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Major Dundee Blu-ray Review

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#1 of 21 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 20 2013 - 04:16 PM

Major Dundee Blu-ray Review

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.


Cover Art


Studio: Sony

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

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 Hr. 2 Min. theatriical 2 Hr. 16 Min. extended

Package Includes: Blu-ray

Two-Disc Amray

Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)

Region: All

Release Date: 04/16/2013

MSRP: $34.95




The Production Rating: 3.5/5

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 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.



Video Rating: 5/5  3D Rating: NA

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.



Audio Rating: 4/5

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.

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.



Special Features Rating: 4.5/5

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.

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.



Overall Rating: 4.5/5

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.

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


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#2 of 21 OFFLINE   FoxyMulder

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Posted April 20 2013 - 04:31 PM

I gotta say that although you note the Major Dundee march is inappropriate in some scenes of the film, it is still very good, i certainly like it and it stays in your head for many days after listening to it, its a shame we don't have a time travel machine so we could go back and save the original cut of the film.


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#3 of 21 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 20 2013 - 04:46 PM

I gotta say that although you note the Major Dundee march is inappropriate in some scenes of the film, it is still very good, i certainly like it and it stays in your head for many days after listening to it, its a shame we don't have a time travel machine so we could go back and save the original cut of the film.

 

I would have liked the march much better if it weren't for the lame lyrics, which destroy it for me. The tune itself is catchy.


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#4 of 21 OFFLINE   David_Blackwell

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Posted April 20 2013 - 05:19 PM

I almost want to buy this one since I already have the DVD of the extended cut.


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#5 of 21 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted April 20 2013 - 07:05 PM

I have been on record a number of times in the past as objecting to the fact that this release does not provide the option the DVD gave us which allowed us to see the extended cut with the original score.     I still object to this, just as I feel that the matter of the score replacement was wrong to begin with.     I will not watch the version with the replacement score but in the end, thanks to a financial windfall that enabled me to in effect get this for nothing, I did get a copy for the sole purpose of being able to rip Amfitheatrof's score off the theatrical cut to a CD and judge the overall score on its proper merits (since I doubt very much there'll ever be a regular CD release of the score).    Frankly, I came away more impressed because Amfitheatrof's score for the moments of Dundee and Potts surveying the massacre and also for the execution of Hadley is brilliantly done, while the main theme of the Dundee march serves as a good anchor for the film's score overall.      The song over the inappropriate visuals at the beginning is the thing that blackened its reputation and had it simply been held back to the end credits only, I think the to-do over the score would have been a lot less.

 

Frankly, given that Peckinpah never bothered to write an ending for the film (not a single version of the shooting script ever has us learn what happened when they returned to the fort) and that much of the film's problems turn up in the final 40 minutes which he was mostly responsible for writing, I seriously doubt that his 161 minute cut would have been a better viewing experience.    The 136 minute cut restores the only two scenes of critical importance that were supposedly shot, which is the scene of the Confederate prisoners being recaptured at the beginning and most importantly, the scene that resolves the fate of the scout Riago and also shows us at long last that the final battle with the Apache was based on some genuine strategy.    Without it, we lost the context for that final battle.       If Peckinpah didn't shoot a longer version of the Rostes Ranch massacre (and the word is he didn't) then frankly I don't think 25 more minutes of scenes in the main body of the film would have helped, especially with the lack of a proper ending.   If anything, we had way too much tedium in the scenes in the villages, the raid on the French and the whole Senta Berger subplot and Dundee's wounding drags the picture to a halt.    These scenes I might add were the ones that were mostly the product of Peckinpah's rewrite of the script.     The paperback novelization which was based on the first draft Harry Julian Fink script, has some remarkable differences from the final version that show Dundee less of the Ahab figure that Peckinpah turned him into, and which I don't think was a good move (though Peckinpah did strengthen many other aspects such as the relationship between Dundee and Tyreen).


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#6 of 21 OFFLINE   Spencer Draper

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Posted April 20 2013 - 07:39 PM

I have been on record a number of times in the past as objecting to the fact that this release does not provide the option the DVD gave us which allowed us to see the extended cut with the original score.     I still object to this, just as I feel that the matter of the score replacement was wrong to begin with.     I will not watch the version with the replacement score but in the end, thanks to a financial windfall that enabled me to in effect get this for nothing, I did get a copy for the sole purpose of being able to rip Amfitheatrof's score off the theatrical cut to a CD and judge the overall score on its proper merits (since I doubt very much there'll ever be a regular CD release of the score).    Frankly, I came away more impressed because Amfitheatrof's score for the moments of Dundee and Potts surveying the massacre and also for the execution of Hadley is brilliantly done, while the main theme of the Dundee march serves as a good anchor for the film's score overall.      The song over the inappropriate visuals at the beginning is the thing that blackened its reputation and had it simply been held back to the end credits only, I think the to-do over the score would have been a lot less.

 

 

Frankly, given that Peckinpah never bothered to write an ending for the film (not a single version of the shooting script ever has us learn what happened when they returned to the fort) and that much of the film's problems turn up in the final 40 minutes which he was mostly responsible for writing, I seriously doubt that his 161 minute cut would have been a better viewing experience.    The 136 minute cut restores the only two scenes of critical importance that were supposedly shot, which is the scene of the Confederate prisoners being recaptured at the beginning and most importantly, the scene that resolves the fate of the scout Riago and also shows us at long last that the final battle with the Apache was based on some genuine strategy.    Without it, we lost the context for that final battle.       If Peckinpah didn't shoot a longer version of the Rostes Ranch massacre (and the word is he didn't) then frankly I don't think 25 more minutes of scenes in the main body of the film would have helped, especially with the lack of a proper ending.   If anything, we had way too much tedium in the scenes in the villages, the raid on the French and the whole Senta Berger subplot and Dundee's wounding drags the picture to a halt.    These scenes I might add were the ones that were mostly the product of Peckinpah's rewrite of the script.     The paperback novelization which was based on the first draft Harry Julian Fink script, has some remarkable differences from the final version that show Dundee less of the Ahab figure that Peckinpah turned him into, and which I don't think was a good move (though Peckinpah did strengthen many other aspects such as the relationship between Dundee and Tyreen).

 

Is it true that you can't watch the extended version with the original score? If so, that's a major fail because the 5.1 mix doesn't always fit the tone of events onscreen. Despite the morbidly cheesy title theme, the original mono track has the better score and generally more appropriate mixing for the film. And I love that weird musical effect in the mono track, the movie isn't complte without it! :)

 

I agree that the original cut may not be the great film it is rumored to be, but even the misfiring version we have has some kind of greatness. It's a fascinating movie on several levels and has arguably Heston's best performance.


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#7 of 21 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 20 2013 - 07:40 PM

I don't know if another 25 minutes or so would have made it a better film, but at least it would have been Peckinpah's film.

 

I agree with you about the Senta Berger subplot. As I mentioned in the review, it goes nowhere and there is no payoff, and it certainly disrupts the pacing of the film.

 

I take no issue with anyone who prefers the original score. Music is a very personal taste. But the lyrics to the march - "Fall in and I will wager that the Major brings all of us back...Fall in behind the Major and we'll all get home again." Seriously? Ned Washington wrote some great lyrics during his career and I have to believe that he had never seen Major Dundee when he wrote the words to the march. 


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#8 of 21 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted April 20 2013 - 08:23 PM

Incidentally, these are some of the differences from the first draft of the script before Peckinpah was brought in and which turned up in the novelization.

 

1-Bugler Ryan, the sole survivor of the Rostes massacre was a more important character.    In fact the diary entries he makes is really the last remaining vestige of the original script in which it is Ryan's journal of the experience that serves as the focal point.     Curiously, unlike the final version he isn't the one to kill Chariba.

 

2-There was no Senta Berger character at all.   Instead, the token female of the story is a woman named Mary Brown, who is rescued from the Apache during one of the battles in Mexico after having been a prisoner of the Apache and before the Comanche for years.     She is in a shell-shocked condition, and then later the Confederate Chillum (the character eventually played by Ben Johnson) tries to rape her necessitating his execution by Dundee.    This comes after the previous execution for desertion of another Confederate (not the Hadley character who is not in the earlier draft).    In both instances Dundee's executions are totally justified, showing that the character was originally envisioned in far more heroic terms.     Mary is killed while walking with Dundee afterwards, which is what causes his wound and the reprisal raid is what results in the final slaughter of Chariba and those responsible for the massacure.     There was also no battle with the French until the end, which means the original version had a more linear, simpler approach of fighting the Apache only inside Mexico and then the matter of the French just being the detail to get past at the end.

 

3-In the final battle with the French, the Confederates get across and turn back to save Dundee and Ryan lets himself get captured so he can help Dundee escape.   Ryan is taken prisoner by the French feeling glad he helped Dundee (recovering from his earlier wound) get to safety.     In a postscript we learn that the Confederates (including Tyreen who lives) escaped to Texas and Tyreen eventually swore loyalty to the Union again and got elected to Congress, while Dundee returned to the Fort, was not disciplined and stayed in the Army until 1881 making Colonel.



#9 of 21 OFFLINE   JSLasher

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Posted April 21 2013 - 05:16 PM

I was a close personal friend of Daniele Amfitheatrof during the last decade of his life. He spoke little about his involvement with "Major Dundee" except to lament the fact that his score had "been tampered with"(many changes at the recording session).He disowned the lyrics to the Major Dundee March, which in it's original version was quite dissonant and without any melody. Still, it's a fine score insofar as I am concerned.
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#10 of 21 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted April 22 2013 - 10:16 AM

I was a close personal friend of Daniele Amfitheatrof during the last decade of his life. He spoke little about his involvement with "Major Dundee" except to lament the fact that his score had "been tampered with"(many changes at the recording session).He disowned the lyrics to the Major Dundee March, which in it's original version was quite dissonant and without any melody. Still, it's a fine score insofar as I am concerned.

 

From what I have read, the blame for the lyrics is on Jerry Bresler.


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#11 of 21 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted April 22 2013 - 11:12 AM

I think it's safe to say even the strongest defenders of the score and the melody of the march would never defend the lyrics because even without the inappropriateness of an up-tempo song over the visuals it strikes a false note of togetherness about the mission that's going to unfold (though the irony is that most real-life cases of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners working together against the Indians was generally done in a more cooperative frame of mind).    As I've said you can barely get away with this if the song were just over the end credits following a scene of all the weary survivors no longer in the mood to fight each other after all they've just been through (especially had the script addressed the fact they crossed back into the US at the same time Lee surrenders to Grant and thus ends the war that made them enemies in the first place) and just anxious to go home now, but certainly not at the beginning.



#12 of 21 OFFLINE   Reggie W

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Posted April 23 2013 - 02:34 AM

It has always seemed to me that the original score seems to be mocking what is actually on screen. Major Dundee is no hero in the film. He is pompous, arrogant, and foolhardy. Along the way people question what he is doing, often what he is doing turns out to be wrong, and he ends up a drunkard that needs to be pulled back by his men...who never seemed to like him or need him in the first place. So the end result of the score is it seems to be having a laugh at what a buffoon Dundee is and he is certainly not a guy anybody wants to "fall in behind."

 

Basically it seems like a score for a different film particularly because they introduce us to the lyrics at the top of the film and so every time they return to that tune it seems totally incongruent with what is onscreen. 


Edited by Reggie W, April 23 2013 - 07:31 AM.


#13 of 21 OFFLINE   FoxyMulder

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Posted April 23 2013 - 04:05 AM

Its the actual score i like, the song is not needed, the score behind it is superb.


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#14 of 21 OFFLINE   Reggie W

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Posted April 23 2013 - 07:31 AM

"He disowned the lyrics to the Major Dundee March, which in it's original version was quite dissonant and without any melody."

 

To me that sounds like a concept that would have fit perfectly with what was on the screen and the character of Major Dundee. The lyrics and the melody are an issue for me. 


Edited by Reggie W, April 23 2013 - 07:33 AM.


#15 of 21 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted April 23 2013 - 09:54 AM

It has always seemed to me that the original score seems to be mocking what is actually on screen. Major Dundee is no hero in the film. He is pompous, arrogant, and foolhardy. Along the way people question what he is doing, often what he is doing turns out to be wrong, and he ends up a drunkard that needs to be pulled back by his men...who never seemed to like him or need him in the first place.

 

And this I think raises the question of whether this depiction of Dundee, which is a vast difference from the original vision of the first version of the script, was something that ultimately hurt the film.    Frankly, I would have preferred seeing Dundee as flawed and nuanced figure but not this Ahab figure Peckinpah turned him into.     It made for a meandering mess of a narrative ultimately.



#16 of 21 OFFLINE   ahollis

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Posted April 24 2013 - 10:21 AM

And yet we are fascinated with this film.
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#17 of 21 OFFLINE   Moe Dickstein

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Posted April 24 2013 - 11:06 AM

I'm just here for the fireworks. Never saw the film lol
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#18 of 21 OFFLINE   nedinme

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Posted April 24 2013 - 12:44 PM

Just to let you know both the Amfitheatrof score & the Caliendo score are available on CD at Screen Archives: 

 

 

http://www.screenarc...D=1&sort=listed


Edited by nedinme, April 24 2013 - 12:46 PM.


#19 of 21 OFFLINE   Reggie W

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Posted April 24 2013 - 03:14 PM

I love the film and personally I think that the faults Dundee has fit with the fact that he would undertake such an absurd mission that by all accounts was destined to be a disaster. 



#20 of 21 OFFLINE   Jack P

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Posted April 24 2013 - 03:18 PM

The CD of the Amfitheatrof score is in fact the old LP which is very different from the film score.    The LP has two additonal songs by the Mitch Miller Gang which are not part of the film itself and there are also tracks which are loaded with some bizarre sound effects as well.     A CD of the film tracks themself would be an entirely different thing and a much better listening experience.

 

Sorry Moe, there aren't any fireworks here, just a nice respectful discussion.    The problems with the Blu-Ray release itself I think have been done to death and there's no point in further rehashing that.    But the fim itself I think because of its fascinating production history and the fact that the good parts are so good that it hurts when the bad parts drag it down is the reason why the discussion still continues.







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