The story of the troubled production of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee is almost as compelling as the film itself. The director reportedly defied Columbia Pictures and producer Jerry Bresler by turning in a sprawling, violent, and bloody motion picture which would have had a running time of approximately 160 minutes. Bresler and the studio took the film away from Peckinpah and chopped it down to 122 minutes, which regrettably led to continuity problems, incomplete character development, and unresolved plot issues. To make matters worse, Bresler commissioned a score by Daniele Amfitheatrof which Peckinpah reportedly loathed (the inappropriately upbeat "Major Dundee March," which is sung by Mitch Miller's Gang over the opening credits, is jarringly awful). The good news is that in 2005 fourteen minutes of excised footage was restored, and both the theatrical version and the extended version are now available on a gorgeous limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time.
Distributed By: Twilight Time
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 1.0 DTS-HDMA (Mono), English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 2 Hr. 2 Min. theatriical 2 Hr. 16 Min. extended
Package Includes: Blu-rayTwo-Disc Amray
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 04/16/2013
If I signal you to come, you come. If I signal you to charge, you charge. If I signal you to run, you follow me and run like hell. - Major Amos Dundee, United States Cavalry
The Production Rating: 3.5/5
The story of the troubled production of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee is almost as compelling as the film itself. The director reportedly defied Columbia Pictures and producer Jerry Bresler by turning in a sprawling, violent, bloody motion picture which would have had a running time of approximately 160 minutes. Bresler and the studio took the film away from Peckinpah and chopped it down to 122 minutes, which regrettably led to continuity problems, incomplete character development, and unresolved plot issues. To make matters worse, Bresler commissioned a score by Daniele Amfitheatrof which Peckinpah reportedly loathed (the inappropriately upbeat "Major Dundee March," which is sung by Mitch Miller's Gang over the opening credits, is jarringly awful). The good news is that in 2005 fourteen minutes of excised footage was restored, and both the theatrical version and the extended version are now available on a gorgeous limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time.
Major Dundee opens in the New Mexico Territory in the fall of 1864. The Civil War is still underway, but both the Union and the Confederacy have significant numbers of troops serving in the west. The film opens at the scene of a massacre where both Union cavalry and civilian ranchers were slaughtered by rampaging Apaches led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate). The cavalry had been dispatched from Fort Benlin, a military prison which houses deserters and Confederate prisoners of war. The commanding officer of Fort Benlin is Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), who fought at Gettysburg but was exiled to his new post in New Mexico after clashing with his superiors.
Dundee is advised by his chief scout, Samuel Potts (James Coburn), that the Apaches have abducted several young boys from the ranch to raise as Apache warriors in Mexico. Potts is assisted by an Apache scout, Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), who is not trusted by Dundee. The Major, who is obviously unhappy with his role as a prison warden and wants to rehabilitate his military reputation, vows to rescue the children. However, he has to overcome two significant obstacles. He will have to track down the Apaches by making an unauthorized foray into Mexico, and he does not have a sufficient number of soldiers to support a prolonged campaign. Dundee disregards the fact that he does not have authorization, and he decides to recruit soldiers from both the civilian population and his Confederate prisoners. The principal roadblock to Dundee's plan is his history with the senior Confederate officer, Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). Dundee and Tyreen had once served in the U.S. Army together, but when Tyreen was court-martialed for dueling Dundee was one of the officers who voted to convict him. When the Civil War began Dundee remained faithful to the Union and Tyreen became a Confederate officer.
Tyreen eventually agrees to volunteer himself and his men to join Dundee and go after Sierra Charriba. An impressive group of supporting actors portrays the newly-formed company of cavalry. Jim Hutton is Lieutenant Graham, a seemingly hapless officer whose competence increases as his experience grows. Other members of the cast include Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and L.Q. Jones. The kidnapped children are recovered in short order, but by then it has become apparent that Dundee's real goal is to destroy Sierra Charibba and his Apache warriors. Complications develop when the troops arrive in a Mexican village and become entangled with French troops who are in Mexico to support the short-lived Second Mexican Empire under Maximilian I. While in the village Dundee and Tyreen meet and compete for the charms of Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the recently widowed wife of a doctor who was executed by the French for supporting the Mexican rebels led by Benito Juárez.
Conflicts among the pursuers abound during the search for Sierra Charibba. Tyreen has given his word that he and his soldiers will follow Dundee's orders, but only "until the Apache is taken or destroyed." The Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers distrust one another, and the presence of black soldiers among the Union troops exacerbates the tensions. Curiously, we learn very little about the Apaches or their leader, and the film suffers because of this. It occurred to me that in their own way both Dundee and Sierra Charibba are renegades, but that aspect of their adversarial relationship is never explored. The additional footage makes the extended version a significant improvement over the theatrical version, but there are still some continuity and pacing issues. It is clear that some awkward cutting was ordered by producer Bresler to reduce the violence in the battle scenes. The superfluous sub-plot involving Teresa Santiago is fleshed out a bit but still goes nowhere.
As noted, Sam Peckinpah was extremely unhappy with the musical score which was commissioned for the theatrical cut by Jerry Bresler. It gets off to a bad start with the curiously upbeat "Major Dundee March," which plays over the opening credits while the remnants of an Apache massacre are smoldering in the background. For the extended version Columbia decided that the film needed an entirely new score, which was composed by Christopher Caliendo. The "Major Dundee March" is nowhere to be found in the extended version, but the original score has been retained with the theatrical version.
Major Dundee is not the film it could have been and should have been, but there still is much to recommend it. The cast is superlative and the acting is uniformly excellent. The movie was filmed on location in Mexico and many of the shots are simply spectacular. Sadly, we will never have the opportunity to see the film which Sam Peckinpah intended to make, but we at least now have a decent approximation of his vision.
The Blu-ray release of Major Dundee is a limited edition of 3,000 copies and has the potential of selling out. One seller at Amazon is already asking $75.99 for it, but as of this writing it is still available from Screen Archives Entertainment, both on their website and through Amazon.
This Blu-ray presentation of Major Dundee is spectacular. The 2.35:1 1080p video is delivered via the MPEG-4 AVC codec, and it beautifully captures Sam Leavitt's outstanding cinematography with exceptional sharpness and color fidelity. Strong black levels and excellent shadow detail are big plusses because much of the action takes place at night. There is no evidence of excessive digital manipulation, and an appropriate level of grain has been retained to give Major Dundee a pleasing film-like appearance.
Video Rating: 5/5 3D Rating: NA
The 5.1 DTS HD-MA audio quality on the extended version is nearly the equal of the video, although it is constrained somewhat by the limitations of the original soundtrack. It has been reported that little audio work was done in post-production to contain costs, and the result is that parts of dialogue are low and nearly drowned out by other sounds. There are a few scenes in the extended version in which lines are spoken in Spanish and there are no subtitles, but this does not prevent the Spanish-impaired from understanding the gist of what is being said.
Audio Rating: 4/5
The mono audio on the theatrical cut does not have the punch and breadth of the extended version, but it is nicely done and will certainly satisfy fans of that version of Major Dundee.
English SDH subtitles are available for both versions of the film.
There are many excellent extras on this Blu-ray release. There are isolated score tracks for both the original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof and the new score by Christopher Caliendo. The extended version includes a worthwhile and informative audio commentary by film historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. The extended version also includes the 2005 re-release trailer which is narrated by L.Q. Jones.
Special Features Rating: 4.5/5
The extras with the theatrical cut include the original trailer, silent outtakes, trailer artwork outtakes, and an excerpt from an exhibitor promo reel. Also included are an extended scene of Dundee with Teresa, and an incomplete deleted scene of a knife fight.
As is always the case with Twilight Time releases, there is an eight-page color booklet with still photos and an incisive and informative essay by Julie Kirgo. One remarkable fact which she relates is that Charlton Heston offered to give up his salary when Columbia threatened to shut down production, so he effectively worked for nothing. Julie also has a way with words, as when she states that Senta Berger "is dragged pointlessly through the film by the pneumatic grandeur of her bosom."
The two discs are packaged in a standard-size, two-sided amray case.
Major Dundee could have been a great film, but studio interference turned it into a confusing and ultimately unsatisfying one. The extended version remedies some of the problems with the theatrical cut, and it certainly allows viewers to get a better sense of what it would have looked like if Peckinpah had been allowed to have his way with it. We know that he intended to make more of an issue about Dundee's arrogance in violating the boundaries of one foreign country (Mexico) and taking up arms against the troops of another (France). He also intended to open the film with a spectacular scene of the Apache raid, but Columbia pulled the plug on him. What we are left with is a flawed but intriguing film which is now available in a wonderful two-disc Blu-ray set.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Reviewed By: Richard Gallagher
Support HTF when you buy this title:
Click here to view the review