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Sunday, May 29, 2011

review by Frederick Lombardi

  New Version of Major Dundee Premiered

    By Frederic Lombardi

A new extended version of Sam Peckinpah's 1965 film Major Dundee had its
world premiere at New York City's Film Forum on April 8th with
additional showings following a week later in other major cities. A DVD
of this "extended version" will appear later this year.

The newly restored print includes 12 minutes of footage cut from the
original 124 minute release. Also, since the music for the film was
imposed over Peckinpah's objections, a new score was commissioned and
composed by Christopher Caliendo. Caliendo met with the foremost
Peckinpah experts before doing the score and it was fully intended to
reflect the time in which the film was made and not more current film
score trends.

Peckinpah clashed with producer Jerry Bresler over the film and was
prevented from shooting additional scenes. Bresler and/or the Columbia
executives then slashed much of the director's cut, eliminating entire
scenes as well as short bits.

"One of Hollywood's great broken monuments," bemoaned Jim Kitses of
Major Dundee in his landmark critical study "Horizons West".

Grover Crisp, Vice-President of Asset Management and Film Restoration
for Sony Pictures spent years supervising the reconstruction and
restoration of the film. "This is the most complete cut of the film that
could be constructed," Crisp said. It is not called the Director's
Version because there are still scenes missing. (The DVD of Major Dundee
will include outtakes from the film as well as a fragment of a scene
that ends abruptly and therefore could not be incorporated in the new

Perhaps not surprisingly, the new edition of Major Dundee still falls
well short of a masterpiece. But the Extended Version cuts more deeply
and gives a bit more unity to an ambitious film that remains sprawling
and never totally resolved. Its story of a detachment of white and black
Union solders, Confederate prisoners seeking parole, Indian scouts, and
other disparate characters presided over by a bitterly divided command
of two sworn enemies is a fascinating artifact of the national divisions
of the 1960s. It is also a pivotal film in the careers of director Sam
Peckinpah and its often underrated star Charlton Heston.

As a piece of cinema history, it has aspects linking it back to John
Ford's cavalry trilogy and others looking forward not only to later
Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch but to Robert Aldrich's superb
Ulzana's Raid.

Like practically everything else about Major Dundee, exactly how much
footage is still missing is open to debate. Peckinpah biographer David
Weddle claims that Peckinpah gave the studio a 161 minute rough cut.
Crisp acknowledges hearing of this cut but refers to a 142 minute
version. Quite possibly, there were several editions of the film before
it was cut down to its 124 minute release. In Kitses' book "Horizons
West", he notes eight scenes eliminated from Dundee and fewer than half
of them are restored in the extended version. Two of these scenes were
never shot.

But even the unexpurgated Peckinpah might not have solved all the film's
aesthetic problems. Heston, who used his star power to keep Peckinpah
from getting fired from the film said of the version he saw, "The thing
is it was too long . . . What happened with Dundee is that it didn't cut
well. There was so much to it that it would clearly have to be shorter .
. ."

In fairness, one can imagine the befuddlement of studio executives
looking for a conventional cavalry vs. Indians action film. "All right,
the Apaches massacre a company of cavalry and kidnap some white male
children. Now because the garrison has been reduced by the loss of these
men they have to get Confederate prisoners to join the pursuit to get
the Apaches. Yeah, Yanks and Rebs reuniting to fight bloodthirsty
Indians, that's worked before. And lots of antagonism at the top with a
Union major and Confederate captain who hate each other, that'll work
too . . . but now the detachment crosses into Mexico and comes across
oppressed peasants and gets into a fight with the French army? And
there's an Austrian widow in the Mexican town and the stiff arrogant
Union major falls in love with her, neglects his command and gets
wounded. He has to be smuggled into a Mexican town to be treated by a
doctor and while recovering he gets involved with a Mexican woman. Then
the Austrian widow finds out about this and spurns him and the Major
goes off on a bender until finally the Confederate guy who hates him has
to come to drag him back to his command. Then the detachment resumes its
chase of the Apaches but the Americans are also being chased by the
French army . . . WHAT THE HELL IS THIS MOVIE ABOUT ANYWAY? . . . Well,
at least there's a lot of action going on. Maybe if we can cut around
that . . ."

The original score for Major Dundee was composed by Daniele Amfitheatrof
and it included a title song that was used with the credits superimposed
over the film's opening scenes. Sung by Mitch Miller's Sing Along Gang
it provided an effectively jaunty tune.

The problem was that this song was slapped over the aftermath of an
Indian massacre with images of scattered bodies and burning buildings on
screen. Clearly, the studio wanted to get the audience past that and
looking forward to the adventure ahead. Peckinpah wanted you to linger
over the death and the destruction that was setting everything in
motion. With Caliendo's new score melodic reassurance is replaced with
the abrasive cacophony of shrill trumpets and pounding drums. The music
signals more of a descent than an exhortation and the promise of a storm
to come. The new score also omits some of the heavy handed traits of the
first one, such as some tinkly noises that are sounded every time a key
line is repeated.

Music also provides an important role in the first of the restored
pieces of footage. The patrol led by Heston's Major Dundee that comes
upon the scene of the massacre includes the bugler Ryan (Michael
Anderson, Jr.) a member of the vanquished company who went for help.

As the bodies are gathered for burial Ryan plays taps but in the throes
of his emotions he falters off key. Such rituals were always portrayed
perfectly in John Ford films but the dissonance registered here is part
of the fallibility of his characters that Peckinpah want us to recognize.

It's also in line with the use of music throughout the film. "Whistle me
a tune, son," Dundee will occasionally call out to Ryan throughout the
film. When Dundee's contingent leaves the post the dissonance reappears
as Ryan strikes up one tune on his bugle, the Confederates counter with
Dixie, the Union soldiers belt out The Battle Hymn of the Republic and
the civilians warble My Darling Clementine. But in a later scene showing
Peckinpah in complete unison with John Ford, a burial scene evokes the
same song from all participants. As the camera pans past both Yanks and
Rebs, all are singing, Shall We Gather At The River?

To backtrack to the next restored scene, after Dundee and his men leave
the site of the massacre it is nightfall when there is a cut to Richard
Harris' Confederate captain and several of his soldiers making their
escape from their Union prison as they stumble through a stream. Union
pursuers are about and as Harris tries to flee he runs right into the
returning Dundee who has him placed under arrest. On returning to the
fort, Dundee demands that everyone within its confines including all its
prisoners be gathered on the parade grounds.

The old version went directly from the scene of the massacre to the men
gathered together at the fort with Harris' Captain Tyreen already under
restraint. The reinserted scene of the attempted escape and Dundee's
reaction to it starts the movie off with a greater sense of the
explosive instability underlying the tensions of the story.

Dundee offers the Confederates a chance for parole if they join his
crusade against the Apaches and asks Tyreen if he would serve his
country's flag again. The manacled Tyreen like a defiant Prometheus
replies, "It is not my country, Major Dundee. I damn its flag, and I
damn you."

Before considering the restoration of other sequences it may be
appropriate here to give an overview of the conflicts in the story and
of how Major Dundee was put together in the first place.

The film was based on a script outline by Harry Julien Fink. According
to Peckinpah biographer Marshall Fine, Fink's first draft was "a
sprawling mess, with several different story lines intertwined." The
script was in this incomplete state when producer Bresler hired Heston
and Peckinpah. While he was also engaged in preproduction, Peckinpah
worked with the writer Oscar Saul to complete the script and Heston had
some input as well.

In his autobiography Heston suggests that three different visions for
the film were taking shape. "Columbia reasonably enough, wanted a
cavalry/Indians film as much like Jack Ford's best as possible. I wanted
to be the first to make a film that really explored the Civil War. Sam,
though he never said anything like this, really wanted to make The Wild
Bunch. That's the movie that was steaming in his psyche Lucky man, he
actually got to do it, a few years later."

In their desire for a traditional type of cavalry/Indian flick Columbia
may have glossed over the complexities of the Ford films. Be that as it
may, the script does share some plot points with all three of Ford's
cavalry movies, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande
but most markedly from Rio Grande. This film which Ford made at Republic
has the most conventional action plot of the three and like Dundee
involves chasing Indians across the Mexican border to recover kidnapped

In both She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande the cavalry is well
served by a hard riding former Confederate sergeant named Tyree. Richard
Harris' character, Heston's Confederate antagonist and former friend is
named Tyreen. The actor who played Sgt. Tyree in the Ford films was
future Oscar winner Ben Johnson who plays a Confederate sergeant in
Major Dundee and would become a member of Peckinpah's talented stock
company including among others R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates.

While the studio view was less reconcilable with the other concepts the
gulf between Heston's ambitions and Peckinpah's was not really large.
Heston's interest may have been more historical but Peckinpah's fondness
for character contradictions and conflicts finds an ideal background in
the Civil War.

At the heart of the story is the rivalry between Dundee and Tyreen.
Dundee is a Southerner who has chosen to fight for the Union but because
of an initiative he took at Gettysburg, he has been disciplined with the
command of Fort Benlin where he basically serves as warden to
Confederate prisoners. Tyreen once served under Dundee but he was
cashiered out of the army after he killed a fellow officer in a duel.
Dundee cast the deciding vote against Tyreen in his court martial.

Both protagonists are useful tools for exploring the differences in the
opposing views of the war. Dundee is an overreacher whose action at
Gettysburg may well be attributed to Dundee's need to prove himself.
Tyreen accuses Dundee of condemning him to "please the generals in
Washington." Dundee looks at the larger picture of things and is
contemptuous of plantation society and those who would betray their
country. But he cannot overlook that he is viewed with suspicion by
those he serves. Tyreen never sees the forest for the trees and
emphasizes matters of honor and personal alliances. He cannot forgive
Dundee for voting against his "friend" and fighting his neighbors.

Tyreen has also kept reinventing himself. He has been an Irish
immigrant, a Union officer and now a Confederate captain. "I fight for
the only country I have left," Tyreen proclaims suggesting less a
decisive allegiance than a process of elimination.

In their encounters Dundee and Tyreen try to taunt their opposite by
holding up a mirror to him, questioning what the other's identity is.

Heston's interest in the Civil War came at a time when he was well aware
of the ruptures in his country. The summer prior to the shooting of
Dundee he had participated in the 1963 March on Washington for civil
rights. He also seemed familiar with Dundee's sense of hubris and
implacability. After making an entry in his journal belittling Richard
Harris, Heston apologizes acknowledging that he (Heston) can be a
"hard-nosed son of a bitch."

Peckinpah quickly seized on the nature of Dundee's obsessiveness in his
relentless pursuit of the Apache. According to Fine, Peckinpah
appreciated the observation when R.G. Armstrong told him, "Sam this is
Moby Dick in the West."

There was a bit of psychodrama in the making of Major Dundee in various
ways, particularly in how hard Peckinpah ran his crew and actors and
wound up alienating many of them. The conditions for the shooting of the
film in Mexico were also very harsh and provided a strong atmosphere for
the performers to emulate their characters.

There would be many conflicts between the management and the artists on
Major Dundee but perhaps the most overriding clash was budgetary.

Peckinpah's frequent collaborator Jim Silke, is quoted by Fine as
saying, "Dundee was set up to be a film with intermissions, but the
producers had a schedule for a B film."

Heston, who was chosen to star in Dundee before Peckinpah was signed on
stands at the center of all this. Heston's status as an actor has for
too long been obscured by reactions to his political involvements and
the fame of his Biblical roles. At the very least he deserves the
gratitude of film fans around the world for having secured the services
of Orson Welles as director for Touch of Evil. And without demeaning his
earlier contributions, some of Heston's best and most complex roles came
AFTER he played Moses and Ben-Hur.

His portrayal of Dundee came at a time when he was playing some of his
most obsessive characters. It was during this period he took on the
title role in The War Lord, impersonated the immovable General Gordon in
Khartoum and was stuck up on the Sistine Chapel in The Agony and The
Ecstasy. One wonders what John Huston's film of Moby Dick might have
been like had Heston instead of his good friend Gregory Peck, played
Ahab but Dundee may have offered a second chance.

When Heston would assume such characters of granite implacability it
would always be tempting to look for chinks in his armor. Heston's
performances usually conveyed an intelligence that suggested a deeper
sensitivity to his characters. The War Lord was probably the film that
best explored the exposed vulnerability of the driven Heston hero. In
Major Dundee the question is more of how far Dundee can extend his reach
until something begins to crack.

After some clumsy attempts to interest the widow Teresa (who takes up
with Dundee's contingent when her village is raided) it is Dundee's
growing isolation from his men that pulls Teresa towards him. While
having their tryst by a river Dundee carelessly exposes them beyond his
picket lines and the Apaches attack wounding Dundee.

Dundee then has to be taken to a village where a doctor can care for
him. The doctor prescribes over a week of rest for the major but he
arrogantly assumes he can recover more quickly and instructs his men to
leave him in the town. His scout Sam Potts warns him, "You better stay
off those streets, Amos. You make an unlikely looking Mexican." (A dig
at Touch of Evil?)

In the originally released version there follows one of the film's most
jarring transitions. As the doctor completes his work, Dundee casts a
look at someone else in the room. There is a shot of a young woman who
is the object of his look, strumming a guitar, then a closeup of Dundee
obviously interested. The next scene has the door opening on the young
woman partly undressed and a cut to Teresa (Senta Berger) who knows that
Dundee has been cheating on her.

Dundee has been caught almost literally with his pants down but we know
nothing of what there was to this brief affair.

The Extended Version restores this interlude. When Dundee was treated
for his wounds he was gulping down liquor and the doctor had joked that
it may be running in his veins. Forced to stay in the room of his
mistress to avoid detection, Dundee complains when she returns that she
has not brought enough alcohol for him. Dundee then pursues her
physically noting that this is the last "battlefield" left for him to fight.

It is shortly after this that Teresa opens the door and grasps his
betrayal of her. Dundee tries one last appeal noting that the war will
not last forever to which Teresa replies, "For you, it will, major."

The missing "battlefield" line synchronizes with the war that will never
end for Dundee. It suggests that everything has become combat for this
man in conflict with himself so that his greatest vulnerability is to be
left by himself and he sinks deeper into drunkenness when Teresa leaves
him. "Don't you have any doubts about who you are?" Dundee asks Tyreen
when he comes to rescue him.

The restored footage gives a bit more of a pause to this sequence which
had rushed by much too quickly in the 1965 release. But it's still not
substantial enough for what should be an interval of Dundee taking stock
of himself. (According to Kitses this sequence would have included "a
long montage of his memories of all that has happened.")

One of the problems in discussing Major Dundee is that it is too easy to
focus solely on the characters played by Heston and Harris. But it is
part of both the richness and confusion of Major Dundee that it is
blessed with so many fascinatingly drawn secondary characters played by
gifted actors.

One of the most affecting characters is that of O.W. Hadley, marvelously
played by Warren Oates. Hadley is the only Confederate depicted as being
able to have a friendly conversation with the head of the black solders,
Aesop (Brock Peters). Earlier, as a peace gesture Tyreen had
complimented Aesop on the conduct of his men during the river crossing
but this was just a way of heading off a violent confrontation between
Union and Confederate forces over a racial incident. (When it was simply
a matter of a Confederate soldier racially bullying Aesop, Tyreen did
nothing.) Hadley's openness may also be a part of his being the most
anarchic of the Confederate contingent. At one point, he deserts and
when captured expects only the prescribed "whipping" that Tyreen has
given him on similar occasions. Instead, Dundee orders him shot by a
firing squad but Tyreen kills him before the order can be executed.

The most compelling secondary character is the chief scout of the
expedition, Sam Potts (James Coburn). As Dundee's friend, he can
criticize Dundee without invective; as a civilian he can separate
himself from tasks he considers repugnant. One-armed, half-Indian,
dressed in beads and buckskin he is detached from the military power
games and can see the foibles of both sides. When Dundee questions
whether the Indian scouts Potts has taken on can be trusted to turn
against their own people deadpans, "Why not, everybody else seems to be
doing it."

The scout that draws Dundee's deepest suspicion is Riago (Jose Carlos
Ruiz) who had been the scout for the massacred party and somehow
survived. Dundee never believes his loyalty but Potts stakes his job on
it. In the original release this issue is left unsettled.

But in another sequence restored to the film we learn Riago has suffered
a terrible fate at the hands of Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), the
Apache chief Dundee is pursuing. His body has been left to hang from a
tree. Potts refuses to cut him down and tells Dundee that because of his
doubts this should be the Major's job. When Dundee climbs up to set
Riago loose we see his limp body stretched out grotesquely in a
crucifixion posture.

Although Dundee tells a volunteering preacher that God has nothing to do
with this expedition, something of Heston's Biblical gravitas sometimes
follows him into his movies. One scene looks like a riff of one of his
Biblical roles. In the gathering at Fort Benlin after Tyreen rejects his
offer of volunteering and arouses the solidarity of his men, Dundee
walks directly into a sea of Confederate prisoners. As we are given
Dundee's point of view in a hand held camera shot we see the hostile
prisoners suddenly giving way and providing Dundee with a path to walk

In his pursuit of the Apache, Dundee leads his men to wander in the
desert for far more than forty days and nights. Like many incursions
this one takes them into situations they had not foreseen and some
questionable judgments by the Major. When they re-enter the United States
five months later the war is over and a way is open to unity.

With the additional footage one gets another chance to assess if the
messy and erratic Major Dundee is showing us a group of conflicted
self-destructive men or part of a nation trying to find its soul.

Frederic Lombardi is writing a book on the film director Allan Dwan for
McFarland & Co. Publishers.

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