Sam Peckinpah is a director who became famous for his violent reimaginings of the western, with gritty anti-heroes battling a nihilistic world. Exactly the kind of director who could bring the tale of Major Dundee to life. In it, we see a Union Cavalry officer during the American Civil War risk everything – his career, his life, even the lives of those he leads – in pursuit of a murderous band of Apaches.
Starring one of the biggest names in Hollywood – Charlton Heston – and with a healthy budget for a western of the time, this could have been something spectacular. Sadly, when Major Dundee was released in 1965 it was to near universal derision; a dark, bloody mess from a director who had overreached and subsequently left the project. But why was it so panned?
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Though running at over two hours, the original release was still far shy of the original 156 minutes Peckinpah had put together. And those cuts showed, causing character motivations to be a complete mystery at times and the film in general becoming hard to follow. It is not an enjoyable, or even particularly good movie, and that would normally be the end of that. A low point in the career of a director who would quickly go on to bigger and better things; a movie to be discussed only by western geeks and aficionados. But in 2005, using previously discarded footage, a new version was put out. This was the cut authorized by producer Jerry Bresler before he left Columbia Studios, and it caused some serious waves. Not only had it been restored but it had been recut using old footage, and even rescored. The difference this made cannot be overstated. It’s hard to say what a confusing, soulless mess the theatrical cut is in comparison to the 136-minute producer’s cut. Suddenly Major Dundee was… good?
Yet, despite the additional 13 minutes, this cut still isn’t perfect. The pacing is bad, with the first third, which is tight and exciting, giving way to a sluggish, meandering middle. The final fight scene falls slightly short of the mark as well, lacking the energy and intensity necessary for a fitting climax. These aren’t the only problems. There are technical issues, with the day for night scenes feeling like a murky mess and uninspired cinematography throughout, but the biggest issue is what feels like an underused cast. Heston seems oddly uncomfortable in his role of anti-hero, while Peckinpah seems to have become drawn in by the star, resulting in the supporting cast, including Richard Harris, James Coburn, and Senta Berger, feeling woefully underused. Not necessarily in terms of screen time, but more in performances drawn out. In the end this is a movie by a director still finding his voice and experimenting with style and theme. However, the 2005 version at least helps the film make sense, and the new score is an improvement. It may not have turned Major Dundee into a classic, but it is at least pretty good.
Fans of the film and Peckinpah will be happy to know that this release is heaving with special features. There are three audio commentaries, the most interesting of which is from Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. These four really know their stuff, bringing a level of knowledge and insight that manages to impress without alienating. It’s also quite fun to listen to, as it is from the original 2005 release, and was recorded before the new score was added. The other two commentaries both feature Glen Erickson, one of which is him on his own and the other in conversation with Alan K. Rode. These are original for this release and are again warm and enjoyable. Erickson clearly loves the movie, and is able to explain exactly why. As with all commentaries, each of these have their strengths and weaknesses. But with three different ones to enjoy, the viewer prepared to put the time in will gain a healthy understanding of the film, its history, and that of the director.
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The restoration itself is fine, managing to preserve the vibrancy of the Technicolor print while cleaning up a lot of the problems. This is a good decision, as it allows stylistic directorial choices to remain. For example, the loud splashes of contrasting and visceral blood red when injuries occur leap from the scene. It is an effect that relied on the filming and printing processes of the time. The sympathetic restoration manages to keep elements like this, though it does mean that the aforementioned day for night scenes make the viewer feel like they are watching the film through a murky fish tank.
But this is only the beginning. As well as the commentaries, David Cairns presents us with a new, half hour documentary; ‘Moby Dick on Horseback’. This does a great job of setting the broader scene, as well as giving another personal insight into the movie. It also helps explain many of the stylistic decisions present, as well as those cut out. You also get two documentaries from filmmaker Mike Siegel’s “Passion and Poetry” project, as well as one where he talks about what it is – a series of films focusing on Sam Peckinpah – and the impact Peckinpah has had on him. The two documentaries included are The Dundee Odyssey, a feature length documentary focusing on the making of the movie itself, which features members of the cast, including Coburn and Senta Berger. Another, 25 minute long documentary called ‘Sam Peckinpah Anecdotes’ is made up of interviews with nine actors talking about their time working with Peckinpah. These are works of absolute love from one director to another. There is also the re-release trailer and animated galleries.
The second disc contains the original theatrical cut, which you can watch if you hate yourself. It has been newly restored, which is to be commended, but the saying about polishing a certain thing that rhymes with “bird” comes to mind, and when all is said and done there is a reason Peckinpah completely disowned this version of the film. This cut is here for purists, completionists, and masochists. Also on the disc you’ll find yet more special features, including ‘Riding for a Fall’, a vintage documentary looking at the stunts from Major Dundee, deleted and extended scenes, which come with a commentary from Glen Erickson, and original trailers from the UK, US, and Germany. The Blu-ray release also comes with a booklet and original art, which were not available for review.
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The amount of work done on the additional content is excellent, and shows a passion and love for this movie and film making in general. Some may question whether Major Dundee deserves this level of pomp and circumstance but, despite its flaws, this was a big budget movie that was made by a passionate director with a need to innovate and challenge. It may fall short of greatness, but that doesn’t make it any less important. That, coupled with some seriously weighty and well produced special features, makes this the ideal buy for fans of the director or genre, but perhaps worth a miss if you’re not prepared to spend half a day soaking it all up. Having said all of that, pretty good is still pretty good.
Major Dundee is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 28th June from Arrow Video.