Twilight Time has released the 2005 restored version of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee as on Blu-ray, providing both the "improved" version of the film along with the controversial original cut. Peckinpah had won respect as a fine director of TV Westerns and his 1962 feature film, Ride the High Country, earned critical praise, particularly in Europe. Columbia hired Peckinpah to direct his first big budget film, Major Dundee, which top-lined two big stars: Charlton Heston and Richard Harris. As would prove to be the case throughout his career, Peckinpah's fiercely independent nature, combined with his propensity for snaring defeat from the jaws of victory, found him over his head on the production even before shooting started. Filmed in some inhospitable areas of Mexico, Peckinpah began shooting before the script was finalized (always a recipe for disaster). Midway through the film, Columbia was going to fire him for going over-budget but Heston used his clout to keep Peckinpah on the film- though in order to do so, he had to sacrifice his entire salary in order to help defray the financial overages. Heston envisioned that his extraordinary gesture would at least have resulted in Peckinpah's vision of a two-hour and forty minute roadshow version of the film being released. However, as soon as filming slogged to completion, the studio prohibited him from participating in the editing process. Producer Jerry Bressler, alarmed that the film's violent content would make it difficult to exhibit, cut the movie to 122 minutes. That may still have seemed long for a Western, but it placed Peckinpah's artistic vision in the trash. The mercurial Peckinpah was outraged but he had no artistic control over the final cut so all he could do was protest. (The film was released in a 136 minute version outside of the USA and UK). Despite an aggressive marketing campaign and that fact that Heston was a top box-office draw, the film was considered to be a financial failure.
In the ensuing years, Peckinpah apologists have argued that the movie had the making of a masterpiece. Others claim that it has a scattershot script that tries to cover too much territory. The plot centers on U.S. Army Major Amos Dundee (Heston), a no-nonsense graduate of West Point who drives his men relentlessly and tolerates no insubordination. For various reasons, we see that Dundee's reputation has been tarnished and he has been relegated to commanding a remote outpost in the New Mexico Territory. The film opens on some chilling images of the aftermath of an Apache raid on a settler's encampment. The adults have been subjected to torturous deaths but Dundee learns that three young boys have been taken hostage. Determined to rescue them (and perhaps his own reputation), Dundee rounds up all the men his commanding officer can spare in order to engage in hot pursuit. Finding he doesn't have enough troops, Dundee offers a contingent of confederate prisoners of war the opportunity to escape the hangman's noose for attempting to escape if they agree to serve under Dundee's command. Complicating matters is the fact that their senior confederate officer is Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), a former friend of Dundee's who attended West Point with him. It's clear Dundee shows no favoritism to Tyreen and there is true bitterness between the two men who ended up on opposite sides of the Civil War. To round out his motley band of rescuers, Dundee also hires seemingly any drunkard or mercenary willing to take on the dangerous trek. When Dundee finds the Apaches have crossed into Mexico, he defies orders (and American policy) by taking his command across the border. In the process, they not only have to fight Apaches but Mexican troops and their French allies. For good measure, Peckinpah (who co-authored the screenplay) throws in yet another subplot about racial tensions between black troops and their confederate antagonists. This "everything but the kitchen sink" formula sometimes makes the film feel overstuffed and Peckinpah is clearly aspiring for more than he achieved, dramatically speaking. However, since no one will ever see his intended two hour and forty minute version of the film, we'll never know how the movie may have been improved if his artistic vision was kept intact. As it is, Major Dundee is a very entertaining film on all levels. There are some awkward transitions between story lines and the subplot with Senta Berger romancing Heston seems to exist entirely for sex appeal in this otherwise testosterone-fueled production. Heston, in full "I'm posing for Mt. Rushmore" mode, never looked so good on screen and gives a fine commanding performance that is matched by Richard Harris's more sarcastic and humorous Tyreen. The great supporting cast is like "Who's Who" of notable character actors from the era including Ben Johnson, Mario Adorf, Brock Peters, Warren Oates, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Karl Swenson and Dub Taylor. Co-starring roles include James Coburn in fine form as a crusty, one-armed scout, Jim Hutton as a greenhorn officer under Dundee's command and Michael Anderson Jr. as a young soldier who provides the narrative of the events that unfold. The film as a whole never completely gels, even in the extended version, and one suspects that even Peckinpah's original cut (that was never realized) would perhaps not lived up to the expectations of his fan base. Nevertheless, Major Dundee is also quite underrated by many critics and film historians. It's a hard-hitting, consistently engrossing film that has well withstood the test of time.
One of the glaring artistic misjudments found in the original cut of the film was the score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, which was often unsuited for the story line (the opening sequence of the massacre's aftermath unfolds over a jovial marching song warbled by the Mitch Miller gang!) The 2005 extended cut of the not only featured an impressive remastering, but also a brand new musical score by Christopher Caliendo that seems more appropriate for the movie, though Peckinpah purists still gripe that the only way they can see the extended cut is with this newly commissioned score. Twilight Time's Blu-ray release is dazzling, carrying over the extras from Sony's 2005 DVD release of the extended version. These include a commentary track by Peckinpah historians Paul Seydor, David Weddle, Garner Simmons and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman. These guys know their stuff and it's fascinating to hear them debate the merits of the film. (The commentary track was recorded in 2004, a year after the Iraq War started and the parallels they make to Dundee's incursion into Mexico seem all the more poignant given the outcome of events.) Other extras include some outtakes and deleted scenes, trailers and part of a promotional reel shown to theater exhibitors. Naturally, there is the usual informative booklet by film historian Julie Kirgo.
Major Dundee may not be first rate Peckinpah on all levels, but the Twilight Time Blu-ray is a first-rate presentation.
(This release is limited to 3,000 units. The Blu-ray is region-free).