Major Dundee (1965)

3.5 stars out of 4. Highly compromised failure but still somehow captivating.

Major Dundee is a compromised film that still remains a challenge to audiences and bears its makers stamp despite a muddled edit by the producer. What is key is that Dundee is the link between Ride the High Country (1962) and Sam Peckinpah’s culmination of themes in The Wild Bunch (1969). High Country was a classically styled Hollywood western where the real world began to crack through the background and seep into the beautifully stylized story. By the time of Dundee, reality has begun to take over and rip out the Hollywood parasite of idyllic falsehoods.

This is a movie about tough, dirty, mean and self-righteous sons-of-bitches. Chief amongst these is Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) who after superseding orders at Gettysburg is relegated to a small post in the New Mexico territory as a jailer of Confederate prisoners. Effectively he is down and out for the count as far as the war is concerned. That is until a band of Apache under the leadership of Sierra Chariba massacre an entire family and nearby contingent of cavalry. Dundee seizes upon this and goes hauling off after Chariba primarily as an excuse to be reinstated back into the main arena of battle.

To do this he grabs as many of his men as he can, steals arms from another part of the Union army (this includes a contingent of black soldiers who otherwise are made to nothing), fills his ranks with common criminals and other miscreants to get further supplies and finally takes many from his prisoner ranks to be forced along in this single-minded mission of his. Chief amongst the Confederates is an old rival of Dundee’s, the Irishman turned Union soldier turned rebel, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). Tyreen and Dundee spend the entire film in a battle of wills almost like children who develop an instant dislike towards one another.

Dundee takes his not so merry band on this small excursion for glory  but of course as it really would, it all goes to hell and he wastes countless lives in pursuit of his own military conquest. The film is told through the journal narration of young bugler Tim Ryan whose wimpy renditions of the events we see firsthand seemingly are meant as an bit of irony to show just what exactly gets put down in the history books.

Heston was always at his best when his characters had a nasty edge and he had a good director to work off of. Dundee might be his finest performance next to his conflicted Vargas in Tough of Evil. (One line here is a little jibe at his famous playing against type: Potts tells him he “would make a mighty suspicious Mexican.”) Richard Harris is fantastic as Tyreen and gives the film a badly needed character to associate with. He forms the counterpoint to every single action by Dundee and outdoes him at every turn as both a better military commander and a better man. And the magnificent one-armed tracker Sam Potts is played with  great panache by James Coburn. This is enough reason to watch the film.

The Extended Cut adds back about 12 minutes of scenes that give little new to the film, but an much better overall sense of…well sense. The film flows much better with the reinstated padding and certainly comes off as less choppy.  Characters no longer mysteriously disappear along with entire plot points. While not the director’s original intent this is about the best that can be done for the film at this time due to the original film being cut by others and everything else long lost by this point.

For this new cut, a new score was commissioned and added into a new 5.1 surround mix. This was done largely to replace the long reviled original score which really didn’t fit the film because of the cheeky title song. (Which hilariously makes the opening credits clash horribly.) But to be perfectly honest, I’ve never found the original score to be really that bad save for the stupid song. In fact it works quite well for what it is and better than the new score which seems a bit rushed and frankly a bit cliched. Also, the new track leaves a lot of dead air when there is no music because the original track is almost constant. In other words, stick with the mono.

Even with this restored version, it is clearly apparent that Dundee is not a true Sam Peckinpah film. It is compromised from his original vision, and that vision itself was flawed. Sam bit off a bit more than he could chew at the time in taking on an epic production at that stage in his career. The script was never truly finished and the producer did not understand the type of filmmaker Sam was. These combined produced a tumultuous time in Mexico, where everything ran over schedule and over budget. the film was taken away from Peckinpah and hacked to it’s “acceptable” theatrical format. With everything said and done, there’s still enough of Sam in the film to make it somehow fascinating. I’ve watched it twice now and still find myself drawn in further by its complexities despite all the shortcomings. For a Hollywood film to be so daring in 1965 to feature a figure of authority so morally bankrupt is in and of itself remarkable. Plus, I find this to be one of the few relatively straightforward films about the War, despite the plot having little actually to do with the conflict. Why does this time period get so completely ignored by American cinema?

EDITIONS: Columbia’s DVD is straight from the film restoration and obviously the materials weren’t subjected to the most expensive of restoration processes. It is a serviceable restoration that maintains the filmic look of the 1965 production and adequately restores the film to a point where it can be viewed with fresh eyes. The transfer is 16:9 2.35:1 progressive and it looks sharp enough to pass but never enough to really please the eye. There are also some notable instances of combing form interlaced footage most obvious in the opening titles. Also present are a few hairs in the gate and damage marks but all together these are very very minor.

Audio has two options: the original mono soundtrack in standard Dolby Digital 2.0 @ 192 khz, and the new score in a Dolby 5.1 mix @ 448 khz. My advice is to demo the scores quickly and see which you prefer. Though I would advise to watch the film for the first time with the original mono. Don’t worry, the silly song is over quickly. The audio is relatively clear with some occasional bleed-through and distortion on the mono. This is still present on the 5.1, but much less noticeable sine the whole track sans music is pretty much confined to the center channel.

Extras on this disc feature:

-Yet another dry commentary by Peckinpah scholars, Some silent extended outtakes, Footage of a deleted scene without audio, a bit of a scene extension, “Riding for a Fall” the vintage featurette on the film’s stunts in both B&W and color, footage of the promotional artwork, original an re-release trailers, and most importantly an excerpt of Mike Sigel’s personally financed feature length documentary on Peckinpah: Passion & Poetry (now available on DVD in PAL format, region free from The excerpt is really the one feature worth including. I still want to see the whole thing.

All in all, a great disc with flaws of a great flawed film. A steal at it’s current $5 to $7 price, and a worthy candidate for what details a HD master and Blu-ray could pullout…oh wait this is a Columbia DVD where the back cover proudly states: “Remastered in High Definition” so if we could raise enough demand, Dundee could ride again soon in HD…


Glenn Erickson’s (DVDSavant) articles and review of Dundee are invaluable post-film reading:

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Sam Peckinpah

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