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Major Dundee

Major Dundee(1965)

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teaser Major Dundee (1965)

Because of a strategic error he made at the battle of Gettysburg, Major Amos Dundee is punished by being sent to command a Texas prison camp. When raiding Apache destroy a nearby ranch and flee to Mexico with two children as captives, Dundee follows in pursuit with a small force from his prison garrison, including condemned Confederate prisoner and boyhood friend of Dundee's, Capt. Benjamin Tyreen. The two clash with each other as often as their skirmishes with the Apaches, and their hostility comes to a head over a beautiful woman captured during a raid on a French garrison in Mexico. Eventually, the Apaches are hunted down and the children are rescued but Dundee's expedition encounters a new threat - French troops - who pursue them aggressively; it is only a suicidal sacrifice from an unexpected source that enables Dundee's unit to return safely across the border. Full of sweeping action scenes and periodic bursts of the kinetic violence for which director Sam Peckinpah would later become famous, Major Dundee (1965) is really the story of the title character's personal journey to hell and back which is juxtaposed with the Captain Bligh-Mr. Christian-like relationship that rages between Dundee and Tyreen.

According to star Charlton Heston, the script for Major Dundee was only partially finished and "badly needing work" when he signed on. Producers brought in former TV Western director Peckinpah to complete the script and direct, largely on the strength of Ride the High Country (1962), a modestly-budgeted Western he made with Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in the twilight of their long careers (it turned out to be Scott's last movie). Although an excellent writer, Peckinpah had to contend with the pressure of prepping his first big-budget production while sharing an office with Heston, who continually offered unsolicited advice on casting and the script. Even this early in his career, Peckinpah was known as a maverick who didn't trust producers or studio executives and was a heavy drinker with a volatile temper to boot. At the same time, he didn't do much to endear himself to his colleagues on the set, either. According to Heston, Peckinpah tended to "quarrel with the actors and fire the technicians." And Heston himself had numerous run-ins with the director during the grueling location shoot in Mexico, nearly running Peckinpah down on a horse at one point. In his autobiography, In the Arena, Heston wrote "A lot of things went wrong with Dundee; Sam was responsible for most of them. A lot of things went right with it; Sam was responsible for most of those, too. He was...a difficult but very talented man."

The actor also addressed the film's troubled production and numerous on-set conflicts: "One of the most crucial, though none of us realized it at the time, was that Columbia, Sam and I all really had different pictures in mind. Columbia, reasonably enough, wanted a cavalry/Indians film as much like Jack Ford's best as possible. I wanted to be the first to make a film that really explored the Civil War. Sam, though he never said anything like this, really wanted to make The Wild Bunch. That's the movie that was steaming in his psyche." In fact, many people consider the later movie a reworking of Major Dundee, and a chance for Peckinpah to explore themes and find his own directorial style without studio meddling. In the end, the director asked to have his name taken off Major Dundee after the studio took the final cut away from him and, citing budget overruns, refused to allow him to shoot the additional scenes he requested.

Nevertheless, the major strengths of Major Dundee lie in its excellent ensemble cast. Several character actors from this film - Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, and Dub Taylor - would go on to work on The Wild Bunch. Along with fellow Dundee cast members Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong, these actors formed an unofficial Peckinpah stock company, each appearing in four to five of the director's films.

For the role of the local girl with whom the company bugler falls in love, Peckinpah wanted a young actress involved at the time with director Budd Boetticher, who was shooting Arruza (1972) in Mexico. In A Portrait in Montage: Peckinpah by Garner Simmons, the director recalled, "So Budd came by and said, 'She's not going to work for you!' And I had to find another actress to play the part. So I was shown a picture of a young Mexican actress and flamenco dancer named Begonia Palacios. She was beautiful, and I ran a picture she made in Mexico, and....I cast her in the picture and later married her - not once, but three times;twice in civil court, once in a church;. So I always tell Budd when I see him, 'Man, you really know how to f*ck a guy up!"

Richard Harris was relatively new to American movies when he made Major Dundee, his first Western. Before signing to appear in Peckinpah's film, he played the lead in Lindsay Anderson's critically acclaimed drama, This Sporting Life (1963) and he had memorable roles in the ensemble casts of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). Harris was actually on location for Major Dundee when he learned he had received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for This Sporting Life, yelling, "I've struck a blow for the Irish rebellion!"

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Editing: William Lyon, Don Starling, Howard Kunin
Production Design: Alfred Ybarra
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Charlton Heston (Major Dundee), Richard Harris (Capt. Tyreen), Jim Hutton (Lt. Graham), James Coburn (Samuel Potts), Senta Berger (Teresa Santiago), Warren Oates (O.W. Hadley), Michael Anderson, Jr. (Tim Ryan), Mario Adorf (Sergeant Gomez), Brock Peters (Aesop), Slim Pickens (Wiley), Ben Johnson (Sergeant Chillum), R.G. Armstrong (Reverend Dahlstrom), L.Q. Jones (Arthur Hadley), Dub Taylor (Benjamin Priam).
C-123m.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Major Dundee (1965)

Of all the famous movies most in need of a restoration that will likely never be possible (due to the destruction of original film elements), Sam Peckinpah's western Major Dundee (1965) is right up there with the likes of Greed (1924) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Film historian Jim Kitses has called Major Dundee "one of Hollywood's great broken monuments." Peckinpah himself called his original version "possibly the best film I ever made in my life." On the flip side, he described the experience of having the picture taken out of his hands, badly edited down, and terribly scored "one of the most painful things that ever happened in my life...They left out what it's about."

Major Dundee is a Civil War-era western whose story and production have already been recounted on tcm.com. The somewhat restored and extended version produced in 2005, however, requires a little more backstory. Two days before the film's shoot began in February 1964, Columbia Pictures underwent a corporate shake-up and Major Dundee's shooting schedule and budget were slashed. Peckinpah was told to adjust the scope of his film to fit the lower parameters, but he was so obsessed with making the film the way he had originally planned - on the scale of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - that he just kept on doing so. The new studio brass, recounted J. Hoberman in The New York Times, "feared that they had inherited a runaway production with a lunatic at the helm."

After a contentious shoot, the picture wrapped 15 days late and $1.5 million over budget. Peckinpah assembled a 164-minute (some accounts say 161-minute) version and was fired off the show by producer Jerry Bresler, who abhorred Peckinpah's use of violence in the film. Bresler oversaw the deletion of about 30 minutes of footage and the addition of a score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, which Peckinpah hated. Then, after a bad preview screening, the studio cut 12 more minutes, bringing the running time to 124 minutes. In all, the deletions included an opening massacre, major character development, and bits and pieces throughout that affected the story's overall coherence.

In 2005, Sony Pictures found the 12 minutes and restored them, meaning that Major Dundee now exists in the 136-minute version after it was first cut by Bresler. Peckinpah's original version (which itself was never really complete) will likely remain lost forever.

The other big difference, however, is that Sony also commissioned a brand-new score for the film, by Christopher Caliendo. That might seem like sacrilege, but in this case, it was a well-taken choice. Most film enthusiasts agree with Peckinpah that the original score was overly exuberant and occasionally ridiculous. Further, since the director had nothing to do with the original, the notion of a new score done in the style of a 1960s western is really quite an intriguing idea - in this one case alone. Besides a better, more appropriate score, there's actually less music overall in the new version, which allows dramatic scenes to play out more effectively but which also exposes some underlying sound problems with the film; it was evidently never properly mixed or dubbed, and as a result, a few scenes sound altogether too quiet in their backgrounds.

As for the reinserted footage, it comprises three new, complete scenes which critic Todd McCarthy has described as "the key introduction of Richard Harris' character..., the elaboration of Dundee's fort as a jail, and a drunken weekend of Dundee's that climaxes with the lady he has romanced discovering him with a half-naked Mexican whore. There are also numerous, much shorter insertions throughout, some of which make the film considerably more bloody." Dundee's recovery from a leg wound is expanded, for instance, as is a knife fight between James Coburn and the Indian scout.

Glenn Erickson, an expert on the film and its troubled production background, has written: "Although only 12 out of a possible 30 or 40 minutes have been restored, the average audience now has a chance to understand the show on a first viewing, and appreciate the scope of its story. The old cut had glaring continuity problems, starting with an awkward beginning that omitted the introduction of a main character and didn't properly establish the setting of Fort Brenlin as a Union stockade for Confederate prisoners. Big pieces seemed to be missing from the second half of the show, which barely maintained a coherent storyline."

In the end, writes Erickson, "A confusing movie with poor continuity is now an intriguing movie... a more complete assembly of a larger work."

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Screenplay: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Editing: William A. Lyon, Don Starling, Howard Kunin
Production Design: Alfred Ybarra
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Charlton Heston (Major Dundee), Richard Harris (Capt. Tyreen), Jim Hutton (Lt. Graham), James Coburn (Samuel Potts), Senta Berger (Teresa Santiago), Warren Oates (O.W. Hadley), Michael Anderson, Jr. (Tim Ryan), Mario Adorf (Sergeant Gomez), Brock Peters (Aesop), Slim Pickens (Wiley), Ben Johnson (Sergeant Chillum), R.G. Armstrong (Reverend Dahlstrom), L.Q. Jones (Arthur Hadley), Dub Taylor (Benjamin Priam).
C-136m.

by Jeremy Arnold

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