Sam Peckinpah's 1965 western starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris gets
the full lost-masterpiece treatment.
By Stephanie Zacharek
When we talk about a lost masterpiece, we're usually thinking of, or at least
hoping for, a treasure that exists somewhere in a close-to-perfect form, if only
we could find it. With movies, it's almost never that easy.
"Major Dundee," Sam Peckinpah's first large-scale western, is a lost masterpiece
of the imagination. When it was released, in 1965, the picture was rejected by
critics and audiences alike, but not because Peckinpah had fallen down on the
job. The picture was beset by problems from the start: Its studio, Columbia, cut
its budget by a third before filming had even begun. And beyond the fact that
certain key scenes were never even shot, the picture was taken from Peckinpah
and cut by some 20 to 50 minutes before its release. As it was originally seen,
"Major Dundee" had some baffling gaps, and historically, it has been treated as
a potentially great picture and a frustrating disappointment.
Sony Pictures has at last redressed -- or attempted to redress -- the sins of
its corporate fathers by restoring as much as possible of Peckinpah's original
cut and commissioning a new score -- a fine one, by Christopher Caliendo -- more
in keeping with the spirit of the picture. "Major Dundee: The Extended Version"
-- which opens Friday in New York at Film Forum, and April 15 in Los Angeles and
Boston, to be followed by stints in other major cities thereafter -- isn't the
model of clarity that Peckinpah fans may be hoping for. While the plot is easy
enough to follow, the second half of the picture still doesn't come close to
fulfilling the promises of the first, suggesting that while the studio's
butchery certainly didn't help "Major Dundee," some of the movie's problems may
have been rooted deeper in its conception.
But the flaws of "Major Dundee" don't begin to nag at you until after the fact:
As the picture unfolds, for the first hour at least, it has the look and feel of
a masterpiece -- it's a picture rushing toward something, and despite the grave
disappointment that it never quite gets there, you never doubt you're in the
presence of greatness.
Charlton Heston stars as Amos Dundee, a demoted Union officer who's been put in
charge of a prison filled with lowlifes. A group of renegade Apaches have just
led a massacre on a New Mexico settlement; Dundee has been assigned to rescue
two young boys who have been abducted (the rest of the settlement has been
killed) and to capture or kill the group's leader, Sierra Charriba (Michael
It's late 1864, and the Civil War has drained the supply of good, able men. So
in order to complete the assignment that will restore his honor -- in his own
mind, at least -- Dundee assembles the best team of men he can find, which
includes several dutiful Union officers (played by Michael Anderson Jr., Brock
Peters and the great Jim Hutton), a leathery, one-armed scout (James Coburn),
assorted horse thieves and drunkards (played by the wonderful Peckinpah regulars
Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens), and a group of scruffy, stubborn Confederate
prisoners (among them Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones) led by Captain Benjamin
Tyreen (Richard Harris), who's so reluctant to serve the enemy that he asks to
be put to death instead: He'd rather fight than switch.
But Dundee needs Tyreen desperately, and the conflict between the two is what
gives the picture its rustic delicacy and emotional sharpness. Dundee and Tyreen
have a murky past: They were formerly friends and West Point classmates, but
Dundee can't forgive Tyreen, an Irish immigrant, for going off to fight for the
wrong side. The fractured friendship between the two men intensifies their
differences: Tyreen is something of a rapscallion, but he's also a spirited,
visionary leader who has earned the respect of his men. Dundee is obstinate and
literal, and he demands obedience, but we get the sense he was once something
more -- some wartime disgrace or horror has eroded him, but we don't quite know
what it is.
Unfortunately, Dundee is set up to be a more complex character than he ever
turns out to be. At the beginning we see him as noble, reliable and steadfast,
but he's also a cracked man. Armed with those shorthand clues, we keep waiting
for him to become interesting, and he never does. Meanwhile, Tyreen, whose
sexual charisma is a chief component of his leadership qualities -- not even
Dundee can resist him -- holds us in a fugue state of anticipation. What will he
do next? When will we see him again? He's the devilish boy who leaves us
Still, Dundee's inner torture remains the movie's focus, and there's never any
release valve for it. When the movie ends, we understand him less than we did at
the beginning -- and, even worse, we care for him less. It's nearly
incomprehensible that the luscious Senta Berger, as a no-nonsense doctor's widow
in a Mexican town, chooses the solid, dutiful, dull Dundee over Tyreen, the
devilish rake. She needs duty, honor and reliability in her life: She's just
that kind of woman. But even if it makes sense for the character, it's
The common wisdom about westerns -- at least among people who have never
actually seen one -- is that they're all about action and not at all about
character development or human relationships. Tell that to Anthony Mann, Budd
Boetticher or Howard Hawks, who made '50s westerns that revealed the underlying
tensions and anxieties of an incredibly complicated era. And Peckinpah, who made
the greatest westerns of the '60s, is best known (and often conveniently
dismissed) for the balletic violence of his movies, but he's really all about
relationships. Maybe that's why the failings of "Major Dundee" are so
frustrating -- the battle sequences, particularly the climactic clash between
Dundee's raggedy men and a dazzling brigade of French lancers, are as
beautifully executed as you'd expect from Peckinpah. It's the love story -- and
I'm talking about the one between Dundee and Tyreen -- that's disappointingly
soft and shapeless.
Then again, maybe that's where the real value of "Major Dundee: The Extended
Version" lies -- in the way it forces us to confront the conflict between the
movie in front of us and the movie we wish we were seeing. Not even this
extended version is the picture Peckinpah intended, a fact that those who
restored it (beautifully, by the way) freely admit: In the press notes for the
movie's Film Forum release, Sony's Grover Crisp speaks of having created "a
longer and, hopefully, more authentic version of the film." This extended "Major
Dundee" is, he notes, "an attempt to restore a film that was never really
completed, and for which there can never be any truly definitive version."
Since "Major Dundee" was so heavily compromised from the very start -- and even
this new version is still missing original footage -- we can assume that what
we're seeing isn't even close to the picture Peckinpah had originally meant to
make. But at the very least, this extended version gives us a chance to bask in
the magnificence that is there. Even if the picture falls apart in the second
half, the first half is loaded with individual scenes that are beautifully
staged and acted. A rousing fiesta sequence is marked by a creeping sense of
dread, presaging the fiesta scene in "The Wild Bunch." And a sequence in which
one of Tyreen's coarse, surly soldiers demands that a black Union soldier
(played by Brock Peters) kneel down and remove his boots plays out with such
tightly coiled tension that it's almost like a mini movie in itself: Its rhythms
are marvelously controlled and sophisticated.
And then there's the look of the thing: Shot by Sam Leavitt in a palette of
dusty grays and muted sand tones, "Major Dundee" features so many gorgeous
compositions that it's easy to lose yourself in them. The landscapes in the
picture are so vital they practically breathe, yet they never detract from the
actors. And both Heston and Harris easily live up to the beauty of those
Even though the material lets Heston down in the second half, in the first half,
he's a repository of thorny masculinity, someone whose secrets we want to know.
What has broken him? And why is he so driven to fight this particular enemy?
Heston is stunningly handsome here, a dusty sun god of the West, and Peckinpah
and his camera are wholly alive to his masculine beauty. (It's also important to
note that, when the studio threatened to pull the plug on "Major Dundee," Heston
paid back his own salary so some crucial missing scenes could be shot. The
studio took the money and failed to film the scenes, but Heston's actions stand
as a testament to his commitment to the picture, and to Peckinpah.)
As stunning-looking as Heston is, though, Harris -- a very young Harris -- still
manages to steal the movie, and not just on looks alone. Harris delivers his
lines as if all the West -- not just the West of the western-movie tradition,
but all of Western culture -- were his stage. Without coming off as overrefined
or highfalutin, he brings a Shakespearean prickliness to the picture. In one of
his finest moments, he assures Dundee he will never fight for the North. The
United States is "not my country," he asserts. "I damn its flag and I damn you.
And I would rather hang than serve." The words ring out in ripples like the peal
of a bell, a sound that could stretch from sea to shining sea and back again.
Harris looks regal, even in the tattered officer's uniform he wears at the
beginning of the picture. He's the perfect embodiment of one of Peckinpah's
favorite themes -- the way stalwart values like honor and loyalty remain durable
and valuable even when the civilized fabric around them has been cut to ribbons.
Or especially when that fabric has been cut to ribbons: Notions of honor and
loyalty are easy enough to cling to when things are going smoothly; it's when
civilization goes askew that they're most needed. "Major Dundee" should have
been one of the great movies of the '60s. As it is, it's half a great movie. But
in the real world we live in -- one in which artistry is so often betrayed and
craftsmanship butchered -- even half a masterpiece is better than none. As
flawed as it is, "Major Dundee" maintains its dignity in the face of the
injustices that were done to it. Ripped-up and ragtag, it still holds its head
Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.