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Major Dundee

by Glenn Erickson Jul 03, 2021

It’s a new deluxe Limited Edition of Sam Peckinpah’s mangled masterpiece, the third fancy boxed set in as many years. Arrow’s presentation is certainly got the edge in graphic elegance. They’ve also strived to include as many earlier extras as possible, plus new analytical-critical takes on the picture, and an excellent (and wickedly funny) visual essay from David Cairns. The disc has both of my commentaries, including the comprehensive one that details the missing scenes with information taken directly from Sam Peckinpah and Oscar Saul’s screenplay. And hey, you never know: this could be the year that Mitch Miller’s Singalong Gang makes an incredible comeback, and we can ALL fall in behind the Major.


Major Dundee
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 136, 122 min. / (2-Disc Limited Edition) / Street Date June 29, 2021 / 59.95
Starring: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor, Michael Pate, Karl Swenson, Begoñia Palacios, John Davis Chandler, Enrique Lucero, Aurora Clavel.
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Art Director: Al Ybarra
Film Editors: William A. Lyon, Don Starling, Howard Kunin
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof (1965) Christopher Caliendo (2005)
Written by Oscar Saul, Harry Julian Fink & Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Jerry Bresler
Directed by
Sam Peckinpah

For the third year in a row we’re reviewing another new deluxe Blu-ray edition of Major Dundee. Arrow’s presentation is a dazzler, with new artwork and a striking booklet with beautiful color photos. I can’t complain that the show isn’t getting the attention it deserves. I also partly discuss previous disc releases, so I hope I’ve kept my comments about them discrete.

This time around I’m going to get to the disc appraisal sooner than usual. If you’re curious to learn why this so-called disaster of a movie deserves so much adulation, here are my earlier reviews:

The 2005 theatrical reissue / revision.
The 2005 Sony DVD.
The 2013 Twilight Time Blu-ray.
The 2019 Explosive Media GmbH (Germany) Blu-ray.
The 2020 Viavision [Imprint] Blu-ray.

That’s a lot of thought expended on a picture that often totally confuses first-time viewers. I first saw the movie at UCLA, from instructor David Bradley’s 16mm print. I was a 100% Peckinpah disciple eager to see everything he’d done, but my first viewing mainly just confused me. I literally couldn’t follow the story or the characters.

When I praise Dundee I’m not really playing fair — I’m really reviewing the movie with a heavy awareness of the screenplay, which fills in many of the blanks, at least in terms of Peckinpah’s intentions. Jerry Bresler had his editors simply take out what could be dropped and not injure the continuity — although Peckinpah’s continuity was pretty weak to begin with. That’s what happens when a narrative is just a skeleton on which to hang characters and themes … after cutting those things down the literal this-follows-that of storytelling falls apart. Just plain sloppy editing decisions don’t help either. Peckinpah reportedly shot multiple cameras on every scene, but too many scenes look like poorly planned, indifferent coverage.

Blame Games aren’t easy with this picture — there are just so many unknowables. How much feature editorial experience did Peckinpah have, anyway?  He seems to have been disinvited from post production on The Deadly Companions. The sympathetic producer Richard D. Lyons (Stranger On the Run) helped Sam secretly provide input on Ride the High Country — he was locked out of MGM’s finishing process as well. When we see some of the rough edges in Dundee, how do we know whose doing they were?  Was Peckinpah planning to do a finer cut, perhaps look for new camera angles here and there, and he never got to do it?

Producer Jerry Bresler was in charge for the actual finishing, so he gets the rap for the awful music decisions. Doing minimal dialogue clean-up and almost no sound effects work on the movie — Bresler was clearly in a rush, and using the excuse that he was not throwing good money after bad. Besides, the whole town was already blaming Peckinpah for everything. Jerry Bresler wasn’t trying to optimize Dundee. With or without malice, he squeezed it through the movie sausage machine as cheaply and as quickly as possible.

One thing I don’t think I’ve defended enough is the music score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, most of which is basically fine, just not distributed well. The opening music, up until Mitch Miller’s vocal march, is excellent. When I learned that Sony had commissioned a new score to replace the original, I thought it was a revisionist mistake. Yes, the Mitch Miller Gang is awful, inappropriate in the extreme. Too many scenes were unnecessarily scored with music (my theory being, to avoid doing expensive sound effects work). All that was really needed was to pull out most of the ‘noodling’ music that kept changing gears from ‘Dixie’ to ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ to ‘Lorena,’ etc. Lose the music behind the quiet conversations between Dundee and Tyreen. And I’ve always thought that, after the fanfare over the Columbia logo, the instrumental of the Dundee March shouldn’t come back until the troops ride out of the fort on the ‘big mission.’

When Nick Redman and Grover Crisp produced the new score, their main objective was to eliminate Mitch Miller, and also the electronic music sting that surfaces whenever any visual or vocal ‘Apache’ cue is given. I’ve gotten numerous letters from readers that like that sting; I no longer have any objectivity about it. But I do use it for a ring tone on my phone. The Caliendo score is somber and reflective, and clearly not as ‘busy’ as the original. Sometimes the mood seems all wrong. When the music is pulled from action scenes, we’re left with the very sparse original sound effects. In battles these effects are really thin. It sounds like the audio is coming from the multiplex screen next door, not this movie.

One thing I really like about the Caliendo score are the orchestrations for the Mexican party music, which are a million times better and livelier than the limp, repetitious faux-Mariachi cues from 1965.

Why so many Blu-ray versions of Major Dundee?  They aren’t really meant to be redundant — they’re regionally-licensed releases, two of which are easily imported. All are Region A compatible. Sony/Twilight Time’s 2013 disc came from the producer of the music revision, who did not include a full version with the original soundtrack. This was what I feared would happen, even though Grover Crisp said the original audio would never go away. The revised score is considered the default track, and one must go peck around to play the original.

The disc layout I thought best would be two discs of what Sony calls the ‘extended version,’ which is really the original release before a last minute 12-minute chop job, each with the different music mixes and appropriate opening credit sequences. Sony replaced all the opening titles with a plainer font, when they jettisoned Daniele Amfitheatrof’s credit card. You can see the contrasting main titles type styles side-by-side in David Cairns’ analytical video appreciation.

The version called the Theatrical Version, rudely chopped by 12 minutes at the last minute in 1965?  I’ve yet to see anyone who likes it or wants to see it again… it’s missing too many important story points, and is now just a curiosity.

 

When Dundee was offered for licensing again, Explosive Media (a German Koch label) was there first, and was the first to gather all available versions, and to look for new video extras. Explosive’s producer was one of the Leone experts who helped me with the old MGM Leone DVDs, so I volunteered some advice, my collection of color Dundee stills, and an audio commentary. Instead of leaving a full a audio track in the background, I used a clean music track where possible. This is the commentary I’d recommend to spin first.

Explosive’s producer went to the trouble of adding Isolated music scores for both composers, enabling a direct comparison. He also fully subtitled my 215-minute commentary in both German and English, which is no mean feat. Those German subs for my words create a nice illusion of profundity!

At the outset of the pandemic friend Alan K. Rode was doing commentaries for the new Viavision [Imprint] line of discs, and recommended me for Dundee. I suggested a joint commentary and we were off to the races. It’s a more conversational track with more editorial opinionizing. Alan added some historical information about the Apache Wars and we both tried to put the very talented Sam Peckinpah on a less adulatory level than is usually heard.

That subject is worth a few words. I was around many professional industry people in the 1970s, including some that had worked for Peckinpah. All had at least one Peckinpah story that’s unprintable. Peckinpah was intensely decent and loyal to his actors, which I think accounts for some of the glowing memories we hear in interviews. We’re often told that some fine directors of the past — von Stroheim, von Sternberg, Fritz Lang — made enemies of the studio brass, alienated actors and were despised by their crews. Yet we still admire and appreciate the great movies they made.

Sam Peckinpah’s case is a little different. If the timing had been a bit different and Dundee had come a few years later, Peckinpah could have played the ‘auteur’ card and gotten his way. But in 1965 a director with no box office hits did not have that power. He believed that, even with all the rancor and hatred that was generated on Dundee, that the studio heads would see his rough cut, declare it a brilliant piece of work and send him back for reshoots. James Coburn is on record saying that Peckinpah was in almost complete denial in regard to his status with his employers. As soon as Charlton Heston completed his scenes for Major Dundee and departed the Mexico location, taking his protective influence with him, Columbia and Bresler gave Sam Peckinpah the bum’s rush.

 


 

Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray of Major Dundee is the first U.S. release in eight years, and disc producer Neil Snowdon made it his business to make sure that it was comprehensive. Arrow appoints all of its discs well, and for Dundee they commissioned handsome new artwork by Tony Stella. A fold-out poster has Stella’s full collage of star images on one side, and an original American poster art on the other (a horizontal window card?).

The 4K scan appears to be identical to that used by the German and Australian discs, so don’t expect new scenes or a different look. The extended ‘recapturing Tyreen’ scene up front still looks pretty dark unless viewed in a darkened room. I don’t see any ‘soft’ scenes, just the usual rough look in some sequences, which perhaps involve an optical or two. Like the other two releases, the audio is sharp and clear. It’s the best way to see this show, a far sight better than all the old pan-scan 16mm prints I once collected. When Peckinpah and Leavitt manage a beautiful desert exterior, Dundee achieves a kind of bleak grandeur.

Disc One — ‘The Extended Version’ is really the full preview and foreign release cut of Dundee from 1965, with a choice of an Ampitheatrof or Caliendo music score. All three audio commentaries are here. The 2005 track with producer Nick Redman and Peckinpah biographers David Weddle, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor is the one to listen to for a Peckinpah-centric approach. This group of experts mostly compare Dundee to the directors’ work that they find superior, but they do find reasons to like it. The commentary with me and Alan K. Rode is from the Viavision [Imprint] disc from last year. My solo track from the 2019 Explosive Media disc is the one that fully details the missing scenes, directly referencing the shooting script. The Peckinpah Files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also yielded a bounty of information.

Carried over from both previous discs are Mike Siegel’s longform interview documentaries, a basic piece, a second made of remaining interview material, and a third about Siegel’s ongoing effort to document Peckinpah’s movies.

For this viewer the standout new extra is David Cairns’ and Stephen C. Horne’s half-hour visual essay on Dundee entitled Moby Dick on Horseback. David covers all bases, but frames his treatise with a clever and satirical visual gimmick that characterizes producer Jerry Bresler’s unsuitability for Dundee, without the use of snarky put-downs. Cairns gives a fair assessment of the picture, using what solid evidence exists to evaluate its graces and deficiencies. He also avoids (unlike myself) reaching for conclusions about scenes we can’t see, and therefore can’t evaluate. Would the scenes deleted by Bresler have helped Dundee, or did some of them simply not work?  Cairns’ overview is the first I’ve read besides my own that takes into account the original shooting script, which holds many of the answers about the writer-director’s intentions. The missing scenes, for instance, establish the wholly selfish reasons for Amos Dundee to launch his mission into Mexico. The other commentators and some of the essayists ponder why the movie doesn’t explain why Dundee’s noble quest goes sour — when it was never a noble quest in the first place.

The second disc contains the ‘Theatrical version,’ a shortened cut representing what was released in America in 1965. To me this is the expendable version, something that few people need to see. It’s an older HD transfer but looks just fine. Besides a package of trailers, the extras here are derived from a package of outs and trims found at Sony for the 2005 DVD: negative set aside to put together a promotional featurette for exhibitors. The scenes from the movie include uncut master shots (some with slates intact) of three key scenes, one of which would have been the movie’s intended opening. Another is a cut of the missing James Coburn — Mario Adorf knife fight. If this is what Peckinpah wanted to cut into the movie, we’re frankly worried — the coverage is weak and the editing unexciting. I prefer to think that it’s a ‘promo cut’ put together from select dailies, by an editor in the marketing department — in 1990 as a trailer editor, I did essentially the same for The Silence of the Lambs, ordering up prints from raw dailies based on script numbers.

The poster is pretty attractive, with the Tony Stella artwork. The only extra of consequence that hasn’t been carried over from previous editions are the Isolated music tracks — I don’t think the Arrow set carries them. Hearing-impaired viewers might consider the German disc, as its audio commentaries carry English subtitles.

Those original Dundee transparencies I found long ago finally get their due — Arrow seems to have used all of them in their 60-page essay booklet, and they look bright and glossy. The essayists are Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath, Jeremy Carr and Neil Snowdon.

Arrow’s full list of extras is below.

It’s easy to say what Sam Peckinpah fans want next — new editions of the films controlled by Warner Bros.. At the very least it’s time for an Ultra HD of The Wild Bunch.  There’s also a consistent cry for a Blu-ray of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I vote for one version that includes EVERYTHING plus the proper flashback bookend finish, with the ‘Pat rides away’ ending as an alternate. The thing I can’t decide on is the Bob Dylan vocal — that scene plays very well both with and without.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Major Dundee
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
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 2005 score by Christopher Caliendo
Lossless original mono audio with original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof
Audio commentary with producer Nick Redman and expert historians David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor
Audio commentary with Glenn Erickson & Alan K. Rode
Audio commentary with Glenn Erickson
Moby Dick on Horseback, a brand new visual essay by David Cairns
Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey, a feature length docu by Mike Siegel, featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong & Gordon Dawson.
Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes, with 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.
Stills galleries, featuring rare on set, behind the scenes, and marketing materials
2005 re-release trailer

DISC TWO – THEATRICAL VERSION
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 2K scan
Lossless original mono audio
Riding for a Fall, a vintage behind the scenes featurette
Extended/deleted scenes
Silent Outtakes
Select extended/deleted scenes and outtakes with explanatory commentary by Glenn Ericksonm
Original U.S., UK and German theatrical trailers
Stills gallery

Both features carry optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

60-page perfect bound BOOKLET featuring new writing by Farran Smith Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr plus select archive material
Tony Stella artwork on all packaging, and on a fold-out poster.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray in card and plastic holders with 60-page book in heavy box sleeve
Reviewed:
June 30, 2021
(6528dund)


 A great help over the years has been the research of collectors Chris Howard and William O’Hara, who frequently slip us new stills believed to be from ‘missing scenes’ of Dundee. We’re almost sure that this one is from the missing scene in which Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) holds up an Army wagon train, for guns and ammo for Dundee’s illegal mission. Graham is leading the charge with Bugler Ryan behind, and we can see tents and wagons in the foreground. I presume that Captain Dallace (Dennis Patrick) and his teamsters are off-screen to the right, waiting to hear Graham’s outrageous demand, made at gunpoint.

I’m lacking the right Sony connection to do an extensive search in the photo archives for Dundee, with the aim of using still archives to construct an idea of what all of the missing scenes might have looked like, and perhaps fully flesh out the show closer to Peckinpah’s script.


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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.