Warner Brothers
MSRP: $19.94
RUNNING TIME: 136 Minutes
• Commentary by Nick Redman, David Weddle, Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons
• Alternate 2005 score
• Riding
For A Fall — stunt featurette (2 versions)
• Excerpt
from Mike Siegel’s ‘Passion and Poetry’ documentary
• Trailers

(This is NOT
part of the brilliant new Sam Peckinpah box set, but please check out reviews of the films in the box here. This is just a bonus.)

Even if
Warner Brothers had the rights to Peckinpah’s second major feature, I’d be
happy it wasn’t in the new box set. This is the film that doesn’t fit. After
the success of Ride the High Country, Sam was hired to oversee a film that was
meant to sit alongside movies like Ben Hur. The original plan was for a
70mm epic, but at the last minute that changed and Major Dundee became just
another military adventure flick.

Even if
he’d been able to keep the film’s original budget and prestige status,
Peckinpah might have been out of his depth. His plan for Dundee took the company
to a dozen major locations in Mexico; the constant moves wasted time and
energy. The picture went out of control, and Peckinpah’s career was nearly over
before it started.

The Flick

Heston is Major Dundee, a Union Army man serving a punishment post at a prison
fort in Texas. After one of his divisions is massacred by a rogue Apache force,
Dundee recruits prisoners and local criminals to create a patchwork retaliation
squad. His go-to man is Tyreen (Richard Harris), an old friend who’s become a
Confederate leader and is currently imprisoned under Dundee’s watch. Tensions
between the men and the soldiers they lead run high on the trek to Mexico,
where the Apaches run free.

Ride for the Black Fortress before it moves! Now who’s got the Glaive?

It sounds
like perfect Peckinphah: the two leads are old friends who’ve gone in different
directions. The animosity between them is as simple as an ideological conflict
and as deep as a personal betrayal. Dundee’s quest to take down the Apache
leader Sierra Charriba becomes more mad and self-serving with every step,
laying waste to the sort of rah-rah themes typically featured in military
adventures. Tying it all together is the Mexican landscape, which would haunt
Peckinpah’s films from now until Alfredo Garcia.

But it’s
not perfect Peckinpah. Dundee overstepped his ability to
create within tight constraints such as the ones imposed by Columbia. Technical
problems forced re-shoots that weren’t always possible. Scenes shudder to a
close with the available coverage. The coiled energy of The Wild Bunch or Ride
the High Country
is rarely in evidence, and most of the movie is just
another big action flick.

Coburn vs. Ash — no contest.

between the Union and Confederate men provide some of the best material. The
standout scene occurs when John Davis Chandler (Ride the High Country‘s
most inbred Hammond brother) taunts one of Dundee’s black soldiers. Their tense
confrontation quickly engulfs the whole camp.

similar conflicts, the shifting divisions within Dundee’s force are the movie’s
most interesting aspect. The Union, Confederate and criminal elements blend
together, then are polarized once more. Over time, the men begin to wear the
uniforms of the other divisions, as represented by Tyreen’s costume; he goes
from pure Confederate to mutt. It’s a great way to emphasize how superficial
most of their arguments are. The detail almost gets lost in the muddle.

With the
exception of Coburn, the major stars are miscast. Richard Harris is an
excellent actor, but I can’t accept him as the rebellious Lieutenant Tyreen.
Listening to him say, "I’m not your uncle, you redneck peckerwood" is
funny, but the dialogue never sounds natural from his lips.

Confederate bling.

Heston is poorly cast in anything that requires acting, but Peckinpah almost
gets him to pull something out from the less worn pages of the playbook. Some
of his directorial technique was just to make Heston mad; whatever he did,
there are a few standout moments where Dundee is real.

(Even if
90% of Heston’s work is worth dismissing, you’ve got to admire the guy for
offering to put up his own salary to keep the movie going when Columbia wanted
to fire Peckinphah. He probably figured they wouldn’t accept, but when the
studio did he was true to his word.)

The best
cast members are in strong secondary roles; Michael Anderson Jr. always ropes
me in as the young bugler whose journal entries also narrate the film. And Jim
Hutton is funny and perfect as the green Sgt. Graham. His first scene, where
Dundee charges him with finding extra weapons, makes him look like a master
thespian. But that’s what acting opposite the syllable-chewing Heston will do
for you.

Somebody call Dutch.

As he
would in films to come, Peckinpah also peopled the movie with a great
supporting cast: Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong and even
Warren Oates, who gets about two minutes to shine as a deserting soldier. The
out of control nature of the production is made obvious by the fact that many
of these guys appear and disappear with no real rationale; Pickens is in two
scenes total, and the group of volunteer criminals he represents virtually
vanish from the film until it’s time for a battle scene.

inability to keep the film under control didn’t go unnoticed, and it was
removed from his control in post-production. The most obvious result of the
studio takeover is an absolutely horrendous score, which begins by laying a jaunty,
insipid march over the aftermath of the Apache massacre. A little electronic
zing shoots over the score every time the Apache are mentioned. On the picture
side, a ten-minute prologue was cut, replaced by a burning piece of parchment
that cheapens the film before it has a chance to do anything.

Zombies of the Confederacy.

The film
might be very different had Peckinpah worked with High Country‘s Lucien
Ballard, who would end up shooting other films for Sam as well. Sam Leavitt had
worked extensively with Otto Preminger and shot some Hollywood war flicks, and
his style is too removed to mesh well with Peckinpah. A few inspired moments
aside, Leavitt looks as if he’s falling back on the John Ford school of
westerns, which is the exact opposite of what Peckinpah needed.

For me, Dundee
is more interesting as a cautionary tale than a movie. It’s not as
one-sided as a tale of studio control going out of control; Peckinpah was just
as much at fault as Columbia, and perhaps even more so. A refusal to compromise
served him well later on (for a while) but combined with inexperience it was
almost enough to do him in this time.

7 out of 10

The Look

Major Dundee has never looked better. Sony did
a great job restoring the image for this release, especially as elements were
compiled from various sources. It’s a rich, meaty-looking adventure with strong
colors. The nighttime scenes do seem too dark, though. That might be the way
they were shot, but since the say for night stuff in Peckinpah’s films shot by
Lucien Ballard tends to be really bright, I wonder if they were dialed down too
low for this transfer.

8.5 out of 10

The Noise

The Pat
disc has two versions of the film; this one has two scores to
choose from. The first is Daniele Amfitheatrof’s original, which hates
eardrums. The second is Christopher Caliendo’s 2005 original. It’s frequently
smart but standard adventure stuff, though Caliendo does get the tone right,
and has the sense to keep quiet when the film demands it.

8 out of 10

The Goodies

As on all
the films in the Warner Brothers box set, Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner
Simmons and David Weddle provide the commentary. It’s a similar mixture of
knowledge, speculation and analysis. If it’s not the most entertaining track
out there, you’d be hard pressed to find something more informative.

For A Fall is the featurette created for the film’s release celebrating the
work of the movie’s stuntmen. It’s fun more than anything else, but has some
excellent footage of the stuntmen at work. Sony has gone all out to at least
present the piece in the best possible light — the original negative is gone,
so one copy has been transferred from a black and white 16mm print, and another
in color from an 8mm copy. It’s a lot of effort for a simple featurette, and
very much appreciated.

excerpt from Mike Siegel’s film Passion and Poetry is good, if a
fairly typical reminiscence about the making of the film. There is a standout,
though — Coburn rules in his interview. When he starts dismissing every modern
actor’s approach to filmmaking, I want to cheer. (In part because it’s ironic
stuff coming from the guy who made two Flint movies.) But after three
fantastic performances for Peckinpah, he’s got the right to say whatever the
hell he wants.

8 out of 10

The Artwork

nicely replicated the film’s original poster art. That’s good enough, but I’m
rating this all the way at the top of the scale because there’s also an insert
that runs several pages, featuring an essay by David Wilkenson (DVDTalk’s DVD
Savant) detailing what was cut from the film and how the production went. With
this sort of film — one that has such a storied history — that’s essential.
Warner Brothers should have taken note.

10 out of 10

Overall: 7.5 out of 10