Major Dundee (Blu-ray)
Released by: Twilight Time
Released on: April 15, 2013.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger, Jim Hutton
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Set towards the end of the American Civil War, Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is not the director’s finest moment but despite its many and obvious flaws it remains an interesting picture in and amongst other entries in a decidedly interesting filmography. The storyline follows the titular character, Major Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston), an ambitious Union officer who decides that he and his men will venture into the wilderness to take back some boys that were captured by the Apache Indians after a raid on a fort that left countless dead. He figures if he can save the boys and bring in the Apache’s notorious leader, Charriba (Michael Pate), it’ll do wonders for what’s left of his reputation.
As he sets out to accomplish his goal regardless of the dangers involved, he and his troops contend with the presence of his once and former friend, Confederate Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). They form an uneasy truce in order to bring Charriba in, but make no promises as to what will happen once that’s over and done with. Along for the ride is a scout named Samuel Potts (James Coburn) and together they all head into Mexico, fairly unaware of what fate holds in store for them.
Major Dundee was a notoriously damned production. Peckinpah, being Peckinpah, wanted to create a truly epic western but wound up going over budget and wreaking havoc with his shooting schedule. Charlton Heston notoriously charged at him on the set and the director more or less put his men through the Hell that their characters would travel through in the movie. In its theatrical form, the movie is almost a complete mess, a disjointed picture that introduces characters who are never seen again and which throws out various plot threads that don’t even come close to a proper resolution. And yet there are those moments that show just how damn good a filmmaker Peckinpah could be when the stars aligned properly. The cast is excellent and Heston’s great as the grizzled tough guy lead. This is the type of role he was born for and the camera loves him. Harris is also great, he and Heston have a complicated relationship that borders on obsessive at times, while supporting efforts from the likes of James Coburn, Michael Pate, Jim Hutton, Mario Adorf and the mighty Warren Oates only serve to round things out in the best way possible. Throw in the beautiful Senta Berger as eye candy (she isn’t a well-defined character at all) and the amount of talent that appears in front of the camera is remarkable.
The theatrical version is trumped by the 2005 restoration – and for the record this Blu-ray from Twilight Time, like the 2-disc DVD set from Columbia that preceded it, includes both versions – but it’s still far from a perfect film. As so much of the picture was taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and as he is no longer with us there’s no way for the definitive director’s cut to actually ever exist. The restoration team did the best with what they had and this newer version fills in some blanks here and there. It’s a better and more complete film and an obvious precursor to what Peckinpah would accomplish with this next picture, The Wild Bunch. There are plenty of similarities between the two pictures that link them as cinematic siblings, and they explore many of the same themes and ideas (at their simplest, both films both follow a gang of hardened men into Mexico on a mission that they may not come back from).
There’s really so much potential here for the movie to have been a legitimate classic that watching the movie in either form is almost tragic. Maybe Peckinpah overextended his reach, maybe he wasn’t ready to take on a project of this magnitude and technical/logistical complexity but when it works, when Major Dundee feels like Peckinpah’s work and not like a recut atrocity completely buggered up by studio executives, it’s gold. Granted, you’ve got to sit through a lot of obvious misfires, mistakes and completely baffling editing choices to find those nuggets, but they’re there and worth looking for.
Both cuts of Major Dundee debut on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in rock solid AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentations framed properly at 2.35.1 widescreen. There’s a bit of ringing here and there and there are spots where the extended footage shows a dip in quality compared to that used for the theatrical material but by and large this is quite a nice improvement over the previous DVD release. Texture and detail aren’t quite reference quality but they are definitely up to the standards of the format while the movie’s grain structure is left alone as it should be, resulting in some nice, film like viewing. Skin tones are good, if just ever so slightly cooler looking than maybe they could have been, while black levels are good as is color reproduction.
English language options are provided for both versions of the movie, with the extended cut getting a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and the theatrical cut a DTS-HD Mono track with an English closed captioning option provided for each version of the movie. The 5.1 mix spreads out the score and effects rather well without going too overboard and monkeying with the film’s style, while the mono mix will no bout be the version purists prefer. Regardless of which track you choose, dialogue stays clean and clear and there are no issues with hiss or distortion. The score has more range and depth on the 5.1 track and some of the directional effects do make the action scenes a bit more fun.
Aside from the two versions of the movie, for the extended cut we get a commentary track from Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle in which the participants banter back and forth about the convoluted history of the movie and offer up some interesting and often times very different interpretations of certain scenes. It’s an entertaining mix of historical fact and critical insight. We also get a trailer for the 2005 re-release and an isolated version of Christopher Caliendo’s score in DTS-HD 2.0 format.
On the second disc, which contains the theatrical cut, we get Daniele Amfitheatrof original score in isolated DTS-HD 2.0 along with four minutes of outtakes, the film’s original promo reel, some trailer artwork outtakes and the original theatrical trailer. Additionally, there’s a short extended scene between Dundee and Theresa and an incomplete deleted scene entitled knife fight. Both discs feature static menus and chapter selection.
Inside the keepcase is a full color booklet of liner notes that offer up some history about the production and the many problems that it encountered as well as some critical insight into the film’s pros and cons and some notes on the 2005 restoration of the picture.
The Final Word:
While few would regard Major Dundee as Peckinpah’s finest work, it’s an interesting step in his career and while it’s absolutely got its share of problems, so too does it have some truly excellent moments. If nothing else, it’s a chance to watch a great cast do some fine work and while the studio meddling and production problems obviously hurt the picture, it’s still very much a movie worth seeing. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents the movie in very nice condition in both cuts and with a solid collection of supplements as well. A strong release over all.