Monday, December 07, 2009

Major Dundee

"You were whipped, major. Burying your dead isn't going to change that."

Among the many admirers of 'Ride the High Country' was Charlton Heston. He and producer Jerry Bresler were developing a property provisionally entitled 'Then Came the Tiger' - a synopsis by Harry Julian Fink that had all the makings of a full-blooded cavalry epic - for Columbia. Heston and Bresler's previous collaboration, 'Diamond Head', had done solid business at the box office. Peckinpah didn't need asking twice when he was offered directing duties. Fink got the nod to write the script proper, Bresler talked up the production as a big-budget roadshow release, and Peckinpah headed to Mexio to scout locations. The first problem was the script: Fink's first draft was unfocussed and - crucially - unfinished. Oscar Saul and Peckinpah himself worked on it, but essentially the now retitled 'Major Dundee' started shooting without a finalised screenplay - never a good indicator for a film.

Then, with principal photography well underway and half of Peckinpah's cast and crew stricken with illness, the money men at Columbia decided to slash budget and schedule. The epic destined for a roadshow release was now downgraded to a two-hour western. Peckinpah, unimpressed by Bresler's subservience to the studio, completely ignored his paymasters' edict to cut scenes, use fewer set-ups and expose less film. He continued to shoot every bit of footage he needed to make the film as he envisaged it. 'Major Dundee' went massively overbudget and behind schedule. In post-production, the studio took Peckinpah's two hour fifty minute original cut out of his hands, hacked it down by a third, had actor Michael J Anderson record a truly horrible narration which sloppily papers over plot holes and gaps in the chronology, and saddled it with an equally appalling score.

Between his very public criticism of Bresler and Columbia and his removal from his next project, 'The Cincinnati Kid', Peckinpah became a pariah within the industy. Four years in the wilderness followed, before he came storming back, all blood and thunder and very much unbowed, with his masterpiece 'The Wild Bunch'.

Transferred to the command of a prison garrison as part of a disciplinary measure, Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) arrives at his new post to witness the aftermath of a raid on nearby homesteaders by marauding Apache warrior Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate). Already balking at a posting that takes him out of the theatre of conflict, Dundee goes renegade: he puts together a makeshift army of volunteers and prisoners. (Technically, many of the prisoners are volunteers given a choice of volunteer or be hanged.) He appoints his one-time friend and now sworn enemy Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) as his number two, and they set out to hunt Charriba down. An ambush during a river crossing costs lives and the loss of supplies. Dundee leads his men to a small Mexican town where the soldiers of a French garrison hold sway. Effectively liberating the villagers, Dundee is moved enough by their destitution to share with them the supplies looted from the garrison. He meets Teresa (Senta Berger), the Austrian widow of the town's doctor, and they begin a brief romantic relationship. The idyll is interrupted when Charriba's men stage another attack, and Dundee is forced into battle not only with the Apaches but a battalion of vengeful French troops.

The Sony Home Entertainment DVD I'm basing this review on bills itself as "a restored masterpiece". The back cover blurb continues: "over 40 years after Sam Peckinpah's classic western was released, missing footage has been located and restored. The new scenes complete the electrifying depiction of an obsessive Union officer ..." etc, etc. Now, while there are many reasons to be thankful for this version - a much improved transfer; correct ratio; the removal of the fucking awful opening credits music by Mitch Miller's Sing-a-long Gang - claiming that an extra ten minutes or so "completes" the film when well over half an hour is still missing is stretching it a bit.

'Major Dundee' will forever remain a frustrating viewing experience, for two reasons. Number one: Richard Harris declared the original cut to be the best film he'd ever appeared in (this from a man who already had indisputable classics 'This Sporting Life' and 'Red Desert' under his belt!). Number two: Peckinpah had the opportunity to restore it to his original vision ... and declined!! Five years on from the debacle, with 'The Wild Bunch' in the can and 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' in production, Peckinpah was still publically berating Columbia for their desecration of 'Major Dundee' and describing the original cut as still his best film. Columbia called his bluff and offered him the chance to re-edit and re-release it. Citing his involvement with other projects, Peckinpah replied that he didn't have the time. David Weddle, in his indispensible biography, postulates that the film was "more useful as a lost masterpiece than a rediscovered failure".

So what of the two hours and ten minutes that remain? The first half, certainly, is taut and compelling filmmaking. Dundee's hell-raising address to the prisoners; the countdown to Tyreen's hanging, curtailed only when he volunteers; the departure from the garrison, tensions already rising; the attack on the French fort; the execution of a deserter on the trail - memorable scenes, all. Two in particular are worthy of comparison to anything on Peckinpah's CV. The first has the Confederates launch into a lusty rendition of 'Dixie' as the rag-tag ad hoc battalion rides out from the garrison. Affronted, the Confederates strike up with 'The Battle Hymn of the American Republic'. As the two groups try to drown each other out, the small (and evidently politically unaffiliated) cluster of men bringing up the rear shrug their shoulders and start belting out 'Clementine'. It's one of Peckinpah's occasional, brilliantly observed comedic moments (like the passing of the whisky bottle, Warren Oates finally getting a go at it only when it's empty, in 'The Wild Bunch' or the supposedly under-attack stagecoach later revealed as a playful re-enacted by an Apache raiding party in 'The Deadly Companions').

The second - and the best scene in the film - has one of Tyreen's men, O.W. Hadley (Oates), summarily tried after going AWOL. He pleads that he only went back to the Mexican village to see one of the women. Quizzed on the details (Dundee is cognizant, by this point, that the French have sacked the village in retribution), Hadley reveals himself as a liar. Dundee stands as judge, jury and if not executioner then certainly all too eager to give the command to the firing squad. Not that it gets to that point. Hadley pleads with Tyreen, asking if he's really going to stand by and let Dundee have him killed. "I'm obliged to, lad," Tyreen replies; "you should have remembered you belong to the major and not to me." Hadley, blinking with the realisation that he's reached the end of the line, faces up to it, addressing Dundee: "Hell, major, you're just doing what you've got to do. But damn your soul to hell for it, and God bless Robert E. Lee!" Even as he speaks Lee's name, Tyreen's pistol roars and Hadley pitches forward dead. In killing Hadley himself, Tyreen cheats Dundee of the satisfaction. He then swears to kill Dundee once Charriba "has been caught or destroyed".

Sadly, things go south after this. Dundee's liaison with Teresa slows the film down. Gaps in the narrative become more prominent and the voiceover more tenuous. 'Major Dundee' becomes, in its last hour, episodic, fragmented, unfocused. A sequence that was presumably longer (and more coherent) in Peckinpah's original cut has Dundee, recovering from wounds sustained during a surprise attack, debase himself with a whore (at the cost of his relationship with Teresa) in a fly-blown Mexican town. Coming on like a dry run for Pike, Dutch and the Gorch brothers' collective moment of self-loathing in 'The Wild Bunch', what works as visceral psychological portraiture in 'The Wild Bunch' just seems out of place in 'Major Dundee'. Dundee's debasement is apropos of nothing, nor does it prefigure the cathartic self-destruction of Pike and co.; Dundee simply rejoins the battalion and snaps back into grizzled, macho leader of men mode.

The denouement is unsatisfying, too. The long-awaited showdown with Charriba is unengaging and over quickly. The subsequent battle with the French troops is a hell of a lot more exciting, but it's still just the resolution of a subplot. The whole film builds towards the destruction of Charriba, and - whether this is due to the script never fully cohering, Peckinpah muffing the sequence (hardly likely given his facility for extended, actionful set pieces) or clumsy fingers in the editing room when the only criteria was reduction of the running time to two hours - it's a case of not with a bang but a whimper.

Elsewhere, however, Peckinpah proves himself as an actor's director. Charlton Heston, as can be expected, plays Charlton Heston, but everyone else is superb. Harris, working with Peckinpah for the first and only time, has a field day with Tyreen. The supporting cast solidifies the Peckinpah Irregulars: Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong and John Davis Chandler return from 'Ride the High Country', while James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor and Aurora Clavel fill out the ranks. Even the much put-upon Senta Berger (her performance critically mauled, even though she does a decent salvage job from very thin material) would reappear, twelve years later, in 'Cross of Iron'. Armstrong kicks ass in the name of the Lord (doling out a retributive beating to one of Tyreen's men guilty of racially harrassing one of the battalion's black contingent) and Pickens, cruelly underused, gets an iconic moment when he reels into Dundee's office, drunk as a lord, and announces "If you want an injun-fightin', mule-packin', whisky-drinkin' volunteer, sir, well by God you've got one." It's tempting to imagine that the full version of 'Major Dundee' brings these colourful secondary characters out of the background and gives them life - a damn sight more life than Heston's misery-guts protagonist.


Keith said...

I remember one of my uncles always talking about how disappointed he was with this film. He said it could have been so much better.

Samuel Wilson said...

This used to be in heavy rotation on one of our local stations in pre-cable days and that Mitch Miller music was all too memorable. I've seen the "restored" version with the new score and I think you get it just about right. I might give Heston a little more credit but otherwise I agree with you.

Neil Fulwood said...

Keith - if it was the theatrical cut your uncle saw, at just under two hours with the awful Mitch Miller "sign up with the major" theme song, then he'd have seen the worse version of 'Major Dundee' possible. The Sony DVD "restored" version, with about 15 minutes additional footage and an orchestral score instead, is better. But I'd still love to see Peckinpah's original 2 hour 45 minute cut sans voiceover narration.

Sam - thanks for your comment. Yeah, I'm probably being a bit harsh on Heston, but for me Dundee (both the character and Heston's performance) doesn't gel as a Peckinpah protagonist.