The Film: 4/5
As American is engaged in the Civil War, disgraced Union Calvary officer Major Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston) - currently spending a once illustrious career in the military overseeing a prison stockade in New Mexico - is assembling an army to go into Mexico and capture or kill Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), the vicious Apache war chief who initiated the brutal slaughter of a rancher family and a relief Calvary column. For this unsanctioned and illegal mission Dundee recruits soldiers both black and white, mercenaries, and even some Confederate prisoners of war led by the major's former friend and comrade Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). Dundee and Tyreen have had bad blood between them since the major cast the deciding vote that resulted in the captain's court-martial from the Union Army, but Dundee needs his old pal to convince the other Confederates into joining the hunt and serving under his command without question. The journey gets underway and soon runs into trouble as Dundee and his men are ambushed by the Apaches, losing them most of their supplies and compelling a raid on a village held by French soldiers loyal to Mexico. As Sierra Charriba draws near Dundee's rag tag gang of honorable men and scurrilous mountebanks must set aside their racial and national differences if they are to defeat the Apache chief, while the uneasy alliance between Dundee and Tyreen threatens to collapse into violence and betrayal when they both fall in love with beautiful widow Teresa (Senta Berger).
I'm going to start this review by getting one undeniable fact out the way first: Major Dundee is not a lost masterpiece. No version of it ever released could serve as anything more than a stepping stone a future master filmmaker had to traverse on the march to a directing career unparalleled in cinema history. The production of Dundee was a disastrous experience for all involved, especially director Sam Peckinpah and his iconic leading man Charlton Heston. Both men, along with producer Jerry Bresler and financing studio Columbia Pictures, envisioned the film as an epic historical adventure in the tradition of David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. It was to be Peckinpah's biggest movie as a director yet.
Prior to Dundee the notorious firebrand filmmaker was an accomplished television director who had earned many well-deserved accolades for his wistful and affectionate MGM western Ride the High Country. Columbia had a script treatment by Harry Julian Fink called And Then Came the Tiger that was based on true events but structured very much like a traditional action-packed western. Peckinpah read the treatment and saw in the story of Amos Charles Dundee and his violent quest for retribution against the Apaches the makings of something infinitely more than what the studio wanted. Major Dundee was to be the first movie the director ever made in the country that would serve as the central location for many of his future classics and in the process become a second home to him: Mexico. He rewrote the script to better suit his vision, drawing inspiration most likely from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and assembled a cast consisting of established stars, young up-and-comers, and more than a few of the grizzled character actors who would become part of his celebrated repertory company. Armed with several million dollars of Columbia's cash Peckinpah and his vast team of actors, craftsmen, and technicians began their own Dundee-like journey through the Mexican landscape, seeking out the ultimate prize of being a part of movie history. They achieved their goal in the end, not in the way they had anticipated.
Superstar Heston was no stranger to giving his full and unquestioned support to challenging filmmakers perennially at odds with the studio hierarchy; depending on which story you believe, it was Heston's idea to hire Orson Welles to direct Touch of Evil when the filmmaker who almost torpedoed his promising career just as soon as it had began over the controversy surrounding his 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane had signed on to only play the film's heavy. But showing the same encouragement to the talented but relatively untested Peckinpah did not reap similar results. The young director was soon at odds with his star, the studio, and anyone else who dared condescend to his authority on the set. Heston was so incensed by Peckinpah's behavior that at one point while on horseback he turned and charged his director with saber in hand. It wasn't the mighty Charlton's intention to kill or maim "Bloody Sam" in any way, but it sure scared the holy hell out of the guy. Every major player on the film had conflicting ideas of how they saw Major Dundee shaping up to be. Columbia desperately wanted another smash epic hit while Bresler wanted to make it a three hour roadshow attraction; Heston wanted to play a complex but in due course noble professional soldier as Peckinpah was secretly planning to subvert his supportive star's image as the stoic face of American exceptionalism on the silver screen by reshaping the narrative to make Dundee more of an obsessive character modeled on Melville's Ahab, and perhaps even T.L. Lawrence. The rest of the cast and crew just wanted to work and get paid when all was said and done.
Peckinpah returned from Mexico with nearly five hours of usable footage, which was later pared down to 156 minutes. His director's cut was said to have contained the kind of graphically violent, slow-motion battle scenes that would memorably make their way into The Wild Bunch three years later. The filmmaker was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's use of the technique in his masterpiece The Seven Samurai, but the studio demanded that nearly every trace of potentially offensive violent content be removed from the movie. Major Dundee was edited to 136 minutes and previewed at that length, after which Columbia execs ordered at least 13 more minutes be cut. An inappropriately whimsical score composed by Daniele Amfitheatrof and a inane ditty performed by Mitch Miller and His Sing-Along Gang called "The Major Dundee March" were both added to the released version over Peckinpah's stern objections. At 156 minutes the director had a potential masterpiece on his hands; at 136 minutes, he had maybe not a modern classic but close; but at 123 minutes Major Dundee was a downright tragedy, a shapeless, hollow shell of the great film it could have been. The movie flopped at the box office and Peckinpah had to crawl on his belly back to television for the next two years to rebuild his reputation before another studio would chance allowing him to make a picture for them. For the next four decades the heavily compromised cut of Dundee was the only version in circulation, and it appeared that any version that more accurately reflected the intentions of its director was most likely buried deep in a studio vault and forgotten forever.
Both those things turned out to be true but in 2005 the 136-minute sneak preview cut of Major Dundee was rescued from Sony Pictures' archives, fully restored with remastered picture and remixed soundtrack, and sent out to select theaters around the country for a limited engagement. The Extended Version was released to DVD later that same year and the consensus was that it was a much better film than the one that first played in theaters in 1965. The added scenes contained some vital character development, repaired plot holes created by the endless cuts demanded by Columbia, and turned what had been an ordinary Civil War-era western into a darker, brawnier, and more multifaceted film closer to the epic Peckinpah had in mind from the moment he completed reading Fink's original treatment. The DNA of his future action masterworks like The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was made more apparent than when the studio initially tried removing every trace of what made Peckinpah's films so unique and entertaining.
Late last year I came across a used copy of the 2005 DVD copy in a local video store and gave it a watch. Since it only cost me less than half of the current going price for a matinee movie ticket I figured that even if I ended up hating the movie's guts it still would have been a worthwhile investment. Well I didn't hate it, and in fact I found myself quite enjoying the film. It couldn't approach the greatness of his latest works neither did it belong lumped in with flicks like The Killer Elite and Convoy which the director made only because cocaine is indeed a hell of a drug. Major Dundee is at its best mid-grade Peckinpah like The Getaway, Junior Bonner, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. But those were all wonderful examples of their genre and showed us different sides of the troubled but brilliant filmmaker who made them. So while Major Dundee is far perfect it is not exactly a film to be easily dismissed, at least not until you watch it for yourself.
First of all, whatever high hopes Peckinpah had for exploiting the depth and complexity of the characters and rooting the historical events in a literary context seem to have been removed early in the production. Until the day comes when the even longer director's cut is unearthed - and it could very well - what we have in the version of Dundee that survived only scarcely resembles the journey into a diseased and deranged heart of darkness Peckinpah set out to make when signed on to direct. The Major himself is not a revenge-crazed Ahab figure but a pragmatic and devoted career soldier out to get the job done with all means at his disposal. We catch glimpses of the man he is beneath what could be merely a noble facade in his exchanges with Tyreen, the most clearly defined relationship in the entire movie. Heston gives a typically commanding performance as the stubborn but not unreasonable major who displays his gentler side in his scenes with Berger's comely widow, while Harris gets to be looser and more charismatic as his reluctant subordinate. The two share an functional, antagonistic chemistry that allows their characters to demonstrate a begrudging respect for one another in their emotionally charged dialogue duels. The relationship between Dundee and Tyreen would foreshadow the ones between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in....well take a guess.
The action scenes are plentiful but bear none of the director's trademark flair for balletic violence. As I mentioned before, the slow motion battle footage Peckinpah shot was left on the cutting room floor. Instead what we get are a series of chaotically stage and meandering encounters with precious little sense of scope or continuity. But most of the action doesn't fall prey to cliched resolutions; we expect a spectacular final confrontation between the Major and Sierra Charriba, but such a fight never happens. There's a deadpan realism to the battles that diffuses any tension we may be feeling. This is war and sometimes the good people while the bad people get to live.
The best conflicts happen between the disparate men in Dundee's makeshift army. When you've got great character actors like James Coburn (who would give some of the best performances of his career under Peckinpah's direction), Warren Oates (ditto), Ben Johnson (again), R.G. Armstrong (and again), L.Q. Jones (the same), Slim Pickens, Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Anderson (Logan's Run), Jim Hutton (The Green Berets), and Italian crime movie heavy Mario Adorf (Caliber 9) in your cast you can expect a few fireworks. The racial tension boils over in one amazing scene between Peters' dutiful officer and one of Tyreen's Confederate thugs (John Davis Chandler), but Harris finds the right way to diffuse the situation. Most of these guys aren't battle-hardened veterans, just fresh-faced kids looking to serve their country and war criminals looking to save their asses. The Dirty Dozen had several weeks to train for their suicide mission; Dundee's band sign a piece of paper, are each given a horse and gun, and then schlepped off into the thick of combat.
Major Dundee was released at the height of the Vietnam War, when the concept of "peace with honor" was a foreign concept that would get the person who dared speak those words branded a Communist. The U.S. was sending onto the blood-soaked battlefields of Southeast Asia anyone they could press gang into the job, a tactic they later repeated with the Republican's deceit-driven Iraq adventure. Peckinpah may not have been able to have his preferred cut of Major Dundee screened for the masses as he had desired, but from watching the version of his labors that survived it is clear that even then he was really onto something.
Disc 1 features the 136-minute extended version presented in a 1080p high-definition transfer in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio with a lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Disc 2 features the compromised 122-minute studio cut originally shown in theaters in 1965 presented for the first time on home video since the glory days of VHS in a 1080p high-definition transfer in its original 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio with a lossless English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Both prints are in terrific shape and benefit highly from the HD upgrading. Grain content is high but it adds to the dusty, craggy texture of the sun-baked Mexican vistas. Picture detail is sharp and heightened. The 5.1 DTS track on the extended version is unsurprisingly the pick of the litter, with balanced volume levels on the dialogue and Caliendo's replacement score blending into the action rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, which is the case with the Amfitheatrof score on the original theatrical release. Still, the 1.0 audio track on the compromised studio cut sounds just fine, albeit incredibly tinny and muffled at times. English subtitles are included on both versions.
Most of the special features from the 2005 DVD release of the Extended Version were retained for this 2-disc Blu-ray release, with a few notable exceptions. Twilight Time has also included some of their own customary bonuses. Disc 1 contains the extended version shown in limited release on the big screen in 2005 and later made available on DVD, along with the original audio commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Nick Redman (Twilight Time co-founder and director of A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico, and The Wild Bunch), Paul Seydor (author of Peckinpah: The Western Films - A Reconsideration), Garner Simmons (author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage), and David Weddle (author of If They Move Kill 'Em: The Life & Times of Sam Peckinpah) and the 2005 re-release trailer. The only new extra on this disc is the isolated audio track featuring the original music score composed by Christopher Caliendo presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.
Disc 2 contains the theatrical version and the bulk of the supplements from the earlier DVD. New to this disc is the original theatrical trailer and an isolated audio track featuring the original derided music score composed by Daniele Amfitheatrof presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, which makes it sound even better than it does incorporated into the full 1.0 track. From the earlier DVD we get four minutes of silent outtakes of unused or partially used master shots from certain scenes, two minutes of outtakes for artwork produced for an unrealized trailer that were later turned into poster art for the original theatrical release, an 80-second surviving excerpt from a vintage exhibitor's promotional reel, a slightly extended (39 seconds) swimming with Heston and Berger's characters, and a four minute incomplete deleted scene of a knife fight between Coburn and Adorf's characters that also includes some short silent outtakes from the filming of the scene. A catalogue of other titles from Twilight Time round out the extras. The label has also included a booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo as an insert with this Blu-ray.
The only extra features from the 2005 DVD that didn't make the cut this time are a 20-minute excerpt from Mike Sigel's film Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah, a vintage featurette about the stunt work seen in the film, and an audio option that allowed you to watch the extended version with the Amfitheatrof score. It would have been great if Twilight Time had cleared some room on either disc for the retrospective documentary that doesn't go too deep into the problems that plagued the Major Dundee production but features some terrific contemporary interviews. I would have gladly sacrificed the redundant trailers in the name of retaining this feature, but oh well.
Major Dundee was fated from its inception to be a film whose ambitions far outweighed its accomplishments. It was a strong lesson in humility for its overwhelmed, egotistical young director, who took what he learned on the production to heart and went on to produce timeless masterpieces. Best of all, Major Dundee is, despite its glaring flaws and unrealized potential, a ripping yarn about the dark side of morality and national pride with some excellent acting from the kind of ensemble cast you just don't see anymore. Twilight Time's Blu-ray release is far from a complete set as it leaves out some interesting extras from the previous DVD, but it scores major points for providing both cuts of the film for comparisons' sake along with improved picture and sound quality and a bounty of slight but worthwhile supplements. Highly recommended.