I think that Major Dundee is the only Peckinpah film that I haven’t managed to see at the cinema. Despite being a massive Peckinpah fan, I couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for the pan and scan TV version that I managed to tape many years ago. I knew the legend of the film – Sam’s first big studio picture that went over budget and was butchered on release. So when I saw a discounted DVD of the ‘restored’ version of the film (released by Sony in 2005) I snapped it up.
Although released in US cinemas, I think that this restored version has had only a handful of UK cinema outings as it hasn’t been resubmitted to the BBFC. There is a lot of confusion about the various cuts of the film. Several reference books quote 134 mins for the original studio cut but in the UK, the BBFC (the classification agency) gives the length as 124 mins. The restored version runs on DVD at 130 mins (approx 136 for the film at 24 fps) giving around 12 mins of extra material. Peckinpah’s original print ran to 4 hours plus and his ‘cut’ has been stated as running to about 152 mins. What we have now on DVD – all cleaned up – is essentially the producer Jerry Breslin’s cut before Columbia chopped it further.
The script was unfinished when Peckinpah started filming and he had to re-write and add material ‘on the hoof’ during a very ambitious shoot. His biggest mistake was to select locations in Mexico which were widely scattered, creating logistical nightmares. Although the studio was typically blinkered in how they dealt with the production, Sam no doubt caused some of the problems himself.
If you’ve seen any of Peckinpah’s Westerns, the plot will sound familiar. It’s 1864, the Civil War is still raging. Major Dundee (Charlton Heston) is the commander of a US Army prison in New Mexico territory. His prisoners are Confederate soldiers under the command of Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). A local Apache warrior chief has massacred the whites in a nearby settlement along with their Army protectors. Dundee vows to bring the Apache to justice and to rescue three young boys who have been abducted. To do so he must venture into Mexico and confront not only the Apache, but also French lancers who are fighting the Juaristas on behalf of the Emperor Maximilian of Austria. Dundee has few men able to go on the expedition so he is forced to take both Negro soldiers, who are fed up of being prison guards, and the Confederates led by Tyreen and ‘on their honour’ not to escape – at least until the job is done. With this motley crew, Dundee, like Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, stands little chance of success.
Apart from Heston and Harris – very big stars at the time – Peckinpah assembled a strong cast including those already regulars in his company – Warren Oates, L. Q. Jones, R. G. Armstrong etc. – and those destined to become so – James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens. He couldn’t have his usual cinematographer Lucien Ballard, but Sam Leavitt did a great job. Controversially, he was also saddled with music from Daniele Amfitheatroff (complete with irritatingly catchy marching song). The restoration has a new score (but both are available on the DVD).
There is a great deal written about the film and the DVD comes with commentary from four of the main Peckinpah chroniclers – David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Nick Redman and Paul Seydor. I’m going to focus on some less well-covered aspects.
My immediate reaction to the film, even on my small TV screen was to its epic scale. I could hardly remember anything from the pan and scan TV print of years ago, but the DVD is riveting. This must be one of the most beautifully-mounted Westerns I’ve seen in a long time. Much comes from the location shooting in Mexico, but the CinemaScope compositions and the crane shots of action are very well used. The restoration presents the beauty and the horror in sensitively balanced Eastman Color. I’ve compared the DVD to my copy of Ford’s She Wears a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and the results are interesting I think. The Ford film is also visually stunning and, I was surprised to note, gives the impression of greater pace in the editing. But this is achieved through rapid montage. By contrast, Peckinpah, despite his reputation for fast-cutting, seems to move his horsemen across the landscape in a more languid way and includes longer takes and more long shots. When he comes to the action sequences, it is possible to see the beginnings of the multiple camera shooting in some of the spectacular action which involved the greatest number of stuntmen ever assembled for a Hollywood Western (a ‘featurette’ on the stunt work is included on the DVD).
The comparison with Ford is important. Major Dundee riffs on two of Ford’s major Western creations – the cavalry trilogy (Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande) and The Searchers. Charlton Heston is no John Wayne but he’s better under Peckinpah than in many of his more well-known roles. The Peckinpah stock company is a match for Ford’s but the main difference is Peckinpah’s attempt to represent the West he knows as grittier and more ‘real’. I think he manages this and in the Mexican scenes in particular you can see the ingredients of The Wild Bunch. It’s worth noting that Dundee was made at the same time as Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and released well before the ‘spaghetti Westerns’ reached North America. Although their aims may have been different, Leone and Peckinpah had a similar impact on the Hollywood Western.The difference that Peckinpah makes is best illustrated by the one other feature of the film that he couldn’t control – the casting of Senta Berger. Ms Berger, at the time a major European star, was cast to help the film’s prospects in Europe. She appears as a very beautiful and well maintained German doctor’s wife in a small Mexican town – visually out of place. The character is quite acceptable (i.e. there were Europeans in Mexico at the time) but Berger just looks wrong and the potential romantic pairing with Heston detracts from the narrative drive. Ironically, despite officially dying at the US box office, the film may indeed have done quite well in Europe. According to one French website it made over $1.5 million in France alone. I wish I could verify this and find other European box office figures.
It’s a cliche to say that Peckinpah was widely misunderstood and undervalued, but it still needs to be said. I’m glad this DVD of Dundee is available. I’m looking now for a DVD of my favourite Peckinpah, Junior Bonner, which I’ve yet to find in the original Todd-AO ratio.