Major Dundee (Blu-ray Review)13 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, Senta Berger.
Stigmatized for decades as the lost cause that launched (excluding earlier minor skirmishes) Sam Peckinpah’s first all-out war with a producer and/or studio, this partially restored Western epic still remains several rungs down from his greatest achievements, which to my mind number maybe a half-dozen from the director’s frustratingly limited career pool. But with the 14 minutes that Sony’s Grover Crisp and his archival colleagues unearthed and reinstated in 2005, the result comes tantalizingly close to being “good” (and, in certain scenes, better than that), thanks to a strengthened narrative that, even in its improved state, relies more than is cinematically healthy on a voiceover narration. What’s more, these additions flesh out Charlton Heston’s lead performance, which now seems like one of his sturdiest.
If there are elements here of the standard jaw-clenched Heston hero, the actor is nonetheless cast as something of a maverick (Union Army variety) whose past behavior has gotten him relegated to a barren Cavalry post that at times makes the one in John Ford’s Fort Apache look like a bed-and-breakfast. With what appears to be less than ironclad orders to do so, Heston/Dundee then takes off on a not-quite-madman’s trek into Mexico to capture a skedaddled Apache adversary whose men have slaughtered several Cavalry colleagues in more brutal fashion than I usually associate with 1965 screens. Because his troops have been so decimated, Dundee is forced to employ some less-than-enthusiastic Confederate prisoners on his mission, one of them a sometimes friendly (and sometimes not) partner in back-and-forth bickering. He’s played by Richard Harris, back during what always looked to me like — though I can’t bet the farm on this — his eyeliner period.
Jim Hutton (whose part may have been vaporized from an originally intended 2¾-hour running time) is around for the younger audience demographic, as is Michael Anderson Jr., a familiar screen face in those days. But Peckinpah aficionados will be more attuned to the not-just-pretty-faces who were already or about to be part of the filmmaker’s stock company: Warren Oates, R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens and L.Q. Jones. (MIA Strother Martin was still apparently hanging out with a slightly tidier ’65 crowd shooting the John Wayne-Dean Martin The Sons of Katie Elder, which also starred … Michael Anderson Jr.). Oates, who went all the way back with Peckinpah to NBC-TV’s “The Westerner” four or five years earlier, has one very good scene here where the major debates whether or not to shoot him or string him up. Don’t bet too heavily on his chances.
The beauty of Twilight Time’s release is its most welcome academic inclusion of both versions, even if the choppy but originally released 122-minute cut (liked by almost no one) is additionally undercut by a Daniele Amfitheatrof score so reviled by Peckinpah and nearly everyone else that even purists didn’t complain all that much when the 2005 revamp commissioned a new and improved replacement by Christopher Caliendo. The original score opened with a kiss of death in the form of a Mitch Miller title tune, Columbia Pictures perhaps reasoning that the bearded one had previously served them well with some tie-in pop to promote 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and 1961’s The Guns of Navarone. But those recordings were on jukeboxes, not in the movie, and when the Dundee theme materializes on screen within moments of the opening studio logo, we know the picture is instantly past the point of no return. Blu-ray also does what it can to make presentable “Eastman Color by Pathe” — but oh, what a brown-ish blight that dribbly process was on Columbia product of the mid-1960s.
Along with the famous archival revamps of the Garland A Star Is Born and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the two most dramatic day-vs.-night improvements I can think of on DVD are Barry Levinson’s almost shockingly improved reconstruction of The Natural and especially Criterion’s remarkable take on Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (which, like Dundee, has a Civil War backdrop). But we at least get a feeling here for what Peckinpah intended. Of all things, the longer cut reminds me a little of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: problematic in the early and later going but with sustained moments in its midsection where the whole thing really takes off.
These include the long standout passage where Dundee and his men get treated like royalty by humble local villagers — an interlude that anticipated a somewhat raunchier spinoff that memorably found its way into The Wild Bunch, the movie that marked Peckinpah’s comeback after four years of post-Dundee blackballing. Following his protracted Dundee battle with Columbia and producer Jerry Bresler – followed by his firing from MGM’s The Cincinnati Kid — the only work Peckinpah could get was a TV drama of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine for ABC’s “Stage 67” series, which some include with his finest achievements. Because a couple of the “67” episodes have shown up on DVD, that very tough to see hour-long drama (which starred Olivia de Havilland and Jason Robards) is on a lot of home release wish lists. As for my own, I’m hard pressed to think of anything that would rate any higher.