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.

1973 Ten Best Movies

patgarrett4I watched Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid a couple of times and liked it just fine but couldn’t quite tell how it worked, exactly, as it didn’t seem to have the usual three-act structure. Then I realized: it’s a ballad, a series of stanzas in a song out of a folk tradition – that’s how it lives and breathes. Which is why the casting of two singer-songwriters (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan) in significant roles is crucial; Dylan’s fantastic soundtrack music emphasizes it even more.

Pat Garrett came along at a time when American movies were busy revising and sometimes trashing the old myths (see also my #2 choice for the year), but Sam Peckinpah had too much battered romanticism to make a simple anti-Western. So he made a movie about landscape and time and trust, and about the way grubby reality might pass into the stuff of legend. (This is the kind of thing I’ll be talking about in a lecture called “Revising the Western: Peckinpah, Altman, and Spaghetti,” on Oct. 4 in Seattle; details here.)

It tops the list for this year – not a year crowded with classics, but some really interesting titles. Ten best of 1973:

1. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

2. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)

3. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache)

4. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)

5. The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice)

6. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson)

7. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)

8. American Grafitti (George Lucas)

9. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

10. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)

Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, which are just as scathing as they are fun, are up there too. Many decent American films crowding around those last couple of rungs: Charley Varrick and The Day of the Jackal (two old-pro movies made by old-pro directors), De Palma’s Sisters (which I like better than The Exorcist), Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, which provided an awful lot of pleasure when I was 14 years old, Mazursky’s Blume in Love.

It was a year in which everybody seemed to be looking to nostalgia and the past, either as an escape (Best Picture Oscar went to The Sting) or because it might offer some clue about how to come to terms with the prevailing mess of the era. Just look at how many of those titles are set in the past, and how the good ones use that backward-looking lens as a way of conjuring both magic and hard truths (the Peckinpah and Erice films especially). The Long Goodbye (my favorite Altman picture, which is not the same as considering it his best) is set in the present, but evokes a potentially nostalgic Raymond Chandler novel – then seamlessly morphs it into something completely of the 1973 moment, an astonishing piece of adaptation.

The Mother and the Whore is the culmination of and eulogy for the French New Wave, an amazing epic (and just as searing as Bergman’s unflinching made-for-TV opus). O Lucky Man! is a crazy one-off, and, incidentally, another ballad picture that hums along to song.

Next week: 1947.