Behind the camera on Major Dundee By Herb A Lightman
Filmed almost completely on location in the wilds of Mexico, roaring screen spectacle offers stimulating challenges to the cinematographer.
As Columbia Pictures’ Civil War epic, “Major Dundee” sweeps and thunders its way across the wide screen it becomes stunningly obvious that - while direction and performances are of the highest level, - ‘Dundee’ is essentially a cameraman’s picture. Few films have relied so heavily on visual impact, pictorial mood and camera virtuosity to achieve a total effect, and to the director of photography, Sam Leavitt, A.S.C. must go much of the credit for making Major Dundee a rousing show from beginning to end. Add to this the fact that at least 90% of the film’s intricate action (both interior and exterior) was filmed in actual locations extending over a vast area of the most tortuous terrain Mexico has to offer , and the achievement is doubly impressive.
The major story plot of “Dundee”, based loosely on a true incident, is simple – although its incisive explorations into human character under stress made necessary several sub=plots and tangents, all of which had to be woven into a cohesive cinematic unity.
Essentially, the story concerns Major Amos Dundee, 3rd U.S. Cavalry (played by Charlton Heston), a hard-bitten, cynical professional soldier whose over-harsh discipline has caused him to be shunted off to a New Mexico backwater to wait out the war. At remote Fort Benlin, he bitterly resents his role as a “keeper” of four hundred slowly decaying Confederate prisoners, as well as Union deserters, murderers and thieves – the dregs of the frontier.
His life becomes less humdrum, however, when he hears that an Apache “mad-dog” chieftain, Sierra Charriba, has brutally ambushed and murdered a detachment of soldiers along with women and female children at a nearby ranch. The male children have been abducted by Charriba to be brainwashed into [becoming] Apache warriors.
Meanwhile, back at the fort, Dundee is having problems Confederate captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) who has attempted to escape, along with four other prisoners, and has killed a guard in the process. Dundee and Tyreen are no strangers. At West Point, before the Civil War broke out, they were close friends, but their choosing of different sides in the struggle, further complicated by Tyreen’s slaying of a Northern Officer, has made them bitter enemies. As penalty for killing the guard, Dundee condemns Tyreen and the other would-be escapees to be hanged.
However, since Dundee cannot strip the Fort of Union troops to hunt down Charriba and rescue the kidnapped children, he is forced to ask for volunteers from the Confederate prisoners and the motley group of thieves and murderers. Gathering about him a raggle-taggle band of cutthroats, including Tyreen, he sets forth after Charriba’s scalp.
From that point on the action of the film becomes a protracted trek-chase, during the course of which the patrol is embroiled in bloody skirmishes with the Apaches as well as the French colonial troops, once they have crossed into Mexican territory. Interspersed with these mass battles are personal clashes between the two friends-turned enemies as they give vent to the peculiar love-hate rivalry which is fairly common among men in war.
Inevitably romance rears its lovely head in the seductively proportioned personification of Senta Berger, a Viennese beauty somewhat incongruously plunked down in the heart of the Mexican wilderness. Her main problem seems to be that deciding which of the two swashbucklers she cherishes the most – but for sheer geographical splendor she runs the spectacular Mexican scenery a close second.
And there is considerable Mexican scenery in the film, utilized to stunning visual and dramatic advantage, but involving one of the most widespread and arduous location safaris ever encountered by a motion picture company.
The technicians and actors who worked on “Dundee” roamed the outlands of Mexico from the Sierra Madre to the white tropical heat of the Rio Mescala; they filmed at sea level and then climbed to the labored-breath altitude of 10,000 feet at La Marquesa. It is a film of unrelenting wild action, with few interiors – photographed in cold, and mist, and in temperatures of 110 degrees.
In short, no matter what the terrain or physical discomfort, “Dundee” traveled where the actual story occurred to re-create for the International the bruising, savage trek of “C” Troop, U.S.A in 1864-65.
Like most creative cameramen, Sam Leavitt, A.S.C. regards each new filming assignment as a unique project demanding its own distinctive photographic style precisely keyed to the particular subject matter. “Major Dundee” had its own special atmosphere and he gave much pre-production thought to selecting a photographic point of view that would present the mood of the story most effectively.
“I tried to establish an individualistic concept of style in photographing this picture”, he comments. “I definitely didn’t want it to be in vivid color. I tried to capture more of a realistic quality in keeping with the subject. Many times color comes up too vividly, a sort of candy-cane type of color, which might be just right for a comedy or a musical, but in this one it had to be downbeat, an understated pastel quality – almost like a ‘color’ picture in black and white”
In following through on this concept, he worked closely with the wardrobe designer (Gordon Dawson) to keep the colors of the costumes muted. True reds and blues were avoided, and the fact that the costumes were supposed to be dirty during most of the action helped dull them down considerably. He designed his lighting in a low key so that shadows, unrelieved by fill light, could inject dark areas into the compositions. The over-all effect has much of the graphic, almost documentary quality achieved by Matthew Brady in his actual still photographs of Civil War action.
It is doubtful that any film in recent history had a “travelog” comparable to “Dundee.” Beginning in Durango, headquarters for the first month of shooting, the company trekked daily to the ice-rimmed Rio Mescala, some thirty miles away in the foothills of the fabled Sierra Madre. Then the location shifted to the Tiapas ruins of a 400 year old hacienda which was reconstructed as Fort Benlin.
It was here that Leavitt encountered his first problem. Although the company had brought along a sufficient number of “brute” arc lamps and generators to light most of the sequences to be shot, the lighting of the Tiapas ruins turned out to be more than what was bargained for.
“We had several night sequences in a tremendous prison yard where we had to light up six hundred prisoners and this was a great challenge,” Leavitt admits, “but there’s an old saying among cameramen: “You can shoot with two brutes as well as you can shoot with 22 brutes – if you know where to put them.’ It’s a matter of experience and knowing what can take care of itself.”
Asked why he did not fall back on the seemingly simple solution of shooting the sequence day-for-night, he replied:
“Most of our night scenes were actually shot at night. In a few cases, when there were mass action over terrain that was simply too vast to light, we were forced to shoot day-for-night, but to me, day-for-night always looks ‘day-for-night.‘ What you see at night is not what you see in the daytime, and if you try to make it look like night you are taking a chance. All you can do is under-expose your film and do the best you can, hoping that the laboratory can help you in getting the effect, but if you are required to shoot in areas where you have hot sands and hot skies, it’s very difficult to create a convincing day-for-night illusion.”
The ancient village of Chupaderos, some twenty kilometers from Durango, served as a “Dundee” locale for almost two weeks. Against purple ridges, the crew fought gale force winds that drove through the Chupaderos Valley. Next came the pastoral setting of Morcillo, and finally Saltito, in The Valley In The Name Of God, a favorite hiding spot for the legendary Pancho Villa.
Since “Major Dundee” is a “man’s picture” in the most literal sense of the term, great pains were taken to get the mostly all-male cast to appear as rugged as possible. Low angles were often used to make the characters seem to loom larger than life, as indeed they must have, judging from historical records of their violent exploits. Strong cross-lighting, un-softened by fill light, made their features stand out as if chiseled from granite. It is safe to say that the actors appearing in this film have never looked so harshly virile on the screen before.
Yet Leavitt’s photographic treatment of the story was not unrelieved blood-and-guts. The romantic sequences allowed him to inject poetic overtones into the total tapestry. An idyllic bathing-in-a-woodland-pool sequence has an almost idealized time-out-of-war visual mood, faithfully capturing the nostalgia men in war have always felt when dreaming of home.
The sequence in which Heston bids a romantic farewell to the voluptuous Miss Berger was filmed against strongly back-lighted crumbling arches with a camera angle accenting the loneliness of terrain stretching of into infinity. In this sequence, Leavitt managed to capture the almost Dali-esque beauty of a surrealist landscape dwarfing the human figures against the vast emptiness of unknown Fate.
After these love scenes between Charlton Heston and Senta Berger had been filmed in Zacatopec, the “Dundee” company settled on the banks of the Tehuixtla River, where heavy action began, with Indian battles. The stock company of stunt men led the river fighting, while Panavision cameras, mounted on dolly trucks laid in the bed of the river, trucked along with the tumult.
Finishing up at Tehuixtla with a whirlwind action sequence, “Dundee” moved to the Cuautla area, in the heart of pineapple and sugar cane country. Another venerable hacienda, in ruins since the days of Zapata, became the “set” for this sequence of the Civil War story. Hacienda Pantitlan, one hour’s ride from Cuautla, was in such neglect that the walls had to be propped up to keep them tumbling in on the film-makers.
Here was encountered once more the typical location interior problem of where to find room for lamps, dolly tracks, camera equipment and actors in the cramped confines of the ancient hacienda which had been converted to a bar for the sequence. Unable to avoid having some of the lamps intrude into the composition, Leavitt simply had them painted to blend with the background, a desperate measure resorted to by many professional cameramen when everything else fails.
A yawning gorge was the next before the cameras. This canyon was selected to be the death trap of Sierra Charriba. Next, the company moved to Jonacatapec, still another example of time-halted civilization, for the introduction of the French lancer forces. Tlayacapan, where time seldom reaches at all; where pre-Columbian art may be found by digging in the ruins, was the final location site for the Cuautla environs.
The Rio Mescala, forty kilometers from Chilpancingo, and tucked down in desolate hills, was the locale for the wind-up battle scenes of “Major Dundee”. Four hundred members of the 13th Mexican Cavalry changed into uniforms of French lancers for this climatic action, clashing head-on in unbelievably violent film battles that raged all along the banks of the Mescala for ten days.
By 10.00a.m. each morning the temperature was usually over one hundred degrees and still climbing. The Rio Mescala had its own weaponry of red ants, chiggers and mosquitoes. Few locations have served up so much misery. But Mescala provided spectacular back-drops for the cavalry fights. “Major Dundee” was finally completed with the burning of an entire ranch at La Marquesa.
Like most of the A.S.C. Directors of Photography who have worked in the film industry since the silent days, Sam Leavitt tends to play down the problems confronting the Hollywood cinematographer. The simple fact is that these veterans of the camera have, on one film or another through the years, encountered and solved most every imaginable photographic problem, so that they are inclined to take everything in their stride. This does not detract, however, from their achievement or their accumulated know-how which has made them the greatest camera craftsmen in the world.
While admitting that “Major Dundee” was one of the most difficult films he has ever worked on due to its many rugged locations, Leavitt still finds such films a stimulating experience to photograph.
“I feel that shooting in practical locations is a special challenge to the camera man, but that’s what most professional cinematographers welcome – a challenge that may make it possible for them to achieve a different style of photography,” he observes. “Of course its much harder than working in a studio – at least twice as hard, I’d say – because the cameraman has nowhere to place his lights, especially if he’s moving around making dolly shots. But it’s a challenge that keeps you on your toes.”Winner of The Academy “Oscar” for his black-and-white photography of “The Defiant Ones,” Sam Leavitt’s credit has appeared on many of Hollywood’s most distinguished films including (besides “Major Dundee”) “Exodus,” “Advise And Consent” and “Diamond Head