BR: Major Dundee (1965)

July 23, 2014 | By


MajorDundee_BRFilm: Good

Transfer: Excellent / Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  April 9, 2013

Genre:  Western

Synopsis: Nihilistic western of a dogged and self-destructive major who almost loses his mind and most of his troupe after rescuing children abducted by the Apache.

Special Features: 

Disc 1: Expanded Cut / Audio Commentary with Nick producer Redman, Sam Peckinpah biographers Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle / Isolated Stereo 2005 Score by Christopher Caliendo / 2005 trailer.

Disc 2: Original Theatrical Cut / Isolated Stereo 1965 Score by Daniele Amfitheatrof / Extended Scene: “Major Dundee and Teresa” (:38) /  Incomplete Deleted Scene: “Knife Fight” (3:38) / Silent Extended Outtakes (4:21) / Trailer Artwork Outtakes (2:08) / Exhibitor Promo Reel Excerpt (1:19) / Original Theatrical Trailer.

Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




One of the more infamous cases of a studio taking over the post-production of a film and releasing the end product without the director’s approval, Major Dundee still bears the legendary brand of the Epic That Never Was, a lost masterpiece, and an example of genius booted from the set by the bean counters, and nearly 50 years since its release, the film makes its debut on Blu-ray via Twilight Time.

Dundee had previously been released on DVD back in 2006 when Sony mounted a laudable effort to reconstruct the closest we’ll ever see to the director’s cut – an impossibility, because as the historical notes and quartet of Peckinpah historians describe on the commentary track, the script’s last third was never properly refined, even during filming.

The flaws within Dundee seem more evident with the newer material which consists of about 12 mins. worth of scenes retained by producer Jerry Bresler when he attempted to create a compromise between Peckinpah’s cut and appease a worrisome studio.

Peckinpah had reportedly wanted to make a film version of General Custer’s last stand, but he opted to direct a script written by Harry Julian Fink – or rather an idea that never had much of an ending. With Oscar Saul brought in for a cleanup and the director making his own amendments, the shooting script was still weak in the end, and prior to filming, Columbia’s reduction of the budget meant less time and money would affect the structure and pacing of what was designed as a visually splendid epic about a man driven nearly mad by his quest to retrieve stolen children from a band of Apache in Mexico, and bring back its chief, alive or dead, to answer for a brutal massacre.

It’s a story not that different from John Ford’s similarly flawed, dreary western Two Rode Together (1961), but where Ford and his writers had the good sense to punctuate the retrieval of the abducted kids with a lengthy commentary on racist stances against the Comanche, Peckinpah either couldn’t lick the script’s grievous flaws, or figured it would work itself out, either with rewrites during shooting, or perhaps in the editing room.

Or maybe he just didn’t give a damn, fueled by the confidence that he knew what he was doing.

Even if there’s a palpable sense of studio interference in the film’s numerous time passage / dissolve sequences to compress tangents and perhaps mask the elimination of smaller scenes designed to enhance minor and mid-level characters, Dundee’s first hour is still neat in setting up the story, characters, and conflicts: Major Dundee (Charlton Heston, really excellent as a bullheaded, moral crusader) wages a battle of will against his former friend Tyreen (equally strong Richard Harris), a captured captain from the south, whom Dundee needs in order to lead able and agile convicts in rescuing kids from Chief Charriba’s northern Mexico turf, which is also an area controlled by Emperor Maximilian, a man hand-picked by France in a truly ludicrous attempt to establish a puppet regime and gain influence in the U.S.

The seeds of racism and hatred just bubble in every faction of Dundee’s mish-mash troupe, which is comprised of Confederate soldiers promised freedom at the journey’s end, black soldiers, crooks, a fresh-faced bugle boy (Michael Anderson, Jr.), and a lanky, inexperienced munitions Lieutenant (Jim Hutton). James Coburn plays a one-armed half-breed tracker aided by Christian Apache, and R.G. Armstrong’s a fire & brimstone preacher with a good right hand.

They’re all familiar yet laudable archetypes designed to maintain a sense of stress within the troupe, and arguably the first signs of trouble appear after the kids are rescued: their mandate is revised due to Dundee’s stubborn determination to bring back Chief Sierra Charriba (Michae Pate).

Had Peckinpah stuck with the story’s thread of delusion and self-destruction, the film would’ve been a minor epic tale about nihilism and madness, but the story is put on pause when Dundee takes his troupe to a French-controlled Mexican town for food and rest, and where love interest Teresa (Senta Berger) is brought into the mix, supposedly to destroy whatever entente exists between Dundee and Tyreen.

The troupe’s eventual departure after a night of partying and their journey to bring back Charriba should’ve been the focus of the film’s last two-thirds, but there’s a skinny-dipping scene between Teresa and Dundee during which the latter is seriously injured and sent into hiding deep in French-controlled Mexico. As he becomes drunk and steeped in a state of self-loathing away from his men, the film literally stops dead for what feels like hours. When he’s ultimately forced to return by Tyreen, there’s another loose thread involving a deserter, and an execution designed to reset Dundee and Tyreen as mortal enemies.

Their hatred feels is protracted – it’s designed to distract audiences until Dundee finally has his encounter with Charriba’s men at the U.S.–Mexico border – and the deserter’s return also brings Teresa back into the scenario just long enough to infer that Dundee’s deliberate ploy of releasing French prisoners from the Mexican town during their brief furlough resulted in the town being massacred; the mass executions are inferred but never directly addressed, which feels peculiar since most of the seeded conflicts in Dundee ultimately lead to face-to-face confrontations.

When Teresa leaves for the U.S. with the surviving townsfolk, Dundee and his troupe head for Charriba’a position, with vengeful French soldiers on their trail, and as the Americans hurry through canyons and open plains, that’s where the film finally kicks into gear. It’s also very strangely the perfect edit point in story and film where Peckinpah could’ve cut his losses and completely excised the skinny-dipping / wounding / drunken recuperation / Dundee rescue / deserter killing / lover’s separation material, and had a tighter movie, but with that swathe of retained contrivances and distractions, the film grinds to a slow pace, meanders, and becomes interminable.

The dialogue at times feels unrefined, the actors seem to go through motions, and Dundee becomes another lesser movie, especially when its focus is stuck on a central character hating himself for a long stretch while the more interesting characters that give the film momentum are completely out of the picture.



Whatever material was never shot – straight action, expository dialogue, or bridge material – may have helped the abrupt finale a little bit, but the midsection is where the film falters and never fully recovers. Tyreen’s self-sacrifice at the end also feels like a compromise between showing a proud Southerner dying in battle, and allowing Dundee to return to the U.S. where he can potentially rebuild his relationship with Teresa, giving audiences a happy ending.



In addition to budget cuts and editorial meddling, Columbia’s other big error is the choice of score and theme song (a terrible title vocal track), if not recognizing they’d mishandled a difficult film and essentially pissed off a temperamental director. Their offer of allowing new reshoots to Peckinpah after the film’s general release seems surreal today, especially since the mere concept of a Director’s Cut is a modern concept borne out of the efforts of historians and preservationists charged with reconstructing maligned films, and studio home video departments realizing the marketing benefits in touting a ‘new and improved’ lost masterpiece (regardless of whether it merits that regal term).

For a studio in 1965 to attempt reconciliation is frankly surreal, and there’s a sense it was a hollow mea culpa, since (to my mind) there’s no precedent of a film being re-issued with newer material in a new-and-improved version that doesn’t make the studio look like a villain. Moreover, there’s no logic in revisiting a film that just had its domestic release, because unless the goal was to save the longer version for the European release, the extra revenue wouldn’t come years later in TV sales or second-run revenues.

In any event, Twilight Time’s BR certainly showcases what could’ve been –  a gloriously photographed, initially taut, grim tale of obsession and self-destruction – but it isn’t fully there because the film’s incipient flaws were still present in the shooting script.

As Julie Kirgo points out in her excellent liner essay, Peckingpah had to make Dundee and fail in order to make The Wild Bunch (1969), because there are striking similarities in themes, scenes (the town furlough being a biggie), and nihilism, but both films strangely maintain a midsection where things slow down, hover, meander a little, and lose a little steam before manhunts and brutal battles bring back momentum.

The difference is that in WB, Peckinpah went for broke, stripping away clichés and putting as much raw action, blood-letting, and human waste onscreen as possible. Dundee foreshadows the brilliance of WB, and a work that feels like the nail in the coffin for Hollywood’s once grandiose yet cliched studio westerns.

One can argue that by the end of the sixties, the only way the western could survive was in being reconfigured into another genre – witness John Carpenter’s fort siege in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and spaghetti westerns before they too were imitated, and tried and true conventions were worn out.

Disc 1 features the expanded cut, and Disc 2 the original theatrical cut not included on Sony’s 2006 DVD. Disc 2 also includes deleted scenes (essentially surviving odds & ends) which couldn’t be reintegrated into the expanded edition. (Even if a restoration of a director’s cut were possible, the script’s unwanted turns would’ve yielded the same pacing and structural blunders.)

Also ported over from the DVD are outtakes of trailer artwork sketches, trailers, and an excerpt from an exhibitor promo reel featuring material from Dundee. With the exception of the trailers, the aforementioned extras on Twilight Time’s BR are in SD.

Exclusive to the BR are respective isolated scores – Daniele Amfitheatrof’s original 1965 score on Disc 2, and Christopher Caliendo’s 2005 rescore on Disc 1 – but unlike the DVD, the ’65 score isn’t preserved on the expanded cut, disallowing film music fans to switch and compare the two very different scoring approaches.

Amfitheatrof probably did what was requested as imposed by Columbia, whereas Caliendo had the impossible task of writing a new score that evoked the style of 1965 westerns, yet contained modernistic subtext and matched any onscreen source music (like guitar playing, or a small band in during the village festivities). Caliendo’s background is in scoring mostly silent films, and there are some stylistic elements which perhaps date a few scenes rather than support them, but it’s a commendable effort, if not a rare instance where a much-loathed score by the director (and many fans) is replaced with something more organic.

The 2006 commentary track is packed with info, insight, historical facts, and attitude from a quartet of Peckinpah experts who also struggle with Dundee’s flaws, and a film that’s perhaps chiefly of interest to fans of the director than sprawling studio westerns.

The scope of the film is further addressed in a set of extras that remain unique to Sony’s DVD. A featurette on stuntmen – “Riding for a Fall,” offered in transfers from a 16mm B&W and faded 8mm colour versions – is filled with behind-the-scenes footage of the sets, actors, and striking locations.

Excerpts from the colour footage was included in an extended edit of an extract from Mike Siegel’s Sam Peckinpah 2005 doc Passion and Poetry, where surviving stars R.G. Armstrong, Senta Berger, L.Q. Jones, and others recall the making of Dundee in vivid anecdotes. James Coburn characterizes Peckinpah as a great director for 3 hours a day and a drunk the rest of the time, but Coburn remains a staunch supporter of the director in spite of his bellicose temperament. (Siegel’s feature length doc was eventually released on DVD in Germany in 2009.)

For Peckinpah fans, this is an important chapter in the director’s career, but the average western fan may find Dundee to be a more of a visually stunning oddity.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album  — Composer Filmographies: Daniele Amfitheatrof / Christopher Caliendo
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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