Review: Major Dundee
Blu-ray: Major Dundee (1965)
Regular readers will know my favourite genre is the Western and I admit to feeling quite ashamed that I had never seen Major Dundee before this glorious 4k scan Arrow Films release. What a beautiful package it is, from the packaging to the film.
During the Minnesota Dakota Indian War of 1862, Union forces in that state were made to recruit Confederate prisoners from Texas to make up their numbers to fight the indigenous Indians, unlike the film, the Union and Confederate soldiers hated each other.
In Major Dundee, Charlton Heston plays Major Amos Dundee with a square jawed mastery. He is the commander of prisoner-of-war camp in New Mexico. On hearing that a local family have been butchered by the Apache he decides to pursue them, and to boost his numbers recruits his once friend (who fights for the South) Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris, who interestingly couldn’t ride a horse).
He sends his one armed scout out (James Coburn) to look for the Apache while he builds an army.
A ragtag bunch of soldiers chase the Apache around Mexico and the border and on the way they get help from Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the Austrian widow of a doctor executed for his support of the rebels under Benito Juárez. This causes problems as Both Tyreen and Dundee fancy her.
Critics of the film have taken pains to point out the similarities between this story and Herman Melville’s great American novel Moby Dick. Many of the characters are similar to those in the book, with Dundee as Captain Ahab, Tyreen as Starbuck, and the Apache as the whale, as is the plot of the story, an obsessive idealist drives himself to destruction, disregarding the effects on others.
Peckinpah apparently changed the story into what it is, and taking the original emphasis off the narrator character, the bugler Trooper Ryan (played by Brit Michael Anderson), and concentrating on the slightly unhinged Dundee.
And there lies the problem. Heston is incapable of playing unhinged, he is everything an American hero should be, and although I do love Heston, he was wrong for the part. He is too much the hero, when Peckinpah needed someone a bit dirty, maybe a William Holden or a Henry Fonda.
The production of the movie was also troubled. Peckinpah up to his usual pissed antics and at one point was threatened with a sabre by Heston. Good times.
The studio feared that the project was out of control, and that Peckinpah was too unstable to finish the picture, so they cut the shooting schedule of the film by several weeks. Heston gave up his whole salary for the film in order to keep Peckinpah on the project, likely a gesture Peckinpah appreciated, it didn’t make any difference, and the director was so drunk towards the end, Heston himself started to direct the film in order to get it finished.
Apparently the original cut of the film was 4 hours 38 minutes long, which was initially edited down to 156 minutes. Included in this unseen version were several slow-motion battle scenes inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. At the film’s release in 1965 it was 136 minutes long, and after a disastrous premiere, the movie hated by critics, another thirteen minutes were cut out, creating a very confusing storyline.
In 2005 Film Forum premiered this restored version of the film, along with a new musical score by Christopher Caliendo. Restored scenes are listed below. These include both brief inserts and additions to existing scenes, as well as four major scenes restored to the film.
- Ryan plays “Taps” as soldiers bury the victims of the massacre.
- After Dundee, Potts, and the other Union troopers survey the massacre at the Rostes Ranch, Tyreen and his Confederates attempt to escape through a mountain stream. They are trapped by troops from the fort and Dundee’s command. The next scene shows Dundee announcing to the fort’s prisoners his need for volunteers. The scene introduces the character of Tyreen, who is only awkwardly introduced in the theatrical version, and provides the reason why he and his men are to hang later in the film (they killed a guard during their escape attempt).
- Tyreen’s men refuse to wear the Union jackets provided to them by Dundee.
- Children watch Dundee’s expedition leaving Fort Benlin.
- The wrestling match between Potts and the scout Riago is much longer, with Dundee chiding Potts because the artillery bet on him.
- Paco, one of Potts’ Indian scouts, is killed by Apaches before the river ambush.
- The fiesta scene in the Mexican village is longer, with Potts leering at a pretty girl, who snubs him (which would have led to the knife fight scene detailed below), and Teresa trying to comfort a crying baby.
- Dundee recovers from his leg wound in Durango, while being tended to by Melinche (Aurora Clavell), eventually falling in love with her.
- Dundee and his officers – Tyreen, Potts, Lt. Graham, and Sgt. Gomez – find an Apache trail marker, and then debate strategy on how to fight Charriba. At the end of the scene, we learn the fate of Apache scout Riago, who had earlier in the film been accused of being an agent of Charriba’s by Dundee and others. In the restored version, he is found crucified in a tree. In the theatrical version, his character disappeared without a trace.
I suppose knowing the history behind the making of this very troubled film makes it more enticing, but watching the film for it’s own sake, well… it’s not a classic western. It’s overlong and confusing in places. Several actors are miscast and in truth, I’d like to see a film about the making of Major Dundee.
Despite the film being a bit of a tedious watch (due to all the cutting) the package itself is so worth it, the extras go beyond brilliant, and reminisces about Peckinpah are unmissable.
TWO-DISC LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY CONTENTS:
- The 136-minute Extended Version of the film from a 4K scan, as well as the original 122-minute Theatrical Version
- 60-page perfect bound booklet featuring new writing by Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr plus select archive material
- Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
- Fold out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
DISC ONE – EXTENDED VERSION
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 4K scan by Sony Pictures
- DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround audio with new score by Christopher Caliendo
- Lossless original mono audio with original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary with Nick Redman, David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor
- Audio commentary by historian and critics Glenn Erickson & Alan K. Rode
- Audio commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson
- Moby Dick on Horseback, a brand new visual essay by David Cairns
- Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey, a feature length documentary about the making of Major Dundee by Mike Siegel, featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Gordon Dawson
- Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes, nine actors talk about working with legendary director Sam Peckinpah, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, Isela Vega
- Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project, in which filmmaker Mike Siegel talks about his beginnings and his ongoing historical project about director Sam Peckinpah
- Extensive stills galleries, featuring rare on set, behind the scenes, and marketing materials
- 2005 re-release trailer
DISC TWO – THEATRICAL VERSION (LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 2K scan
- Lossless original mono audio
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Riding for a Fall, a vintage behind the scenes featurette
- Extended/deleted scenes
- Silent Outtakes
- Select extended/deleted scenes and outtakes with commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson giving context on how they were intended to appear in Peckinpah’s vision of the film
- Original US, UK and German theatrical trailers
- Stills gallery
Major Dundee is released 28th June 2021.
Review by Tina from discs kindly supplied by Arrow Films via Fetch Publicity.