen returns with boastful swagger, challenging and humiliating Dundee in order to shake him loose of his inner regrets. A reformed Dundee returns to his men, feigning a sudden loss of desire to apprehend Charriba. The Apache leader falls for the rouse and plans his final attack, determined to murder Dundee and his men. Affectingly, Charriba’s arrival is met with a clever ambush instead. Bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) – who has ‘become a man’ by losing his virginity to a Spanish girl - fires the fatal shot that puts a period to Charriba’s reign of terror. Their mission completed, Dundee and his men are outflanked by the French at the Rio Grande, making repeated valiant charges to cross it but incurring massive casualties, including Tyreen – who, wounded but still bitter, defies death to delay a second detachment of French cavalry single-handedly. Dundee and his fragmented forces cross the river and head for home.
In either its extended or truncated form Major Dundee remains a curious flop; its’ ascribed epic quality useful perhaps only to describe the way the film persistently misfires at every conceivable turn and on practically every artistic level; and this, despite Peckinpah’s rather obvious attempts to will a silk purse from its sow’s ear. The strangeness of this artistic implosion is that Major Dundee never catches even the tail fire from some weighty performers giving it their all, coupled with its vistas and straggly landscapes meticulously lensed by Sam Leavitt, but rendered muddy and dull in Pathe’s flawed Eastman color process. These invoke world-weariness all too readily apparent in Heston’s mellifluous performance as the dower Dundee, but regrettably do not equate to, foreshadow or even infer a looming sense of foreboding and grand tragedy that Peckinpah hoped for. The…uh…romance between Teresa and Dundee is more dulcet than juicy and all but eclipsed by another - the fiery bro-mance between Tyreen and Dundee; two men who clearly share more than a mutual admiration beneath their outward derision of one another.
I’ve set aside my own admiration for Peckinpah herein; a film maker elsewhere revered. But in all honesty, Peckinpah has made it all too easy for me to disregard and dislike Major Dundee. The flaw is not entirely his to bear. But in the final analysis, Major Dundee is little more than a major blunder; resurrected to prominence by its renewed resurgence on home video, though not to any greater level of artistic poignancy that one would have anticipated. I dislike being overly critical of movies in general. Even the bad one’s take time and ingenuity to make. But Major Dundee is a movie that had a lot going for it at the start. That all its attributes combined come to more gumbo than glory left me feeling cheated from my viewing experience.
And I watched it twice – first, in its newly restored director’s cut, then again in its original theatrical cut. I will say this; for me at least, the extended version just seemed like too much of a bad thing – the prolonged scenes never enhancing my understanding of the story. The pacing of the theatrical cut played much more ‘clean’ in its narrative approach and to the point, at least, in my opinion. Regrettably, the essential tension is all but ruined in the theatrical cut by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s brutally buoyant underscore, laughingly making some of the visuals play like a badly blunted operetta rather than a western epic. Christopher Caliendo’s 2005 score parallels and punctuates the action far more astutely.
Major Dundee has been released by Sony exclusively through Twilight Time/Screen Archives. We’ve been given the rare opportunity to watch both cuts, each on a separate disc with varying extra features. The 1080p image has been consistently rendered, illustrating the shortcomings of Pathe Eastman color film stocks. The image is very thick. Blue skies flicker purplish/brown. I also have to say that the sequences shot at night are much too dark – particularly in the extended cut. Our introduction to Tyreen, being captured in his attempted escape from the camp is a sea of blackness from which only Richard Harris’ wan face occasionally emerges from the murkiness as a disembodied head.
Flesh tones are more ruddy orange, though infrequently they look fairly accurate. Grain has been accurately reproduced. Again, the Eastman stock translates most of the outdoor landscapes into an indistinguishable brownish earthy tone. Trees are muddy grayish green rather than vibrant. Blue skies tend to appear washed out. These are not – repeat – not a flaw in the mastering process. Sony has done their utmost to preserve the original look of the film. The audio on both cuts is 5.1 DTS but sounds infinitely more refined on the 2005 extended cut – perhaps because effects and dialogue had to be remixed with the newly recorded Caliendo underscore.
Extras are somewhat satisfying. We get both scores on an isolated track. On the extended cut we also get an audio commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. There’s also a litany of extended outtakes and deleted scenes, the original trailer and its 2005 reissue, plus an exhibitor’s reel. Overall, I like what Sony and Twilight Time have done on this title. I just wish the material they had to work with – namely, the film – was more deserving of their hard efforts. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)