Arrow Video: Major Dundee (1965) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Legendary and still provocative American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, nicknamed ‘Bloody Sam’ for his penchant for depicting explicit, realistic acts of violence onscreen as well as fostering a reputation for being an irascible film director difficult to work with whether it be related to his alcohol or drug abuses often committed on set, left behind a complicated filmography and legacy filmgoers are still contending with to this day.  Often telling the stories of gruff male figures whose masculinity is tested on the grounds of the American west, Peckinpah was also frequently parodied for his trademark use of slow-motion during moments of bloodletting so the crimson flies freely across the screen.
But what many are only now becoming aware of is that Mr. Peckinpah also found himself in a position not dissimilar from that of Orson Welles in that nearly every project following his 1965 rogue Civil War epic Major Dundee was met with some form or another of studio meddling and/or revoking final cut completely.  After striking gold with his 1962 western Ride the High Country, Peckinpah was approached by actor Charlton Heston who liked what he saw in the director’s work and wanted to hire him for what would be called Major Dundee. 
Based on a screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, the Civil War set film concerns rogue Union calvary officer Major Dundee (Charlton Heston).  Stationed at a New Mexico outpost, he assembles a motley crew of Confederate prisoners, black Federal soldiers as well as Indians with a plan to venture into Mexico to fight an Apache army after they wiped out a regiment before kidnapping the children left behind.  After bringing together his own personal army, he and former friend turned Confederate Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris) soon embark on what can be described as a kind of Moby Dick set in the wide open west with the titular Major Dundee as its Captain Ahab.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Visually and contextually you can see the fingerprints of what would or would not eventually become The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  With sprawling, epic widescreen vistas of the open west spectacularly photographed by Sam Leavitt, Major Dundee is at once beautiful and ugly to look at.  Westerns up to that point hadn’t been nearly as violent or gory as this though censors did come down on the film before audiences ever saw it.  The ensemble cast including but not limited to Heston, Harris, James Coburn, Slim Pickens and eventual Peckinpah regular Warren Oates, give fantastic performances under duress.
A troubled production from start to finish, Peckinpah drank heavily on set and was generally abusive towards his cast and crew, leading to an altercation between Charlton Heston and Peckinpah involving a cavalry saber.  Despite their differences, Heston still vouched for Peckinpah and forfeited his salary to the studio to keep the project afloat, to no avail.  Allegedly Peckinpah simply stumbled off the set near the end of the shoot, leaving Heston to finish remaining scenes himself.
Known among cinephiles as the first time Peckinpah encountered trouble with the studio Columbia Pictures who pulled the plug before crucial remaining scenes could be filmed and edited the film without him, Major Dundee is a gargantuan epic that unfortunately proved to be the director’s first critical and commercial blow.  Released in a truncated cut assembled by the studio after an ill-fated initial premiere, the film was almost universally blasted by the critics and performed poorly at the box office.  Though Peckinpah maintained his original director’s cut was the best film he ever made, it is unlikely to ever see the light of day.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Around 2005, the original 136-minute cut initially rejected by the studio after a dismal world premiere, resurfaced and featured a newly commissioned score by Christopher Caliendo.  Though the film is still left with many gaping holes, the extended cut packaged alongside the original lambasted theatrical cut by Arrow Video is a welcome addition to the saga.  

While we may never know the full extent of what went on behind the scenes and just what the actual director’s cut we’ll never see looks like, what remains is nonetheless a fascinating and lush American western epic.  It also helped cement Peckinpah’s reputation as an outlaw filmmaker which carried over into every subsequent project he touched.

--Andrew Kotwicki