There are two reasons why this film interests me, or rather two names – Sam Peckinpah and James Wong Howe. This was a film Peckinpah might have hoped to direct. He’d written an adaptation of the novel by Hoffman Birney, The Dice of God, in 1956 when he started working for the production company founded by Arnold Laven, Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy which owned the rights to Birney’s story. Laven and Peckinpah worked together on the successful Western TV series The Rifleman before Peckinpah got the chance to direct his first two film Westerns, The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962). In 1963 Peckinpah directed Major Dundee which would turn out to be his first truly disastrous confrontation with a studio after completing a film that ran significantly over budget and was far too long for a standard release. Columbia butchered the film which was eventually released in 1965. In the meantime he was fired from his fourth picture as director, The Cincinatti Kid which was taken over by Norman Jewison. Arnold Laven had decided to direct The Glory Guys himself and the film was released in July 1965 with Peckinpah still credited with the script. The next couple of years were arguably the lowest in Peckinpah’s career with his previously high reputation as the innovator on TV Westerns now trashed by producers associated with Columbia and MGM. In the latter case he also suffered from a fabricated scandal about the shooting of a nude scene.
The Glory Guys is a mainstream cavalry Western. Laven was mainly known as a producer and a prolific director of TV drama. He made only a handful of cinema features mostly for the Laven-Gardner-Levy company. One of Laven’s strategies in the 1950s was to register a title with the Writers’ Guild and then look for a property that might produce a script for the title. The Dice of God was intended to become a film titled ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, but a film with a similar title was underway at around the same time and thus the title change. How much of Peckinpah’s vision remains in the script used for The Glory Guys? There are certainly some familiar elements that turned up in Major Dundee, released earlier but written later. Peckinpah ‘contributed’ to the script for Dundee, seemingly unhappy with the work of Harry Julian Fink. How much he might have changed it is open to question, but Amos Dundee feels very much like a Peckinpah character. When he first tackled The Dice of God, Peckinpah arguably saw himself updating the familiar John Ford cavalry picture and there are recognisable elements in The Glory Guys. But the crucial device is to offer double male leads who might be in conflict because of different beliefs or histories, even if they have other things in common. (This is the basis for Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with John Wayne and Henry Fonda as the mismatched pair.) In a Peckinpah film the two might have different views about the future of ‘the West’ and its codes of honour being replaced by capitalist exploitation. This was evident in Ride the High Country and would be repeated in many later Peckinpah films. In The Glory Guys, Tom Tryon plays Captain Demas Harrod, an officer with a past who is paired again with General McCabe (Andrew Duggan), a commanding officer he distrusts. At one point I thought McCabe could be the second leading male, but the second lead turns out to be the General’s scout Sol Rogers (Harve Presnell) and the ‘conflict’ is over a woman played by Senta Berger who has inherited the gunsmith’s business in Moose City close to the cavalry fort. General McCabe is the Custer figure who will disobey orders and send men to their deaths in an heroic but senseless attack on a larger force of ‘Plains Indians’ (who are never individualised in the film). As well as these four characters, only three others emerge in any detail from the large cast of smaller parts.
Slim Pickens plays the recruiting sergeant who first gathers the raw recruits at a railhead and his charges include Michael Anderson Jr. as a young man who has enlisted to escape his overbearing family and James Caan as a wise-cracking young Irishman seemingly always in trouble and up for a fight. Pickens was already a bona fide ‘character star’ of Westerns and Anderson was a young Englishman making his mark in three major Westerns in 1965. One of those three was Major Dundee in which he was again joined by Senta Berger and Slim Pickens. James Caan plays ‘large’ in only his second appearance in films after a successful stint in TV. He is entertaining but sometimes appears to be in another film altogether. However, if we play the game of mapping characters against those found in Ford’s Westerns and especially his cavalry pictures, these three all correspond – the regular Sergeant and the young naive trooper/young officer and Caan combining the Victor McLaglen fighting Irishman and any number of young bucks such as the Jeff Chandler or Ken Curtis characters in The Searchers. Peckinpah clearly didn’t buy the Caan combination but he did take Berger. He is reported to have said that he wouldn’t have cast Tryon or Presnell – and whatever their merits they don’t seem like Peckinpah players.
The structure of The Glory Guys fits the typical three-act sequence. The first act culminates in the recruits arriving at the fort and their reception and settling in while Captain Harrod re-acquaints himself with the other officers. Act two focuses on the preparations for the campaign and develops the Harrod-Rogers feud over Lou Woddard (Senta Berger). Act three comprises the action against the enemy. I think the general consensus is that acts one and two are a little ‘ho-hum’ but that act three is in many ways magnificent. The first two acts are notable for a cavalry dance referencing John Ford and a rolling saloon fist fight led by the James Caan character. Both of these feel like Peckinpah has written in some Fordian tropes. Alongside Caan, Michael Anderson Jr features in a sub-plot about him not being cut out for army life and possibly being ‘bought out’ by his father (and therefore missing out on his first romance). This too has its Fordian reference and indeed, because Ford made so many Westerns, much of the rest of the ‘action’ could be similarly seen as ‘referencing’. The real problem for me is Harve Presnell who just doesn’t belong in the film (he came out of musicals and was an accomplished singer but perhaps the most unlikely ‘Westerner’ ever to appear as a character in a Peckinpah script). But if I imagine James Coburn (who plays the scout in Major Dundee), everything might look different. Arthur Laven was an efficient director and on this film had a reasonable budget (including time spent in Durango) and a great cinematographer. I’m not criticising his direction apart from suggesting that it needed different leading personnel and a bit more ‘umph’ (partly to balance out the James Caan character’s antics).
James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was one of the most important cinematographers in ‘studio Hollywood’, shooting pictures from the late ‘teens to the mid 70s, just before he died. Wong Howe was already well-established before the studio era and soon found himself on major pictures in the 1930s. He filmed virtually every kind of feature, including Westerns. Previous to this film he’d worked on Hud (1963) and Outrage (1964), the first a ‘contemporary Western’ and the second a version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Both films starred Paul Newman. Wong Howe was known for his innovative lighting tricks and his attempts to always create lighting that had a logical source in the scene. As far as this film is concerned he mentioned some of the careful lighting of indoor/studio scenes. But I think he comes into his own for the action scenes. There are some beautiful sequences of men on horseback in different forms of natural light against the landscape. Laven also choreographs the action well. I should add that several Western fansites that I’ve checked out also praise the production design of the fort (see above) as close to the real forts used in the ‘Indian Wars’. I couldn’t find any good quality images to illustrate the comments about the troop movements (which might be directly compared to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949). The Japanese poster below does make a stab at creating a collage of scenes. Westerns like this had a world market, but it’s interesting that Senta Berger doesn’t appear on the poster.
I’m glad that, as a Peckinpah completist, I was able to see this and it adds to my sense of a ‘Peckinpah film’. This film is out of date now, but the title is nicely ironic. There was little ‘glory’ in the Indian Wars but at least this time the Native Americans won – even if it was because of an American General’s vanity.
Researching anti-war films for an event, I remembered Cross of Iron. Unfortunately, the current DVD from StudioCanal doesn’t have any of the extras which come with Sam Peckinpah’s Hollywood Westerns – but we do now have several books on Peckinpah that fill in some of the background to the production. The Region 2 DVD is the full length version, the equivalent of 132 mins in the cinema. I think the film was shorter on its original US cinema release. (There is now a Blu-ray disc that does have extras.)
Cross of Iron is a war combat picture set during the German retreat from the Crimea in 1943. It is most definitely not a ‘Hollywood’ film. The production was backed by the final survivor of the UK studio system, EMI, and the package was put together by a German independent producer whose background was in soft porn films. He had little experience of what was intended as a $4 million war film to be shot in Yugoslavia and post-produced at EMI studios in Elstree. Since Peckinpah was by this stage seriously out of control on cocaine and booze and the German producer didn’t have enough money to pay for all the necessary props, the whole thing should have been a disaster. Fortunately the outline story of the book on which the script was based (by Willi Heinrich, published in 1956) was one that Sam could identify with and he became fascinated by the archive footage used in German and Russian propaganda films that he found in Koblenz and London. The opening credits sequence which utilised these archive findings is as good as any of those in Peckinpah’s more famous films. Perhaps only Saul Bass was as good at creating credit sequences as Peckinpah. Bass used graphics, but Sam used editing. Peckinpah followers will recognise the use of children in the credits montage – much as in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.
As far as I can see the film extends far beyond the scope of the novel. The Hollywood screenwriter Julius Epstein (of Casablanca fame) was first attached to the project, but Peckinpah managed to ditch him and conducted a complete re-write with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley, two men with wartime experience. The plot of the film is straightforward, focusing on a single Wehrmacht company that is gradually destroyed as the Russians advance. There are several set piece battles in which Peckinpah’s crew attempt to represent major engagements using military equipment (and presumably extras) from the Yugoslav forces. But the real drama is the interplay between Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his men and with the three officers played by James Mason, David Warner and Maximilian Schell. Mason plays an old style Prussian Army colonel, Warner (in his third Peckinpah role) plays a seemingly anachronistic cynical/philosophical captain, perpetually drunk. Steiner is a professional soldier who has won the Iron Cross, saving his colonel (Mason). He is now devoted to his men but otherwise alienated from the army. Captain Kransky (Schell) is a Prussian aristocrat, recently transferred from France, who seeks an Iron Cross because his family honour expects it – but Kransky is a coward. Combat is thus as much between Steiner and Kransky as between the Russians and the Germans. The Russians are largely a faceless enemy appearing in great numbers, but first a young boy soldier and then a group of female soldiers are captured by Steiner’s men. These encounters ‘humanise’ the enemy – but they also both end badly and the representation of the women helped to fuel the debate about Peckinpah’s alleged misogyny. I think it likely that the producer insisted on both the Russian women and the bedroom scene with Senta Berger who plays a nurse looking after Steiner in an army hospital. Even so, I suspect Peckinpah wasn’t too unhappy to include the scenes.
What is most interesting for me is the range of responses to the film. I’m relying for background detail on David Weddle’s 1996 book (If They Move . . . Kill’ Em). He tells us that the film flopped badly in the UK and the US, but that it was one of the most successful films of its period in Germany and Austria and generally did well on the international market. I was surprised to find that despite its initial problems, the film now has American fans – its IMDB rating is 7.5. Even so there are many detractors and even some of the Peckinpah scholars seem to call the film wrongly. Several critics refer to this as a film which either depicts ‘Nazi soldiers’ or which ‘de-Nazifies’ the Germans by making the enemy Soviet Communists in a Cold War film. Several US blog posts are just completely wrong in their observations. One I read suggested that “Schell is one of the few German actors in the film”. In fact the entire squad, apart from Steiner and the officers is peopled by quite well-known German actors, helping to explain perhaps why, along with the casting of Schell and Berger, German audiences so took to the film. The same blogger (and many other commentators) see Mason as personifying a ‘good German’ as if this was simply a cliché or something reprehensible. There are few ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters as such apart from Captain Kransky. You could argue that Peckinpah helped to revise the Western by trying to present characters who have been brutalised by experience of violence in as humanistic a way as possible.
I did actually stumble across a neo-Nazi website which validated the film, but which called it a ‘Marxist’ representation of German history. Peckinpah’s politics were quite complex as far as I can see, but he wasn’t a Marxist – nor were his writers as far as I know. But Peckinpah is perhaps a combination of liberal and anarchist. The Peckinpah character here is Steiner who hates the army, officers in particular and his own government. His enemy, Kransky, is an aristocrat. The other officers are professional soldiers. There is only one Nazi amongst the soldiers and he is exposed and then tolerated. Stephen Prince, one of the best-known Peckinpah scholars makes a strange argument in his book Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998) when he claims that Peckinpah misunderstood Brecht in using a famous quote from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is Brecht’s satire on Hitler’s rise to power which uses an allegory about a Chicago gangster. The quote used by Peckinpah is: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” It appears at the end of the film (which lacks a clear narrative resolution, but implies that the main characters in the film are killed by Russian troops). Peckinpah was fond of quotes like this (Straw Dogs opens with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which is the source for the film’s title).
Prince argues that Peckinpah aimed to ‘de-Nazify’ Steiner and his squad and that using the Brecht quote was an insult to Brecht. Peckinpah didn’t understand Brecht according to Prince. This sounds like nonsense to me. As I’ve already noted, there is only one Nazi in the squad. The other soldiers are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘moral’ men, but their loyalty is to each other, not to the Nazi Party. How could Peckinpah not know Brecht? He was a theatre scholar, he read widely and he directed experimental theatre in the late 1940s (see Weddle 1996: 68) He must have been aware of Brecht having been in Hollywood and his subsequent return to East Germany.
I’m not going to claim that I completely understand the closing section of Cross of Iron and therefore the use of the quote. But it seems clear to me that Peckinpah’s overall intention (and that of the writers and James Coburn) was to present the events as evidence of the futility of war and its consequences which included the barbarity of the battlefield and the corruption of the men who fought it. The opening credits montage intercuts images of children, including a Hitler youth group climbing a mountain, with the rise of Hitler and the gradual deterioration in conditions for the armies (German and Russian) on the Eastern Front. (Two separate music tracks are also intercut – one of children singing, one of martial music.) The closing credits repeat the contrast between children and Nazi officers – but now the images refer not just to partisan children executed by the SS and refugees from the front, but also children suffering in more recent conflicts such as Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa. One reading of the opening and closing of the film is that Hitler corrupted a whole generation of children, causing many to be killed or to become killers. In this context the Brecht quote seems appropriate, the corruption certainly hasn’t ended with child soldiers in Africa and conflicts across the world. For me, Cross of Iron works as a statement against war.
Here is the opening sequence (from the Region 2 DVD):
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.