One of the most polarizing yet brilliant filmmakers to ever work in Hollywood in the second half of the 20th Century, Sam Peckinpah pushed and broke boundaries in terms of on-screen violence in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Before problems with drugs and alcohol started to mar his professional career and personal life, he began work in television as a scriptwriter (he created both The Rifleman and The Westerner) before launching a big screen directorial career with the low budget The Deadly Companions (1961). After attracting critical acclaim with Ride the High Country (1962), his next film – Major Dundee – looked like it would be the beginning of a highly acclaimed career. Previously released on DVD by Columbia and a limited run Blu-ray by Twilight Time here in the US (along with a region free Blu-ray release by Imprint last year), Arrow has licensed the film for a Limited Edition Blu-ray release.
The Production: 4/5
In the waning days of the Civil War, a band of Apaches led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) have decimated a U.S. Calvary relief column and a family of ranchers in the New Mexico Territory. At nearby Fort Benlin, Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) believes that capturing the marauders – dead or alive – could be his ticket to getting back into the Union Army’s good graces; he assembles a ragtag group of men that includes Confederate soldiers under the command of Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) and sets out after Sierra Charriba. However, as the group heads into Mexico in pursuit, tensions between disparate factions – including personal tensions between Dundee and Tyreen – threaten to derail the chase that eventually the group of soldiers not only facing off against the Apaches, but French soldiers who happen to be occupying Mexican soil as well!
Major Dundee was the movie that both made and very nearly destroyed the career of Sam Peckinpah due to the conflicts that happened behind the scenes during production. Originally conceived as a roadshow release, the movie ran into issues involving a change in management in Columbia Pictures and location shooting in Mexico, including the first issues with alcohol and drug use that would plague the director for the rest of his life and career. When the first cut of the movie was delivered to the studio, it ran 164 minutes, which was the director’s preferred version out of the over 400,000 feet of footage shot (the 4 hour rough cut was too unwieldly, even for him). However, the studio – fed up with production problems – took the scissors to the film for more revisions, first to 136 minutes (which was the cut approved by producer Jerry Bresler before leaving Columbia, and the basis for the 2005 extended cut of the film) and then to the final theatrical release runtime of two hours and four minutes. The result was a movie that was savaged at the box office and by critics, leaving the director’s career prospects as battered and bloody as one of Dundee’s men during the final battle scenes.
Despite all of these issues, the film does show more than a few glimmers of the trademark style that would come to define Peckinpah’s movies. The movie does go farther in showing violence in conflict as well as the aftermath; the Production Code was on its last legs during this time, hinting at the more graphic depictions that were to come with films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). Also, the movie does make a few passing shots at intervening in conflicts outside of our country’s borders; America had not yet gotten fully involved in Vietnam at the time of the movie’s release, but the message hidden within plays stronger today than during its first run. Finally, the movie proves itself as the antithesis to John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy of westerns not just in depiction of violence, but in its depiction of the titular character something a little more sinister than a career soldier; Dundee would actually make Fort Apache‘s Owen Thursday and The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards look tame and cuddly in comparison to some of the more opportunistic choices – bordering on somewhat sadistic, at worst – he makes during his pursuit of the Apache band of marauders. While the film definitely has it faults, Major Dundee is still a remarkable – if truncated – work by a filmmaker who dared to push and break boundaries in the Western genre here in America; while it nearly ended Sam Peckinpah’s career, it also came to define him in that light of the troubled yet brilliant artists of the medium.
As the eponymous Calvary major who becomes more of an obsessive Ahab, Charlton Heston is given one of his best – if mostly underrated – performances; despite the issues plaguing the production, he never regretted taking on the role. In one of his first roles since his breakthrough performance in This Sporting Life (1963), Richard Harris brings an intense and fiery air of dignity to Confederate Captain Tyreen; despite an impressive roster of performances, he has become better known to modern audiences for portraying Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. James Coburn makes the most of his time as the grizzled, one-armed Indian scout Samuel Potts while Jim Hutton and Michael Anderson Jr. both make memorable impressions as the bumbling Lt. Graham and bugler (and lone survivor of the initial raid) Tim Ryan. Standouts among the impressive ensemble cast include Senta Berger as Teresa, the widow of a murdered doctor who serves as another bone of contention between Dundee and Tyreen, Mario Adorf as Calvary sergeant Gomez, Brock Peters as the leader of the platoon of Black soldiers at Fort Benlin, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates and John Davis Chandler – the first three would later become frequent collaborators with Peckinpah – as fellow Confederate soldiers under Tyreen’s command, R.G. Armstrong (another frequent face in Peckinpah’s movies) as the reverend looking to dispense some Old Testament justice to the marauding Apaches, Dub Taylor as a horse thief (“The best there is!”), Slim Pickens as a whiskey loving mule packer, Karl Swenson as the second in command at Fort Benlin, Michael Pate as Sierra Charriba, José Carlos Ruiz as the suspicious Indian scout Riago and Begoña Palacios – who would later become Peckinpah’s wife – as the Teresa’s young assistant who briefly falls in love with Dundee, much to Teresa’s chagrin.
3D Rating: NA
Both theatrical and extended versions of the movie are presented in the film’s original 2:35:1 aspect ratio; the extended cut was taken from a 4K scan while the theatrical cut was taken from a 2K scan, both done by Sony. Both versions exhibit organic film grain, faithful representation of the color palette and fine details, and limited instances of problems like scratches, dirt, tears and warping present; also, the overall image on both versions appear to be a bit sharper than the previous Twilight Time Blu-ray release. Overall, both films look their best here and offer up a slight improvement over the previous Twilight Time Blu-ray release in terms of picture quality.
The extended version has two audio options: the 2005 Christopher Caliendo score on a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and the original Daniele Amfitheatrof score on a mono PCM track; the theatrical version has the original mono soundtrack on a PCM track. Dialogue is strong and clear on all, with the original sound mix (remixed on the 5.1 track) and music all given faithful presentations; there’s very little to no instances of problems like hissing, crackling or distortion present. This is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and not much different than the previous Twilight Time Blu-ray.
Special Features: 5/5
Disc 1 – Extended Version
Commentary by film historians Nick Redman, David Weddle, Garner Simmons & Paul Seydor – Carried over from the 2005 DVD release, the quartet goes over some of the production background of the movie and its subsequent restoration.
Commentary by film critic Glenn Erickson & film historian Alan K. Rode – Carried over from the 2020 Region Free Imprint Blu-ray release, Erickson and Rode cover some familiar territory of the production while offering some personal insights as well.
Commentary by film critic Glenn Erickson – Ported over from the 2019 Region B Explosive Media (German) release, Erickson talks about some the deleted footage and how the movie was supposed to be much different highlighting the differences between the script and the final product.
Moby Dick on Horseback (29:06) – In this new visual essay, David Cairns examines the themes and background of the movie.
Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey (1:15:25) – This feature length documentary by Mike Siegel from 2017 takes us behind the scenes on the making – and unmaking – of the movie; featuring interviews – some of them archival – from cast members James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, R.G. Armstrong and L.Q. Jones.
Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes (25:43) – This archival featurette by Mike Siegel from 2019 focuses on what it was like to work with Peckinpah as an actor; featuring insights from Ernest Borgnine, R.G. Armstrong, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, Isela Vega, Bo Hopkins, L.Q. Jones and David Warner.
About the Passion & Poetry Project (43:55) – Filmmaker Mike Siegel shares some insights on how he started documenting the life and work of Sam Peckinpah in his Passion & Poetry project in this new featurette.
Still Galleries – Four still galleries featuring a plethora of images set to both Daniele Amfitheatrof and Christopher Caliendo’s scores are presented here: On the Set (8:27), Color Stills (4:25), Cast Portraits (2:56) and Promotional Stills (11:21).
2005 re-release trailer narrated by L.Q. Jones (2:26)
Disc 2 – Theatrical Version
Riding for a Fall (7:23) – This vintage behind the scenes featurette from 1965 showcases the stunt work on the movie.
Extended/Deleted Scenes – Two scenes are showcased here, one featuring an extended bit of the riverside swim between Teresa and Dundee (0:40) and a deleted – and uncomplete – knife fight sequence during the fiesta (3:58).
Silent Outtakes (4:20)
Extended/Deleted Scenes/Outtakes with Glenn Erickson commentary (6:40)
U.S. Trailer (3:26)
U.K. Trailer – Cropped Version (3:17) & Uncropped Version (3:18)
German Trailer (3:27)
60 page booklet featuring essays by Farran Smith Nehme, Roderick Heath & Jeremy Carr
Double sided foldout poster
Notably missing here from the Twilight Time Blu-ray are isolated score tracks for both versions of the movie as well as an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Despite all the problems that plagued the movie from production to release, Major Dundee has undergone a reevaluation as a flawed masterpiece that helped cement Sam Peckinpah as a singular if polarizing filmmaker. Arrow Video has very likely delivered the definitive home video release of the movie with both cuts of the movie in great HD transfers along with a wealth of special features delving deep into the movie. Unless Peckinpah’s original cut of the movie resurfaces somewhere (never say never), fans of the director can rest assured that they’ll be taken care with this release; very highly recommended and absolutely worth upgrading from the DVD or acquiring if you’ve missed out on the Twilight Time Blu-ray.
Amazon.com: Major Dundee (2-Disc Limited Edition) [Blu-ray]: Charlton Heston, Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, Brock Peters, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, Senta Berger, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Sam Peckinpah: Movies & TV
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