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Major Dundee

The Beautiful and the Damned: Major Dundee

Sam Peckinpah’s much-messed-with 1965 film Major Dundee has just come out on Blu-ray from the boutique label Twilight Time. The two-disc set features both the 2005 reissue based on a preview version of the movie and the version released theatrically 48 years ago. Both are worth having, as the following Queen Anne & Magnolia News article from 2005 suggests. – RTJ

[Originally published in the Queen Anne News, April 11, 2005]

Sam Peckinpah was one of our great modern filmmakers, but for many his name summons up such a fearsome Hollywood legend, of blighted career, outrageous excess and epic self-destructiveness, that remembering the great films becomes secondary.

Richard Harris and Charlton Heston keep the flag aloft
Richard Harris and Charlton Heston keep the flag aloft

The legend began to lock into place with his third feature film, the 1965 Major Dundee—though it’s worth noting that even his universally admired second film, the elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), was nearly thrown away by its parent studio, only to be hailed as “the best American film of the year” by Newsweek magazine. Ride the High Country was a small film—a program picture, really—featuring two over-the-hill cowboy stars (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott). Major Dundee would be, by mid-’60s terms, an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was also to be a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War–era frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what we would come to know as the Vietnam era.

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Men on a Mission

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.

Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.

While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.

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Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.

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Sam Peckinpah: Introduction to Film Comment Midsection (1981)

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

Where is Sam Peckinpah these days? Surrounded by family in Sausalito, or perhaps Mexico? Chumming it with the Montana Bloomsbury Group? Holed up in the cabin he built four or five miles from Warren Oates’ place, putting the final polish on the final draft of the screenplay that may become The Texan with Lee Marvin? All of the above are good bets, but I hope something like the last one is true, at least part of the time. There hasn’t been a new Sam Peckinpah movie in going-on-three-years, and that’s far too long to suit me.

Sam Peckinpah watches on
Sam Peckinpah with Steve McQueen

There are, to be sure, people it would suit right down to the ground if Peckinpah never made another film. Some of them are critics and columnists who have written him off as an irrelevance, a failed prodigy whose intransigent individuality ultimately proved unproductive (“out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time”). Some are feminists, Marxists, people who get so mad about movie violence that they want to break something, others who have taken aesthetic, political, or philosophical objection to Peckinpah’s work. And some, unfortunately, are people who have the power to decide who is or is not bankable—the kind of people whose company Peckinpah has had to avoid since acquiring a pacemaker a year or so back.

For all of these, and for an undeterminable but probably hefty portion of the potential movie audience, Sam Peckinpah and his films have less meaningfully operative reality than “Sam Peckinpah,” a pop socioaesthetic entity that can be bandied about as casually and as destructively as, say, “Walt Disney” or “John Wayne.” “Sam Peckinpah” is cinematic bloodbaths, brute machismo, violence and destruction lovingly prolonged by slow motion, women as sex objects (preferably for raping and punching out), and, for brevity and all-purpose inclusiveness, fascism. These form a template that can be applied to any forthcoming Peckinpah movie (by Peckinpah-baiters and, sadly, by some Peckinpah admirers, who figure bloodbaths, machismo, violence, rape, etc. are perfectly groovy): what comes through is only what’s allowed to come through. Even worse, “Sam Peckinpah” makes the actual experience of Sam Peckinpah movies superfluous. More than a few times, I’ve challenged users of the label only to learn that they’d never seen many, or any, of the films—just heard about “Sam Peckinpah” and bought the concept for conversational convenience. It sees them through most of the best parties.

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“A privilege to work in films”: Sam Peckinpah among friends

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Sam Peckinpah visited Seattle for several days in July, 1978, under the joint auspices of the Seattle Film Society and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On the evening of July 19 he appeared at the Seattle Concert Theatre to talk with an audience that had just seen, and warmly responded to, his comedy-western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The following is a slightly edited transcript (from a tape made by Ray Pierre) of that dialogue. For fluency of reading we have kept the [Laughter] notations to a minimum, but the fact is that laughter punctuated the discussion with considerable frequency. -Ed.

[Questions, in italics, were mostly from members of the audience. Richard T. Jameson was moderator.]

Cable Hogue, even though Cable died at the end, was a very upbeat film, which is different from all the other [Peckinpah] films that I’ve seen. Was there a reason that in 1970 or ’69 you made a movie that does not—to me, at any rate—fit very easily with all the rest of your work?

I think it fits very well. I should mention one thing that seems to confuse people: I’ve made three, or maybe I could say four, films that were my own projects; the rest I have done because that was the job that was offered. I don’t really pick and choose. On Cable, Warren [Oates] had given me the property to read, I liked it, I bought it on time, I tried to get together with Van Heflin to make for around $700,000, could not do it. And Ken Hyman was the president of Warner Brothers at that time, loved The Wild Bunch, and I conned him into tying Cable Hogue into it because I wanted to make the film. And that’s it.

I have a question about The Wild Bunch. The first print that was shown in Seattle lasted about seven days. Then it was changed, another print was substituted. Some things were cut, deleted, mainly to conform with some criticisms that Time had about the movie. Who was responsible for the cuts?

Well, Time magazine was not responsible. It was … I was cutting Cable at the time. I got a call from [producer Phil] Feldman; he said they wanted to try it out in one theater—a shorter version. I said “Fine—in one theater.” Next thing I knew, it had been cut to pieces all over the country. So you can thank Mr. Feldman for doing it. And a man named Weintraub, who also was very active at Warner Brothers at the time.

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