DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Major Dundee: The Extended Version (RECOMMENDED)

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Aaron Silverman, Oct 11, 2005.

  1. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Jan 22, 1999
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    Aaron Silverman
    Major Dundee: The Extended Version[​IMG]

    US Theatrical Release: April 7, 1965 (original release); April 8, 2005 (extended version) (Columbia Pictures)
    US DVD Release: September 20, 2005
    Running Time: 2:15:42 (28 chapter stops)
    Rating: PG-13 (For Violence And Some Sensuality)
    Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.78:1 and 2.35:1 non-anamorphic)
    Audio: English DD5.1, English DD2.0 Mono, French DD2.0 (Extra Features: English DD2.0 Mono)
    Subtitles: English, French, Korean (Extra Features: None)
    TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
    Menus: Some intro animation
    Packaging: Standard keepcase; 4-page insert features an interesting essay on the history of the film by Glenn “DVD Savant” Erickson and a few cover images of other Sony western titles.
    MSRP: $19.94


    Major Dundee is a film that was born out of a classic Hollywood conflict – its willful director had a strong vision of the movie that he intended to make, but the studio, which held ultimate authority over the production, had other ideas. Originally intended as a massive epic on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia, it was condensed in budget and scope until what remained was a fragmented, episodic story squeezed into the body of a fairly run-of-the-mill action flick. The new extended cut, which is much closer to the film that Sam Peckinpah wanted to make, fills in some of the holes, but still loses focus in the second half.

    The film, which takes place in 1864 as the American Civil War winds inexorably down to its conclusion, opens with the aftermath of a brutal massacre. A band of Apache raiders, led by the improbably named Sierra Charriba, has been terrorizing settlers throughout the vast New Mexico Territory. Its latest act of destruction has been the massacre of a cavalry troop and a group of settlers. However, true to form, the Indians did not kill everyone – they have kidnapped some young boys with the intention of integrating them into the tribe and raising them as Apache warriors.

    Enter Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston), the strong-willed and egomaniacal commander of a nearby fort. Well, technically speaking, it’s a fort, but in practice it’s a military prison camp that houses more vagabonds and criminals than Confederate POWs. Why Dundee has been assigned to this post is one of several backstory pieces that are alluded to but never clearly explained. Dreaming of adventure and glory, Dundee plans an expedition to save the kidnapped boys and end the threat of Sierra Charriba once and for all.

    With nearly all of his troops needed for guard duty, Dundee is forced to select most of his force from among the inmates of the prison. Between the drunks and ne’er-do-wells, there are few candidates. He has no choice but to convince a group of Confederate prisoners to ride under the flag of their sworn enemy. This is a laughable proposition to most of the rebels in the fort, but there is a catch: a small band of them is facing the gallows for having killed a guard in an escape attempt. Dundee stops short of promising them their freedom, but taking part in the expedition is likely to spare them the noose.

    Even with their hanging imminent, these men are loath to take orders from a bluebelly such as Dundee. However, they are fiercely loyal to Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), the highest-ranking Confederate prisoner. Tyreen, an Irish immigrant who fancies himself a Southern gentleman (yet more hazy backstory), is ruled by his sense of honor and loyalty. The others will follow him to hell and back, and when he gives Dundee his word that he and his men will serve on this mission, they become part of the force. However, their Southern pride runs very deep -- whether they will be completely trustworthy remains to be seen.

    Tyreen and Dundee have a past. They come from the same area (it’s never specified), but have ended up on opposite sides of the Civil War. Each is bitter toward the other for reasons that are mentioned in passing a few times, but – you guessed it – are never fully fleshed out. This conflict plays out over the course of the film as the men spar both verbally and physically on a number of occasions, but in the end, the film fails to resolve it in a satisfying way. However, despite being given short shrift in both setup and resolution, the personal conflict between these two men as they lead their rag-tag company is a central focus of the film and one of its most interesting angles.

    The first half of Major Dundee holds together pretty well. Dundee, Tyreen, and a few key members of the expedition are introduced, then set out on their seemingly suicidal mission. One can’t help but be reminded of Moby Dick as the Major determines to find and defeat Charriba and his fearsome war party, who have wiped out far greater forces than the one at Dundee’s disposal. Unfortunately, the film gets sidetracked partway through and never really regains its focus.

    Things start to go awry when the expedition reaches a Mexican village and attacks the French garrison there. (At the same time that the Civil War was raging in the US, Mexico was going through its own internal strife, as Republican forces battled the armies of Emperor Maximillian, who was a French puppet supported by French troops.) France and the US are not at war, but Dundee’s men need horses (this is not clear in the film, but it is alluded to in the commentary as having been explained in lost footage), and he is not to be deterred from his mission. His rather far-fetched plan is to take supplies from the garrison, escape, and then trick the French out of their horses when they try to pursue.

    This is also where a love interest appears like a filmic non sequitur. Teresa (Senta Berger), the beautiful German widow of the former town doctor, meets the obsessive and abrasive Dundee. Despite the fact that she also meets the dashing and gallant Tyreen, she takes an immediate interest in the Major. This subplot, which shows up in four or five scenes, brings the film to a screeching halt each time. It doesn’t feel right in this adventure – it seems to exist only for its own sake.

    From that point on, the story becomes watered down and a little confusing by having two separate antagonists. The Indians, who are set up at first as a mighty adversary and the object of Dundee’s obsession, drift out of focus as the French pose a more immediate threat. There end up being two separate climactic battles, and the one for which the story has aimed from the beginning is brushed off quickly in favor of a larger set piece in which the viewer has much less emotional investment.

    That said, the film does work alright as an action flick with hints of a deeper story. The action sequences, while not as brutal as the director’s later work (when he had far more control over the finished product), are exciting and for the most part well staged. There are occasional sloppy moments – for example, a stunt involving a cavalry charge that is hit by a volley of gunfire as it crosses a river. (A ditch was dug in the middle of the river, and as the horses reach it, they appear to be falling into the water after being shot, when in reality they are just jumping down into the ditch. It’s very clever and it looks great. However, a second shot reveals all of the supposedly dead horses milling about calmly in the deep trench!) The supporting cast is nothing short of spectacular, featuring such great performers as James Coburn as the one-armed scout Sam Potts, Ben Johnson as a grizzled sergeant, Warren Oates as a simple Confederate soldier, R. G. Armstrong as a fighting reverend, and Slim Pickens as a criminal-turned-Indian-hunter.

    The film feels condensed from the epic that it could have been. The characters pass quickly through an incredible number of different locations, and deeper aspects of the story, most importantly the relationship between Dundee and Tyreen, and, far less importantly, the love interest, are touched on without coming fully into focus or being resolved satisfactorily. It’s a good adventure film that’s disappointing because it hints so strongly at the great adventure film that it was originally intended to be.

    THE WAY I SEE IT: 4/5

    The restored image looks great. It’s nicely detailed, with realistic colors and good blacks. There is some edge enhancement visible, but not a lot. If there is one real knock on the picture, it’s that some flicker does crop up from time to time, possibly due to the relatively low bit rate. In general, this 40-year-old film looks noticeably better than the transfers used for many of Sony’s recent major releases.

    THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4/5

    The new 5.1 mix is very tastefully done. While the music is mixed for full 5.1, nearly all of the original sounds are in the mono center channel. Only a few effects, such as the echoes of gunfire, show up in the surround channels. The original mono soundtrack is also included.

    The original score sounds a bit dated, and unfortunately that date is the 1960s, not the 1860s. The main theme is repeated ad nauseam throughout the film, occasionally featuring a male chorus chiming in with hokey lyrics. There is a lot of martial-sounding brass with a number of dissonant blares, sometimes at bizarre moments. It’s not in any way subtle. However, in what could be a first, a brand-new score was commissioned for the new cut of the film. And while the new score isn’t especially memorable, in many ways it works better than the original. It’s a more generic-sounding orchestral score that better fits the period of the story.

    For some reason, the two soundtracks are linked to video angles and can’t be switched on the fly. However, pressing the Menu button on the remote and then clicking the Play button for the desired soundtrack on the main menu does the trick with only one or two extra key presses. Comparing the two tracks is a fun exercise, and adds to the entertainment value of the disc.

    THE SWAG: 3.5/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

    Peckinpah’s Wounded Masterpiece: Essay by Glenn Erickson

    This article, found in the booklet, discusses the troubled history of the film. It also provides some background on the silent deleted scenes that are included on the disc.

    Commentary by Peckinpah historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle

    This track covers the conflicts that plagued the production, Peckinpah’s influences, the scenes that have been restored for the extended version of the film, and other related topics. Good stuff. The speakers, who are extremely knowledgeable about Peckinpah-related subjects, don’t always agree on what works and what doesn’t, which helps to make for a very interesting commentary.

    Extended Excerpt From Mike Siegel’s “Passion And Poetry: The Ballad Of Sam Peckinpah” (22:00)

    A collection of interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew about their experiences working with Peckinpah on the film, with some behind-the-scenes photos and footage. It’s in non-anamorphic widescreen.

    ”Riding For A Fall” Vintage Featurette (6:12)

    A 1965 short about the stunt work on Major Dundee. Not especially deep by today’s DVD standards, but a rare treat for a 40-year-old film. Although this featurette was originally in color, the only extant color print was pretty much beyond restoration, and only a lousy video dub was available. The DVD producers did, however, find a black-and-white print in decent condition. In a neat twist, both versions are included here. The video and audio quality of the black-and-white version are far superior, but it’s interesting to be able to take a look at the faded color version too.

    Incomplete Deleted Scene: “Knife Fight” (3:37)

    An unused scene of a “friendly” knife fight between the one-armed Sam Potts and Dundee’s non-com, Sgt. Gomez (Mario Adorf). It runs about a minute and a half, in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. A few silent outtakes that are, essentially, deleted shots from the deleted scene are included as well.

    Extended Scene: “Major Dundee and Teresa” (0:39)

    Some brief extra footage of Dundee and Teresa swimming in a pond that was used in a promo.

    Silent Extended Outtakes (4:19)

    A few extra master shots of riders against majestic backdrops.

    Trailer Artwork Outtakes (2:07)

    Detail of a painting that was created for promotional purposes. It looks like the sort of thing that would be used on the cover of a high school history textbook.

    Exhibitor Promo Reel Excerpt (1:19)

    This amounts to a brief trailer, with some really overblown narration. Good for a chuckle.

    Promotional Stills And Poster Artwork

    15 promo photos and posters that can be clicked through using the remote. Strangely, this is the only special feature besides the original 1965 trailer that’s anamorphically encoded.


    Four trailers are included. The Major Dundee trailers are on the Special Features menu, while the other two are on the Previews menu.
    • Major Dundee: 2005 Re-Release Trailer (2:30) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 non(!)-anamorphic)
    • Major Dundee: Original Theatrical Trailer (3:25) (DD2.0 Mono; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
    • Classic Westerns (2:11) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
    • Silverado Deluxe Edition DVD(1:22) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)


    The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
    The Way I See It: 4/5
    The Way I Hear It: 4/5
    The Swag: 3.5/5

    After 40 years, audiences are finally able to see a version of Major Dundee that better resembles the original intentions of the director. While there isn’t a ton of new footage, it does seem to improve the flow of the film somewhat. As it stands, Dundee is still a rousing action-western with mere flashes of the huge epic that was originally envisioned. Even if it doesn't quite reach the level of a true classic, genre fans should enjoy it, especially considering the nice job of restoration and the quality of the disc. And the extensive special features add a great amount of depth to the DVD experience, allowing even those unfamiliar with the original cut of the film to consider the specific changes that were made and compare the two scores. Although the film itself is good but not great, the overall entertainment value of this disc (not to mention its low MSRP) merits a RECOMMENDATION.
  2. Jonny_L

    Jonny_L Stunt Coordinator

    Nov 6, 2004
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    Hmmm...maybe I'm picky, but I thought the video quality as related to the bitrate was far too low. I think Sony should have split this edition over 2-discs. One for the movie, the other for the special features.

    I agree with just about everything else though.
    Good review Aaron.
  3. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Jan 22, 1999
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    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman
    Thanks, Jonny!

    Actually, I was surprised when I checked the bit rate -- I thought the image was quite good considering how low it was. Of course, that doesn't mean that it couldn't have been better with less compression. [​IMG]

    Ya never know, though -- there could be a SuperBit in Dundee's future. [​IMG]
  4. David_Blackwell

    David_Blackwell Screenwriter

    Jan 30, 2004
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    I loved the DVD. It was a treat reviewing it after I watched Major Dundee for the first time ever a few weeks ago.
  5. frank manrique

    frank manrique Supporting Actor

    Sep 15, 1999
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    "Ya never know, though -- there could be a SuperBit in Dundee's future."

    I would prefer see MD in Hi-Def instead...


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