Movie Diary 11/29/2017

DundeePoster4Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah, 1965). A truncated but beautiful film. I see no reason not to run my review of the “Extended Cut” release. This originally ran in the Herald, April 22, 2005.

Four years before Sam Peckinpah directed one of the greatest American movies, “The Wild Bunch,” he nearly wrecked his career. The crash was a picture called “Major Dundee,” Peckinpah’s first big production, which went over budget and over schedule during an intense Mexico shoot, resulting in a heavily-edited version being released in 1965—which Peckinpah disowned.

“Major Dundee” has always carried the reputation of a ruined film—a not-bad western that should have been better. Peckinpah bitterly called it a “maimed child.” After years of research and work, “Major Dundee” has been restored to a somewhat fuller version. It’s not the whole movie Peckinpah envisioned (some of his planned scenes were never even shot), but it fills out the story and connects loose ends.  It’s titled “Major Dundee—The Extended Version,” because nobody thought it should be called a “Director’s Cut.” Whatever it is, it’s a magnificent film.

The story, set in the waning days of the Civil War, presents two marvelously conflicted main characters. Major Dundee, played by Charlton Heston, has been exiled to New Mexico after an unspecified screw-up at Gettysburg. In his new post, he’s really a glorified jailer—but that doesn’t fit his image of himself. An Apache raid on a settlement gives Dundee the chance to find glory by chasing the Indian leader. But with his small detachment of men, he needs to bolster the war party by recruiting Confederate convicts and assorted miscreants from the prison he oversees. Chief among the recruits is Dundee’s ex-friend Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), Irish immigrant and Southern patriot. He and Dundee each think the other has betrayed his country—and their friendship.

The busy cast is filled out by an astonishing roster of great character actors, many of them Peckinpah regulars:  James Coburn in a key role as a one-armed scout, Jim Hutton as an initially awkward young officer, Michael Anderson, Jr., as a boyish bugler,  Senta Berger as an Austrian widow stranded in a small Mexican town, and the wonderfully unsavory gang of Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, and John Davis Chandler as Tyreen’s rebel boys. Brock Peters plays the leader of a platoon of freed slaves, who volunteer for the mission because they’re tired of cleaning stables. Slim Pickens and Dub Taylor add atmosphere as only these veterans of cowboy pictures can.

As Dundee leads his posse into Mexico, he seems to lose interest in the original purpose—to rescue some kidnapped boys—and becomes obsessed with continuing the quest. Critics have compared this character to Captain Ahab, but he’s also an Alexander of the Old West, pressing on into uncharted territory after the goal has been forgotten. (Anyone looking for a Vietnam analogy will not be disappointed, either.)

Charlton Heston and  Richard Harris, two actors not known for subtlety, are splendid in the key roles. Heston’s tendency to declaim and strike poses is just right for the vainglorious Dundee, and when the character breaks down in a Mexican brothel Heston is right there with him. Harris nimbly blends defiance with a strict code of honor.

Their relationship, intense and mysterious, is the heart of the film. But Peckinpah gets everything else right, too:  the outdoor spectacle, the sneaky humor, the big action scenes, the tiny touches whereby a peripheral character is suddenly granted his moment in the sun. The restoration includes 13 minutes of previously unseen footage. A musical score that Peckinpah despised has been erased, and a new score by Christopher Caliendo commissioned for this version.

There is something about Sam Peckinpah’s blasted romanticism that inspires not just appreciation of his films but something like devotion. I hadn’t seen “Major Dundee” since a childhood TV showing, but thanks to this restoration, I am happy to declare myself devoted.

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