Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

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.

The production was, as they say, difficult. Working far from Hollywood, on locations in Durango, Mexico—a nation that more and more would become Peckinpah’s spiritual home—the director pushed himself, his cast and his crew hard. He also found himself making a $4.5-million picture that eventually turned into a $3-million picture, with no money to shoot several sequences key to the meaning and rhythm of the film. The last footage Peckinpah did get to shoot was paid for out of Heston’s salary, which the actor sacrificed to the cause despite growing apprehensiveness about his director’s stability. In the end, Peckinpah turned in a two-hour-and-40-minute cut that would be reduced several times during a contentious preview process, with the film finally going into release at just over two hours running time.

I saw Major Dundee in 1965. There was no question it was a mutilated film. Voiceover narration, ostensibly read from a soldier’s journal, filled in a lot of exposition and attempted to supply a sense of dramatic development (“We were becoming a command again…”) to which the ragged progression of scenes was not equal. Several scenes began so abruptly that it was clear we were missing transitional material. One hilltop view of an Apache chieftain—Sierra Charriba (Australian actor Michael Pate), whose murderous raids would lead Dundee to pursue him into Mexico—was cut into the narrative twice: two moments months and miles apart, same shot.

Yet there was, of course, much that was magnificent, deeply personal and flamboyantly original. The thrilling sense of bleakly beautiful landscape and how men, on or off horseback, moved through it. The weird visual music made by asymmetrical widescreen compositions and some almost hallucinatory editing (a new kind of continuity, as opposed to cutting desperately around narrative lacunae). Harris giving one of his few disciplined, effectively florid performances. The quiet equanimity of James Coburn’s one-armed scout, and the way Dundee turned a scene around just by pronouncing his name (“Sam Potts!”). The rich, colorful human tapestry, teeming with such Peckinpah regulars as Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Davis Chandler (three of the Hammond brothers from Ride the High Country), Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, Slim Pickens. And sudden, shocking explosions of blood—something rarely if ever seen in American films before—to testify to the horror and the hideous ecstasy of combat. Peckinpah was trying to get to somewhere new in action filmmaking; the film ached with aspiration, yet in the circumstances couldn’t help falling short of achievement.

Well, you know the rest of the story, in shorthand anyway. Major Dundee bombed and Sam Peckinpah became more or less unemployable. He worked his way back via TV (notably a masterly adaptation of Noon Wine with Jason Robards and Per Oscarsson) and returned, four years later, with The Wild Bunch. The Wild Bunch, too, was soon mutilated, a week or so after its initial release; but it was a masterpiece, and people had seen it, and eventually the stuff they cut was put back. And now we knew where Peckinpah had been trying to get to. It was awesome, in every sense of the word, and Major Dundee, as a groping endeavor and as a horrific professional experience, was essential to his getting-there.

Now Columbia Pictures is releasing “an extended version” of Major Dundee, 12 minutes longer than what we saw in 1965. Essentially, it’s the preview cut that preceded the last of the mutilations. Some of the gaps have been filled (most tellingly, in Dundee’s dark-night-of-the-soul recuperation from wounds in Durango), a few details restored that lend greater depth to the characterizations. It’s good that no one is trying to call this “the director’s cut.” The movie is, in some ways, more obviously a mess than ever (and that crude, phony-looking hilltop shot of Sierra Charriba is still in there, twice). Peckinpah loyalists will want to see it, of course, and anyone capable of appreciating flawed but distinctive work should. But there’s no getting back that other 20 minutes or so of footage, or the scenes that were never shot at all.

One more thing: The Major Dundee we knew for 40 years had a music score by Daniele Amfitheatrof and a recurring title song performed by (yes) Mitch Miller and the Sing-Along Gang. It’s gone, replaced by a new, hastily composed and quite nerveless score. I don’t doubt that Sam Peckinpah loathed the music imposed on him as an effort to pep up his hard-bitten movie and make it more salable (it’s nothing like the scores he later commissioned from the gifted Jerry Fielding). But for better or worse, that music was part of Major Dundee, and trying to wish it away is wrong.

© 2005 Richard T. Jameson