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June 29, 2021

Major Dundee


Sam Peckinpah - 1965
Arrow Video BD Region A two-disc set

A critical and commercial failure at the time of release, Sam Peckinpah's third film gets a showering of love in this new boxed set. Included are both the original theatrical version, the extended version first released in 2005, hours worth of supplements, three (!) commentary tracks, a booklet with essays by several respected critics, and if that was not enough, a poster with Arrow's commissioned artwork. The supplements more fully explain the history of the making and unmaking of the film. Even Peckinpah's own estimation of Major Dundee as a would-be masterpiece is questioned by some of his champions.

A personal memory here - my first encounter with Major Dundee was a giant poster on the side of a building in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. I was thirteen and intrigued by the idea of a Civil War era western. Charlton Heston was a top star at the time, although the only film I had seen him in was El Cid. As it turned out, the Chicago run came and went, but Major Dundee never came to a theater near me. It was about five years later that I first saw the film on a small television, pan and scanned, black and white, tuned in just in time to see soldiers ambushed by some Apaches.

At the time of release, Major Dundee was viewed primarily as a big budget western with a handful of stars - the established Heston, plus the rising Richard Harris, James Coburn and Jim Hutton. In the intervening years, interest in the film is based on its part in the evolution of Peckinpah, the inclusion of several actors who over the years would be considered part of the director's stock company, and the film's representation of a genre shift that would become more obvious in the coming years with westerns that were more violent and less romantic.

For the benefit of anyone not familiar with the film, the basic story is of a Union army major in pursuit of an Apache chief who has massacred a group of civilians and kidnapped three young boys. The film takes place in the southwest, between 1864 and 1865. The understaffed Dundee enlists a goup of Confederate prisoners with the promise of possible pardons to join him. Also included are a motley group of civilians and six black soldiers. While pledging to follow Dundee into battle, the prisoners loyalty is to the Confederacy. For Dundee, these men are traitors to the United States. The film is bookended with off-screen narration by bugler Tim Ryan, whose diary provided part of the narrative thread. Something that struck me this time that I had overlooked previously was that the date the film ends is April 19th, 1865. While chasing Apaches in Mexico, Dundee and his surviving soldiers are unaware that they are crossing into a Texas that is no longer a Confederate state, or that the Civil War is over and that President Lincoln had recently been assassinated. Possibly this was not intentional, but while there is narrative closure, history suggests a more open ending.

In terms of any critical assessment of Major Dundee, anything I could say would essentially be redundant, repeating what others have said, and said much better than me. This box set is for the dedicated cinephile and the serious Sam Peckinpah fan. For the more casual viewer or those still unfamiliar with the filmmaker, I suggest seeing the 2005 restored version. Where the booklet notes and commentary tracks are in relative agreement is that the film is a well realized first half with a more problematic second half. Some of the history of the making of the film is comprised of differing information. What is consistent is that the film originated as a treatment by Harry Julian Fink that was bought by producer Jerry Bresler. Following the success of Diamond Head, Bresler was looking for another project to star Charlton Heston. Bresler originally had hoped to sign John Ford to direct. Ford was unavailable, shooting Cheyenne Autumn at the time. Bresler turned to Sam Peckinpah, based on the critical acclaim given to Ride the High Country. On his first major production, Peckinpah re-wrote the script with Oscar Saul, reshaping an incomplete treatment and shooting script into his own incomplete script. "Creative differences" hardly describes the what Bresler, Heston and Peckinpah had each envisioned. Due to contractual reasons, Peckinpah and company went to Mexico with the incomplete script. Due to changes at Columbia Pictures, the budget was cut from four and a half million dollars to three million dollars, and the shooting schedule cut by two weeks. Peckinpah went ahead to make the film he originally signed up to make, getting fired at the completion of shooting when it became impossible to film several scenes. Peckinpah was able to whittle the footage down to a version running about 160 minutes that he was happy with. Bresler cut the film down to 136 minutes - the so-called "extended version". Columbia boss Mike Frankovich approved the original theatrical release that ran slightly over two hours. Details such as how Senta Berger was cast in the shoehorned romantic scenes or how much of the film's shortcoming were the responsibility of Jerry Bresler remain subjects of dispute. An interesting footnote glossed over is that Peckinpah had completed a script for the film, The Glory Guys a fictionalized version of Custer and Little Big Horn. Directorial duties were given to Peckinpah's associate from "The Rifleman" television series, Arnold Laven. Three members of the Major Dundee cast - Berger, Slim Pickens and Michael Anderson, Jr. were once again filming Durango, Mexico.

There is information to be gleaned from each of the commentary tracks. The first is ported over from the Twilight Time release with label founder Nick Redman and three authors of books on Peckinpah - David Waddle, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor. Glenn Erickson does double duty with a solo commentary as well as a lively exchange with Alan Rode. Everyone is well prepared here. Jeremy Carr, Farran Smith Nehne and Roderick Heath provide their insights, with Ms. Smith challenging the prevailing opinion of the film as "Moby Dick on horseback". Neil Snowdon, a producer at Arrow Films, also provides an essay, and a reminder that Arrow is a company run by cinephiles. Mike Siegel has two compilations of interviews, one with members of the cast and crew of Major Dundee, and one of more general memories with actors who have worked with Peckinpah over the course of his career.

My favorite supplement is the video essay by David Cairns discussing the difference between the film Peckinpah envisioned and the theatrical release version. Cairns casts producer Bresler, who had previously produced the two theatrical Gidget sequels, as being incompatible with Peckinpah. I would contend that to be partially true as some of the deleted footage was antithetical to Bresler's taste. Also this was a time prior to the ratings systems when all films needed to be approved for a general audience. Bresler had a history of producing several films that were film noir or noirish, but the film he had in mind was a more traditional western. Where Cairn's commentary is of most interest is in discussing how Peckinpah had hoped to employ slow motion in the death scenes. Part of why The Wild Bunch succeeded where Major Dundee failed is the combination of a rating system that allowed Peckinpah to depict graphic violence and a Hollywood more open to a wider variety of editing techniques. Cairns also rightly calls out the original music score where Daniele Amfitheatrof was hired to imitate Max Steiner with inappropriately jaunty music, and Mitch Miller and his hearty male chorus sang the "Major Dundee March". This was a time when major movies were virtually required to have a title song that received heavy radio play. Whatever complaints one might have regarding the score by Christopher Caliando, it still is an improvement over the original music score. And as one who has seen all three theatrical Gidget films directed by Paul Wendkos, they have their own silly charm.

The 136 minute version of Major Dundee was made from a 4K scan. The 1965 theatrical release is from a 2K scan. Regardless of what one may think of Major Dundee and its status in the Peckinpah filmography, the packaging is impressive and could well win awards as one of the outstanding home video releases of this year. What we have ultimately is a film that reflects the artistic conflict at the time of production, between a producer whose template was the westerns of the past working with a filmmaker who was searching for new possibilities for the genre.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 29, 2021 06:29 AM