Major Dundee (The Extended Version) Review

Few directors ever understood the power of a mythic archetype better than Sam Peckinpah and it’s perhaps appropriate that his third film, Major Dundee, has itself become a mythic archetype, representing every film by every artist which was massacred by the men in suits. Its effect on Peckinpah’s career was such that for many years it was dismissed as a disaster – not least by the director himself who claimed that it was a masterpiece destroyed by an uncaring studio. The process of reconstruction and re-evaluation has led to Columbia’s new DVD which restores thirteen minutes to the film and goes some way to restoring its reputation. It’s still not a great film – far from it – but it has a power and intelligence which mark it out as the work of a remarkable talent and examines themes which Peckinpah would later return to in his fully achieved films such as The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia.

The plot has been called “Moby Dick on Horseback”. It concerns Major Amos Dundee (Heston), a soldier who has been punished for over-enthusiasm on the battlefield by being placed in charge of a New Mexico prison. When a family living near the prison are killed by Apache warrior Sierra Charriba, Dundee decides to put together a force of desperados to ride into Mexico and seek vengeance. He also persuades a sceptical Confederate soldier, Captain Tyreen (Harris), to join forces. But the task proves more difficult than expected, especially when a force of French cavalrymen decide to punish the Americans for their insolence.

As a portrait of America during the Civil War, Major Dundee seems a little superficial. But the central character, Major Dundee is a fine example of Peckinpah’s frequent ambivalence towards his heroes. We don’t quite know what to think of David Sumner in Straw Dogs or the self-romanticising, hopelessly lost Benny in Alfredo Garcia, and much the same is true of Dundee. Opinions differ as to what the director intended with this character. Some believe he’s meant to be like Captain Ahab, obsessively tracking his quarry no matter what the consequences to himself or his companions. Others, notably Glenn Erickson who has written eloquently about this film on several occasions, think that Peckinpah is constantly criticising the character and deliberately undercutting him in order to represent him as what Erickson calls the “chaotic side of American military ambition” – see here for his insightful comments on the film.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with this view however. I see Dundee as one of Peckinpah’s existential anti-heroes, imbued with what co-writer Oscar Saul described as ‘the death wish behind this whole Western myth.” He’s a man whose life is given meaning by the quest, the journey itself being far more significant than the object or the results. In the process, all moral and ethical considerations can be placed aside. But when he finds his goal, he seems somehow lost, dwarfed by the scars of personal ambition mingled with self-hatred that drove him in the first place. We seem directed by Peckinpah to question Dundee’s assumptions about himself but, at the same time, he is given the true charisma of insane obsession and he’s the most interesting character in the whole film. It may well be that he’s another of Peckinpah’s self-portraits; indeed, Peckinpah’s behaviour during the shooting of the film seems to have all but mirrored that of his central character. It seems to me that it’s too simplistic to suggest that Peckinpah wanted to just criticise Dundee. I think he both hates and loves the man, just as he hated and loved himself. We’re left with an anti-hero with whom we are forced to find our own accommodation and that’s something which happens time and again in Peckinpah’s work, from Cable Hogue to Sergeant Steiner. The problem is that the comparisons are detrimental to Major Dundee who is simply not as intricate a character study as would appear in later films. I should point out that Mr Erickson knows a hell of a lot more about the film than I do, so readers are directed to his piece for a cogently argued alternative view. I agree that the criticism is inherent in Peckinpah’s film but then it is in a lot of his films, co-existing with an ambivalence which refuses to be condemnatory.

The film is also interesting for a number of elements which prefigure Peckinpah’s later work and none more so than the dangerous incursion over the border into Mexico. For earlier directors of Westerns, Mexico was a romantic idyll to be sought. For Peckinpah, Mexico is a place of terror where the irrational violence inherent in the American experience is allowed free-reign. This is demonstrated in The Wild Bunch where the perverse amorality of Mapache becomes statute in the small township of Agua Verde. It culminates, unforgettably, in the Gothic horror of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia where Warren Oates as the piano player Benny finds himself in the middle of something resembling Dante’s Inferno. I don’t think that this vision is entirely achieved in Major Dundee but the scenes of slaughter when the French irregulars catch up with Dundee’s troops do have a primal charge of demented fury which demonstrates what Peckinpah can do with violence. His anger at Columbia’s cuts appears to have partially been based upon what the studio did to his vision of the senselessness of violence by cutting back the blood and gore to a level which, he felt, sanitised brutality and distanced the viewer from the visceral effects of the violent action. This was Peckinpah’s constant cri-de-couer about the violence in his films and he must have been disheartened at his reputation as ‘Bloody Sam’. While it’s true that his films are often distressingly violent, I don’t think he ever uses violence dishonestly, simply in order to heat up an otherwise mediocre piece of filmmaking, in the manner of a hack like Michael Winner. Peckinpah often gets lost within the moral quagmire of showing violence to tell us that violence is bad, but it is, I think, a totally sincere confusion. The kinetic bloodshed which Columbia evidently edited out of Major Dundee would, of course, come to full bloom in The Wild Bunch and make Peckinpah one of the best known and most controversial directors in the world.

What I think we have here, even in this partially restored version, is a fascinating film which never quite fulfils itself. Whether it would have done in the full Peckinpah ‘masterpiece’ is a moot point which we’re never likely to satisfactorily resolve. There are wonderful things here –animals picking the flesh off carcases, R.G.Armstrong’s terrifyingly self-righteous preacher riding through hell with a shotgun, the extraordinarily vivid battle in the river – but the film seems to drift along without a great deal of momentum and although Dundee himself is a wonderfully vivid character, played with conviction and plenty of colour by Charlton Heston (in his scuzzy Beneath the Planet of the Apes mode), the roles played by Richard Harris and Jim Hutton never come to life. Harris in particular seems completely out of place, speaking his dialogue as if he’d just come off a croquet lawn in the Home Counties. Thirty-odd years later, he would use this same quality to stunning effect in Unforgiven but it doesn’t work here. Fortunately, the supporting cast is full of actors who would become parts of the Peckinpah universe and they are all on top form – James Coburn (on attractively relaxed form), Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones. Talk about a dream cast - if I had to choose a group of actors to appear in the film of my life story, that’s pretty much who I’d pick. There are few women’s roles of any great importance, barring Senta Berger who doesn’t bring much to the party. This is another thing which would become a standing criticism of Peckinpah’s films – once again unfair, as a look at the performances of Ida Lupino in Junior Bonner, Stella Stevens in Cable Hogue and Susan George in Straw Dogs will quickly confirm. The most commonly stated criticism of the Columbia release cut of the film – the appalling music score – has been perhaps overstated because it was imposed on the film and then poured all over it. The new score by Christopher Caliendo isn’t really much of an improvement in my view. It’s too insistent and there’s no room for any subtlety. If anything were needed to demonstrate how important Jerry Fielding was to Sam Peckinpah, then this is all that could possibly be required.

It would be unfair to judge the technical side of the film too harshly. Peckinpah wasn’t given a chance to complete it – he was denied access to Columbia studios in September 1964 – so it’s not fair to blame some of the editing problems on him. What is a little bizarre, however, is the visual blandness of the film. This can partially be blamed upon the DP Sam Leavitt but Peckinpah needs to be blamed for not caring more about the lighting and framing. This is not a consistent lack as some of the widescreen shots during the opening demonstrate. The stories from the set suggests that he was so driven by the Mexican locations that he shot and shot and shot without much discrimination – and it was this which first led producer Jerry Bresler to suspect something was seriously awry. In a sense, he was right and Peckinpah needed someone to gently restrain him into some kind of focus. But Bresler was, allegedly, a worrier and according to David Weddle, he pissed off Columbia so much with his nagging that they eventually got the message and did something about it. Bresler went too far, failing to support his director against the studio as he should have done. If we were to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, then think about his position. There was no real reason why he should have given Peckinpah special treatment at this stage – this was a young director with only one film of any real quality behind him. Peckinpah’s tendency to do what he liked and saying “fuck the moneymen” was a typical piece of self-destruction. But he needed support and informed advice. He needed a crew who would work with him rather than a group of resentful journeymen who were being whipped. All Bresler seems to have offered is panic and double-dealing. The more his producer and the studio interfered, the more ornery Sam became and the result was a kind of mutual destruction. Peckinpah’s career stalled after whispering began about him being out of control and Major Dundee didn’t get anywhere at the box office.

The Disc

First thing to say is that this is not a ‘Director’s Cut’ of Major Dundee. It is, if anything, the ‘Producer’s Cut’ and represents the film as Jerry Bresler left it before Columbia cut it again. It has been painstakingly restored and represents a really major restoration accomplishment. I have reservations about the new score (as I indicated above) but that takes nothing away from the achievement.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a pleasure to watch. It’s not perfect by any means – it’s plagued by artifacting here and there and the day-for-night scenes simply look odd. But the colours are as rich and vivid as they ever have been and there’s plenty of detail to savour. All in all, Columbia should be very proud of their work here.

The two soundtracks are also impressive. You can either watch the film in Mono with its original Daniele Amfitheatrof music score – pretty horrible – or with the new Christopher Caliendo score in Dolby Digital 5.1. Both tracks are well transferred and which one you prefer may well depend on which music track you like better.

The main extra feature in a fairly generous selection is a commentary track from the ‘Peckinpah Posse’ – Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. This is fascinating throughout. None of the men seem particularly keen on the film but they certainly know plenty about Sam Peckinpah and there’s always some insight to keep you interested.

Although this commentary is a delight, the most entertaining extra feature is a twenty minute excerpt from Mike Siegel’s documentary Passion and Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah. I haven’t seen the full work but if it’s even half as good as this then we’ve got a strong contender for the best documentary ever made about the movies. We get wonderful interview footage from Gordon Dawson, James Coburn (“Sam was a genius for three hours a day”), R.G. Armstrong, Senta Berger and L.Q Jones, some remarkable behind-the-scenes stills and even a sound clip of Peckinpah talking about his audience. There’s also a nostalgic return to the Mexican locations. All concerned are affectionate about Peckinpah without deifying him and there’s some fascinating insight into the battles on-set between Harris, Heston and Sam. The fundamental message of this paragraph is simple - Please Please Please can we have the full documentary on DVD sooner rather than later?

The rest of the extras will probably be of more interest to Peckinpah freaks than casual viewers – needless to say, I count myself in the former group. “Riding For a Fall” is a seven minute 1965 featurette about the stunt work in the film. Interestingly, this is available in both a good black and white version and a poor but fascinating colour version., the latter taken from a faded 8MM print. Call me sentimental but there’s something almost overwhelmingly moving about seeing this and I can’t explain why. We also get an incomplete deleted scene of a knife fight and an extended version of a not particularly interesting scene between Dundee and Teresa. There are also some silent extended outtakes, one of which is the master shot of the magnificent vista over which the credits were inserted. The ‘trailer artwork outtakes’ are bizarre and unwelcome. There are two trailers included, one for the 2005 restoration (which, as DVD Savant indicates in the piece I linked to above, is highly misleading) and a dated but rather charming original trailer from 1965. Finally, an exhibitor promo reel excerpt is included – interesting for suggesting how Columbia tried to package the film – and we also get a gallery of promotional artwork.

The film has optional subtitles but none of the extra features do.
Major Dundee, for all its flaws, is a fascinating film and essential viewing in this new, somewhat restored version. It's perhaps true that the story of the making of the film - Chuck Heston on horseback attacking Peckinpah with a saber and all - might be more inreresting than the film itself but that's another matter. The DVD is well presented and certainly well worth your time.

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