"Major Dundee" didn't turn out the way that anybody had hoped. Director Sam Peckinpah wanted to make a major western on an epic scale, but saw his budget slashed from 4.5 million to a fraction of that. Charlton Heston hoped that the studio wouldn't call his bluff to withhold his salary if they'd let Peckinpah shoot the film he wanted to make, but they did anyway, and held their ground. And nobody expected producer Jerry Bressler to cut the film in post-production by a rumored third of its projected running time—which created gaps that audiences didn't expect from the director of the acclaimed western, "Ride the High Country."
But everything worked out all right in the end. "Major Dundee," the story of a discredited Civil War-era commander who leads a ragtag group of regulars, civilians, criminals, Confederates, and black soldiers in pursuit of a murderous band of Apaches, became a test run for another, more famous pursuit film of Peckinpah's. Only when the maverick director made "The Wild Bunch," he switched the point of view to focus on the pursued instead of the pursuers. And the gritty realism borne out of necessity—the budget didn't provide for costume changes, so Peckinpah had the men wear the same clothes every day, with the actors eventually giving up bathing—would lead to the ultra-realism that made "The Wild Bunch" Peckinpah's masterpiece.
But if Peckinpah learned anything from this 1965 film—which turned out to be epic only in the amount of grief that it caused—maybe it was to keep things a little simpler. "Major Dundee" was complicated in a number of ways. The script called for audiences to understand that Confederates would join a makeshift posse rather than rot in prison, and to accept that the film's title character could be deeply flawed and not the tall-in-the-saddle romanticized western hero they were used to. But what confused audiences most was that the focus shifted from fighting Apaches to fighting French cavalry.
Mention Mexico, and the average lover of westerns will think of the Spanish, not the French. But after the Mexican war, the U.S. emerged with over 500,000 square miles of new territory; Mexico emerged debt-ridden and in chaos, with President Juarez finally stopping repayment of money owed to England, France, and Spain. In 1862, while Americans fought among themselves, the three European powers sent troops to Veracruz, presumably to ensure that the money be repaid. But England and Spain quickly withdrew when it became clear that the French were interested in something greater. A year later, the French would occupy Mexico city. It wasn't until after the Civil War—in 1866—that the United States would put pressure on France to withdraw and leave Mexico to rule itself. Without that little history lesson, moviegoers would be hard-pressed to understand what in the Wide, Wide World of Sports French lancers were doing on the banks of the Rio Grande.
But now, years after the director's death, Columbia has made amends. Though not all of the footage was located or included, "Major Dundee" flows better with the restoration of 12 missing minutes—including three complete scenes. As Online Film Critics Society member Glenn Erickson notes in an essay included in the release, those scenes help us understand that Fort Benlin was in fact a prison camp, that the highest ranking Confederate officer (Richard Harris) tried to escape, that Dundee followed his own pleasure-principle while on this official mission to kill the renegade Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) by spending time with a Mexican woman, and that a suspected traitorous scout was, in fact, loyal.
It's a solid, but not great western—certainly not on the same level as Peckinpah's tale of aging outlaws on the lam, or even "Ride the High Country," which turned out to be Randolph Scott's and Joel McCrea's last film. But "Major Dundee" is another reminder of how Peckinpah is as prone to realistic understatement as John Ford was to those dramatic but romanticized moments. Oh, there are moments in "Major Dundee" that are meant to show a heroic character—as when Heston as Dundee, to defuse an increasingly hostile crowd of Rebel prisoners, calmly walks through them as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea. Again. But that act is downplayed—not stretched out in time, not milked for a close-up of Heston's face, not fortified with dramatic music—just as Jim Hutton's performance as a hapless and relatively green lieutenant would likely have been played for comic relief in the hands of another director. Peckinpah plays it realistically on all counts. No "wah-wah" music to kick us in the funnybone, and no over-the-top performances. Yes, there are up-angle shots, but you begin to suspect that in Peckinpah's hands, those shots are intended less to make us see the characters as being Olympian in status, and more to make use of the sky as a backdrop to highlight their isolation.
There's a scene in "Major Dundee" where three young white boys who were abducted by the Apaches are returned to Dundee and his men. Ford would have milked that one for all the drama it was worth. But Peckinpah? He gives us a quick and simple shot of the boys showing the soldiers how they can shoot bows and arrows, with the soldiers cackling in amusement. No hugs, no sense of relief . . . just soldiers happy to be relieving their own boredom. That's the kind of realism you'll discover in "Major Dundee," as well as some pretty exciting action sequences. One of the extras shows Peckinpah on a camera dolly which moved on tracks that were laid out underwater in the river. We see horses actually go down, and hear how the director hired the Mexican cavalry but then only told their commander about the explosions that would send the horses and their riders sprawling.
Other tricks of Peckinpah's are also exposed in this film, but we can also see forerunners of some of the more powerful shots from "The Wild Bunch." In one such symbolic scene, spare-ribbed dogs nibble voraciously at what appears to be a huge bison skeleton—which certainly recalls the famous opening to "The Wild Bunch" where ants overwhelm a deadly scorpion, just as the outlaw gang will be overwhelmed soon by sheer numbers. And in a filming technique that will also turn up in later films, we see in Peckinpah the trick of employing a double-dynamic frame. While the camera moves slowly to the right on a horizontal pan, riders move from the bottom of the screen to the top, in a vertical thrust. It's techniques like these and the level of realism, really, that makes "Major Dundee" worth watching, and, for lovers of westerns, worth adding to your collection.
Richard Harris turns in a strong performance as Confederate Capt. Benjamin Tyreen, as does James Coburn as scout Samuel Potts, Warren Oates as one of the Confederates, Ben Johnson as Sgt. Chillum, Slim Pickens as Wiley, and Mario Adorf as Sgt. Gomez. To film "Major Dundee" in Mexico, Peckinpah assembled the largest camp of stunt men ever gathered to work on a single picture. And that scope, plus Panavision filming and a grand Christopher Calliendo score, still gives this less-than-epic picture an epic feel.
Video: "Major Dundee" was not only restored, it was remastered in High Definition, and the color looks great. As often happens with Panavision, there's a very slight graininess, but this film has never looked better, with Mexican locations spread across a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: The audio was remastered in English Dolby Digital 5.1, and this new track sounds pretty natural, with ambient noises and effects scattered evenly and logically among the speakers—though without much rear-speaker action. The original English Mono soundtrack is also included, along with French 2.0 Stereo Surround, with subtitles in English, French, and Korean—which raises an interesting question about who or what determines the subtitles to be offered for a title.
Extras: As if trying to assuage the guilt of their fathers, the Columbia folks have put together an impressive set of extras for what really turned out to be a mid-tier western. My absolute favorite was an old black-and-white featurette, "Riding for a Fall," which showed the stuntmen at work as a narrator explained. The 20-minute clip from Mike Siegel's film, "Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah" was also wonderful to watch, and filled with equal measures of information and "heart." On the making-of feature, L.Q. Jones tells how Peckinpah was a "working alcoholic" and Heston was "a poser," and from he, Coburn, and others we hear anecdotes about the brash director—how he so infuriated Heston one day that the star charged his director on horseback and swung a saber at him, or how Peckinpah took them into a seedy Mexican bar and started a fight (then ducked out). Peckinpah historians offer a salient commentary, one which probably praises more than the average viewer might, simply because it's a passionate area of interest for them.
Rounding out the huge number of extras: an incomplete deleted scene of a knife fight, an extended scene with Dundee and Teresa (Senta Berger), no-sound extended outtakes, trailer art outtakes, promo stills and posters, an exhibitor promo reel clip, and two trailers (the original and the 2005 re-release). In a word, wow.
Bottom Line: "Major Dundee" never reached the heights of Peckinpah's imagination, but it's still a very solid western in the revisionist, realistic mode. Eight out of Peckinpah's 14 films were westerns, and the director felt, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, the powerful effect that the western archetypes have had on America. If "Ride the High Country" and "The Wild Bunch" are in the top tier of Peckinpah's oeuvre, certainly "Major Dundee" is on the next level, ahead of later films like "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."