Major Dundee (1965)

Dir: Sam Peckinpah - Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Senta Berger, Michael Anderson Jr., R. G. Armstrong, L. Q. Jones, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Mario Adorf, Slim Pickens, Begonia Palacios,  Brock Peters

= Heaven and Hell =

The critical success of Ride the High Country had made Sam Peckinpah a credit-worthy director (at least that's what the people of Columbia Pictures thought) so for the first time in his career he was offered a fairly high budget to make a movie. The original screenplay, written by Julian Fink (who would later become one of the creators of Dirty Harry) left a lot to be desired, but Peckinpah thought the offer to direct the movie, was the chance of a lifetime. Instead, Major Dundee became one of the worst experiences in a director's life: even before shooting had started, Columbia cut the $ 4,5 million back with one third, his material was edited against his will, and the studio further demolished his work. At least, that's what popular myths about the movie say. According to some - among them his biographer David Webble - Peckinpah is as much responsible for the final product as the studio or his producer, Jerry Bresler.

Major Amos Dundee is a Union officer who is sent to a remote outpost during the closing days of the Civil War to look after a prison full of Confederate soldiers. After a bloody Apache raid in which an entire regiment is massacred, Dundee organizes a search-and-destroy mission. With so many soldiers killed, he's forced to enlist every soul he can get, including thieves, drunks, no-goods and even the prisoners he was supposed to watch over. Among the Confederate prisoners, is his former classmate at West Point, Captain Benjamin Tyree, who promises to follow Dundee until Sierra Charriba, the leader of the marauding Apaches, is killed (and not a single day longer). Dundee leads his troops deep into Mexico, where they're not exactly welcomed by the French army occupying the country ...

= John Ford and Moby Dick =

Some have interpreted Major Dundee as an assault on John Ford's cavalry movies. At first sight there is indeed very little left of Ford's idea to see the cavalry fort - and the unit living within its walls - as a safe haven in the wilderness. Dundee's men form a heterogeneous group consisting of rivaling factions who hate each other as much as the Apaches they're after (or maybe even more). And yet, at the same time, the movie has a lot in common with the first part of Ford's cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache. Like Owen Thursday, the stubborn, irresponsible martinet played by Henry Fonda, Dundee makes several tactical mistakes (it's suggested that he was sent to the outpost for a couple of unlucky maneuvers at Gettysburg) and needs the help of a subordinate - Tyreen - to fulfill his mission. But when Dundee finally leads the few men that are left of his makeshift army back to the other side of the Rio Grande, he has killed the Apache and also beaten the French, 'Europe's finest on the field of battle'. In other words: like Thursday, Dundee will have his name in the history books. 

Fort Apache is hardly ever mentioned as a source of inspiration, but it would be odd if the movie never crossed Peckinpah's mind when making Major Dundee. Instead, several other movies have been mentioned, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Searchers, Red River and Vera Cruz. However, the major source of inspiration seems to have been Melville's tale of the whale, Moby Dick. The actor R.G. Armstrong was the first to notice the similarities between the novel and the movie, calling the movie 'Moby Dick on horse-back' in a phone call with the director. The narrative, a so-called 'reading' of a journal by private Tim Ryan, even suggests that Ryan is a sort of Ismael, that is the only person to survive the mission, when the journal is called "the only record of this massacre and the campaign that followed." It's a rather confusing statement. As already stipulated, Dundee is a successful Ahab (1).

= Pros and Cons =

Visually this is one of the most stunning movies in history. The day-for-night scenes are unconvincing, but the cinematography of Dundee's troops silhouetted against the sky or marching through clouds of dust and beams of sunlight, has an undeniable Fordian grandeur. Some of the scenes within the prison camp are brisk, trenchant, creating a horrible feeling of immediacy, as if we're watching footage that was really shot within a POW camp. Until recently I had only seen Major Dundee on TV and VHS, and the widescreen transfer of the extended edition really is an eye-opener. It's also potentially a stronger movie than the director's own The Wild Bunch. It has more complex characters and a more interesting story, plus the advantage that the two contentious characters, Dundee and Tyreen, are permanently confronted with each other (in The Wild Bunch their counterparts, the characters played by William Holden and Robert Ryan belong to different groups).

But it's also a film that doesn't live up to its full potential. Most critics think the first half works pretty well, while the second half wanders off in underdeveloped subplots. The films starts to shift out of focus somewhere halfway, when Dundee and his men arrive in the Mexican village and liberate it from the French occupying troops. The settlement of accounts with the Apaches is anti-climatic and this battle at the Rio Grande with the French troops, albeit spectacular, looks a little chaotic. So what happened exactly, and who was to blame for it?

= Creation and Destruction =

Columbia's decision to reduce the budget wasn't the only problem. When filming started, only two-thirds of the script were ready and Peckinpah was warned, by co-author Oscar Saul, that the unfinished parts lacked structure, but he thought he would be able to remedy this on the set. Another complication was the studio's decision the hire Senta Berger: a role not envisioned in the original plans had to be created for her. According to most people who have worked with him, structure was Sam's weakest point, both as a screenwriter and a film maker. As a writer he was used to the shorter format of the TV series he had worked on, and he had no experience with epic film making. If he didn't have a workable script for a movie, or parts of it, he shot as many material as possible, in the hope to find what he was looking for. This is exactly what he did and what drove his producer, Jerry Bresler, mad: soon shooting was behind schedule and the production over budget.

Instead of cheaper locations close to home, Peckinpah had decided to shoot the entire movie on location in Mexico, and selected various remote locations south of the border. The crew was plagued by tropical heat, diarrhea, mosquitos and more. Peckinpah grew nervous, felt that he lost his grip on the project and started bullying people and drinking heavily; as usual, he blamed everything on the studio and their decision to meddle with his work. Like Dundee, he needed a subordinate (in his case more than one) to fulfill his mission. When the studio decided to fire him, several of his actors refused to continue without him and Heston give up his salary to save the production (2).

While making Major Dundee, Peckinpah was also experimenting with a couple of things he didn't completely master yet, notably the shooting of large-scale action scenes and the insertion of slow-motion into the flow of the sequence. One of the editors, Howard Kunin (quoted by Webble) said this about it:

"Sam used slow motion extremely well in his later films, but by then he had conceived how to make it work (...). On Dundee he just shot it wild, there was no concept at all how it would be used. (...) We even did once an entire slow motion version of the French battle, of the hand-to-hand fighting. Sam hated it too. It just didn't work."

Again, Peckinpah was looking for something, but it would take him another movie to find it.

= The Different Versions =

When Major Dundee went into post-production, Peckinpah was very busy courting one of his actresses, Begonia Palacios, in the movie the young Mexican girl who has an overnight affair with Tim Ryan. The girl's family was against it, but Sam was madly in love and pushed through. He would indeed marry her the next year. In the meantime  Columbia had hired three editors - William Lyon, Don Starling and Howard Kunin - to look at the 40,000 feet of film Sam had shot in Mexico. Peckinpah joined the group but almost immediately fell out with them. According to Ericsson, this is the moment that Sam 'lost his movie': he should have tried to win the studio for his way of thinking, but instead he infuriated everybody with his unwillingness to compromise.

However, the contract guaranteed him the right to make a first cut of the movie and to screen it in two try-outs. According to Webble, Peckinpah pruned the film down to 2 hours, 41 minutes (161 minutes), but then wanted to put 7-10 minutes (he had previously cut) back into it (which would make his 'final cut' 168-171 minutes long). Other sources mention a version of 156 minutes. But Sam didn't get his screenings; instead Bresler took the film to New York and showed it to a group of exhibitors (owners of theatre chains).  When he came back he told the film was too long and that he, Bresler, and his editors would cut down the film to acceptable length. Sam was denied access to the studio and without him the Bresler team brought the film's running time back to about 136 minutes.

The studio still wasn't satisfied, and cut the movie further down to 122 minutes, breaking its narrative backbone and creating a lot of inconsistencies. It's said that the narrative track was added to make the movie at least comprehensible, but idea that the story would unfold as a series of diary entries had been part of Fink's original draughts.

= Reception and Reputation =

Major Dundee was pulverized by critics when it was first released, but its reputation has grown over the years. Today it's often called a flawed masterpiece, but there's no consensus about how masterful the movie would have been without its flaws. The most positive stance is taken by Glenn Erickson, in an review of the movie (theatrical release) for DVD Savant:

" Imagine The Wild Bunch without an opening shootout (...) and half of the character-building scenes removed. Take away the setup for the final battle (...). Rush the editing so that some sequences are too slow. (...) Edit the action scenes as quickly as possible and drop any violence or bloody detail that might be "in bad taste." That's what happened to Major Dundee."

Erickson calls Major Dundee his favorite movie, but oddly enough he is far less positive on it in a second review, this time of the DVD release of the Extended version:

"In all fairness, Peckinpah doesn't satisfactorily tell his story. (...) Where did the forward momentum of the story go? (...) In this writer's opinion, Peckinpah never framed a proper ending for his film."

The version that finally hit theaters, was dreadful, fragmented and incoherent. The extended version, released on DVD in 2005, is a major improvement. It runs for about 136 minutes and must be close to what Bresler and his editors concocted in 1965, before the studio ordered to cut the movie down to two hours. Contrary to what some have suggested, the three editors weren't fumblers (Lyon had won two Academy Awards); we can blame them for toning down the violence, but the lack of squirting blood is not the main problem of the battle sequence (and the sequence isn't that bad, even without the slomo and the blood). No doubt their version was not the version Peckinpah had in mind, but in all sincerity we don't know what he had in mind and the more I read about the movie and its genesis, I tend to think that Peckinpah himself didn't have a clue either. He didn't know what he was looking for and didn't find it. 

= Evaluation =

If some say the first half of the movie works well, I'd say it works marvelously. It belongs to the very best things this erratic director ever did. I especially like the 'sudden' opening, and therefore doubt if a more explicit and violent opening would have done the movie any good. Instead of showing the actual massacre, we're directly confronted with the bloody results. Peckinpah gets excellent performances from his two leads, Heston and Harris, the scenes with the two men quarreling are excellent. Once you've accepted Coburn in the unusual role as a one-armed scout, he's great too. And then there are all those familiar faces from the Peckinpah movie family: R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson ... One of the reasons the first half is so strong, is that it deals with things Peckinpah is very good at: a complex relationship between two 'strong' male characters, danger, random violence, troops moving ... This is all different in the second half, when both the troops and the movie start rambling. Some of Peckinpah's limitations as a director become apparent in this second half,  and they both are related to his personality.

All this attention for Bloody Sam and the violence in his movies, has somewhat obscured the fact that the man was a hopeless romantic. He idolized the Old West and he idolized Mexico, a country that, in his eyes, had conserved some of the warmth that was irrevocably lost back home. He was great in depicting Mexico as a suffering nation, plagued by corruption and poverty, but when he desired to depict the warm and cheerful side of the country and its people, the results were often clich├ęd and blatantly sentimental (3). The fiesta scene goes on too long and the cajolery of the future Mrs. Peckinpah and the young private Ryan is a failed attempt to spice it up with some Fordian humor. And then there is his problem with directing love scenes. According to David Webble, those problems reveal an innate flaw in his vision of women:

"The limits are defined by the psychological scar tissue of the artist himself (...) [women] are adored as beautiful objects, longed for from afar, they are to be fought for or possessed, but they are never understood as human beings in their own right."

The strongest women in his movies are Elsa (Mariette Hartley) from Ride the High Country and Elvira Bonner (Ida Lupino) from Junior Bonner, respectively a tomboy revolting against her repressive father, and a mother figure. Berger's role in the picture is undefined. In the extended version her presence at least makes sense, but the love scenes with her and Heston are flat and facile, indifferently written, lacking a strong directional hand. You almost cheer when an Apache interrupts their flirtations by shooting an arrow in Heston's thigh.


* David Webble, Sam Peckinpah, 'If they move, kill 'em!', New York, 1996 - Major Dundee, p. 229-264, Peckinpah and women in his films, p. 388-389 (For Peckinpah and women see also: Stephen Prince's book, p. 10)
* Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema, Sam Peckinpah and the rise of ultra-violent cinema, Austin, 1998
* Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, Major Dundee

* DVD Savant, Versions Comparison Major Dundee, by Glenn Erickson
* Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant Theatrical Review: Major Dundee - The Extended Version Review
* Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant The Extended Version, DVD Review (with additional discussion)
* Buddies in the Saddle, Major Dundee, review by Ron Scheer

Seperate Notes:

(1) Glenn Erickson interprets it as a further indication that Peckinpah never conceived a proper ending to his movie: "Are we to understand then that Dundee's decimated troop never gets back to Fort Benlin, and that Dundee never announces his historic success? Or that Captain Waller or General Carlton didn't keep records of the massacre of eighty troopers and the disappearance of fifty more men into Mexico? Even if Peckinpah wanted to leave his tale with Teresa's prediction that 'for Dundee, the war will never end,' the conclusion seems arbitrary. Even the script's coda, with Potts and Dundee finding yet another mocking Apache marker in their path, might not have been enough." (Glenn Erickson, Major Dundee, DVD Review)

(2) In a interview, added as an extra to the DVD, L.Q. Jones suggests that Heston thought the studio would never accept his offer, and call the production a day. In other words: Heston tricked himself into giving up his salary. Much has been said about the relationship between heston and Peckinpah. Peckinpah once said that Sam was the only person he had physically threatened on set, referring to the infamous incident in which he drew a saber and ordered Peckinpah to stop his abusive behavior towards his actors. On the other hand, he defended Peckinpah during post-production, when the studio threatened to destroy the picture. 

(3) For a detailed study of Peckinpah's relationship with Mexico lingo (and his home country), See: Arthur G. Pettit, The Polluted Garden, Sam Peckinpah's double vision of Mexico. Reprinted in: Western Movies, edited by William T. Pilkington and Don Graham.