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Major Dundee (Australian Import)

by Glenn Erickson Dec 01, 2020

 

The new [Imprint] label turns its attention to the Sam Peckinpah favorite, the almost-classic that suffered a number of setbacks — a studio regime change, impractical remote locations, the wrong producer — and a director with zero diplomatic skills, who couldn’t finish his script and fought political battles when his movie needed his full attention. That the finished film shows so much brilliance is a tragedy, as this could have been a landmark epic, Charlton Heston’s best. CineSavant turns its attention to a favored film one more time — to play imagination games with re-cuts. Viavision [Imprint]’s lavish boxed set is said to be sold out, but that may only be at the company source.


Major Dundee
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 11
1965 / Color/ 2:35 widescreen / 136, 122 min. / Street Date October 28, 2019 / available at [Imprint] / $79.95 au
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
Film Editors: William A. Lyon, Don Starling, Howard Kunin
Art Direction: Al Ybarra
Second Unit Director: Cliff Lyons
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


Major Dundee is back again, just a year after I reviewed a German-language Blu-ray release that’s done very well. With the earlier Twilight Time disc sold out it’s possible that another U.S. label will release it again. In the interim the show has clearly found favor with a new label that has made good news in the otherwise awful year of 2020. Come to think of it, the hard media discs released this year were a big help dealing with the year’s unending bad tidings. Maybe I now understand a little of what moviegoers in the Depression felt. As John L. Sullivan said, a little bit of entertainment can make a big difference in raising one’s spirits.

Readers of CineSavant may not need more opinions from this source about Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 movie — in the last fifteen years I’ve reviewed Dundee four times. Should a future release occur, perhaps next time I should step aside and let somebody else write about it. I myself can get a little miffed to hear from the exact same ‘expert’ multiple times on the same movie. But yes, I still generate new thoughts about Major Dundee. Why?  Because it’s so incomplete. Never was such an expensive film finished for the theaters in such a sloppy manner — and left as an edit-it-yourself challenge for creative condensation.

So, if I’m not going to re-review the movie, exactly what is this?  It’s an “Editorial Notes” review …

… a completely self-indulgent imagining of how Dundee might have been re-edited in 1965, to make it shorter, more commercial, and less of a critical punching bag.

Many readers are here for the new disc evaluation, and that’s one scroll away, down below. What I have to say here might not make much sense to people unfamiliar with the movie. In fact, I’m not sure WHO would find it interesting. Another editor?

 

On the eve of the Major Dundee company’s departure for its Mexican locations, Columbia instructed Peckinpah to TOTALLY RE-WORK IT on the fly, to shorten it to a standard-length action feature, under two hours. Peckinpah instead rebelled and did his own thing. He defied his employers and changed nothing, and proceeded to film his original three-hour screenplay. Columbia finally pulled the plug on the shoot, and after a couple of months of editorial pulled the plug on Peckinpah as well. The film as finished by its producer Jerry Bresler is an awkward cut-down of the 160-minute work print that Peckinpah left behind. Columbia spent millions of dollars on a film and surely knew that Bresler’s shortened version was a mess. What I’m asking here is, why didn’t Columbia give Major a ‘major’ re-edit, to create the upscale, compact action film that they said it wanted?

As much damage as producer Jerry Bresler did to Dundee, we have to thank him for leaving so much of it intact. Besides concocting the confusingly narrated new opening with the ‘burning journal’ effect, Bresler left the rest of Peckinpah’s script continuity in order. He removed scenes and parts of scenes, and took out almost every bit of improvised business that wasn’t in the script. But he rearranged almost nothing, and wrote no new narration to bridge holes in the continuity.

In other words, the Bresler cut didn’t creatively condense Dundee, not even on a Reader’s Digest level of competency. The draggy continuity of the second half remains. Some scenes seems twice as long as they should be. The only explanation is that Jerry Bresler never thought of re-working the movie. His excuse of a rush to a finish to meet a deadline really doesn’t hold up. A skilled ‘movie doctor’ could have come up with any number of ways to knock Dundee down to a brisk two hours or even ninety minutes. Big pieces of what we see on screen now would be discarded, but the movie would play better for Columbia’s purposes.

Famous movies have been butchered this way, notably Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, a tragedy several times bigger than that of Dundee because RKO’s cut-down started with a reportedly ‘magnificent’ movie. And we’ve all seen movies where editorial interference sticks out like a sore thumb. But Movie Doctors have definitely saved other pictures ‘in trouble.’

One good example is the James Bond movie Thunderball from the same year. Director Terence Young was so unhappy with the film’s poorly coordinated shooting units and the rushed finishing schedule that he simply quit and left it to others to do something with the ungainly and repetitive assembly of scenes. The editors took an axe to the middle of the movie, chopping out entire sequences. Most of Martine Beswick’s role disappeared. The remaining bits of narrative were pasted together with dumb new bridging scenes set in a ‘basement spy hideout’ in downtown Nassau. And yet the movie still bogs down whenever it goes underwater.

Perhaps an hour too long and dramatically out of shape, Dundee was a bigger but by no means impossible problem. If Bresler was willing to abbreviate Peckinpah’s story, he had plenty of options for things to take out. It’s just a matter of examining each scene’s role in the big picture. What does each bit of business add?  Is it necessary?  If it is removed, does that mess up anything that happens later on?

Bresler had already harmed Dundee by removing important connective tissue. Example: a great moment shows Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) taking back his command from Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton), who is now a seasoned officer instead of the buffoon he was at the story’s outset. But Bresler removed the earlier scene in which Dundee put Graham in command. Whatever character growth we were meant to appreciate in Graham, has been wiped out.

Let’s start chopping up Major Dundee!

We’re in the Major Dundee cutting room, and all we have to work with is Jerry Bresler’s lumpy, continuity-challenged cut-down. Our job is to speed up the show by as much as a half-hour, streamlining its halting pace and keeping boredom from settling in. What stays and what goes?

A simple example: why take so much time for Dundee to dispatch Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) to steal weapons, when the stealing scene has already been dropped?  It’s an easy edit to make it look as if Graham is just going on an errand to pick up the weapons legitimately. All that’s saved is maybe 40 seconds, but we aren’t left with the feeling that something is missing.

If were aren’t bothered by subverting Peckinpah’s intentions — Columbia certainly wasn’t — why not ‘thin out’ a few of the long-winded dialogue scenes, the long arguments between Dundee and Tyreen (Richard Harris)?  They’re good, but they were paced for the proposed three-hour epic. Why not lose the references to their past at West Point?  A lean action picture really doesn’t need the extra depth of characterization.

Later in the film, O.W. Hadley’s (Warren Oates) trial goes on for several long minutes, stopping the show dead in its tracks. We already know what we need to know about the desertion — Dundee said he’s shoot offenders. There hasn’t even been a scene with Hadley and the village girl he describes. Why not cut directly from Hadley arriving, to Dundee saying “Trooper, you’re going to be shot.”?

The movie’s pace grinds to a halt after the first hour, with long scenes that don’t make a favorable impact — much of the big fiesta in the Mexican village, for example. Since we’re talking about major surgery on Dundee, the best way to remove scenes that don’t work and shorten the movie by a third would be to not have Dundee wounded in the leg at all. We skip the slack scenes in Durango, especially Dundee’s recovery with Melinche (Aurora Clavel), his Big Drunk and his subsequent rescue, all poorly assembled in the finished film. The time-lapse required for Dundee to grow a beard could be bridged with a big gap in the narration.

We can repurpose some of the scenes jettisoned for use as ‘montage impressions,’ backgrounds for whatever Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) narration will be added. That’s exactly what happens in The Searchers, although it was scripted in advance. The reading of a couple of letters breaks down years of narrative into just a few connected/disconnected scenes. New Tim Ryan narration could tell the story from a remove in the future, perhaps when he himself is an Army officer. Tim’s narration might be supported by additional insert shots of journal pages, as worked so well in Howard Hawks’ Red River.

How do we keep the best material with Dundee and Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the swimming scene?  Easy — we move selected parts of Dundee and Teresa’s sidebar kissing scene much earlier, into the Mexican fiesta. Dundee never gets shot in the leg… across a kiss we dissolve to them talking under the arches, the morning after the party. When she watches them ride out of the village, her part in the film is over.

Yes, plenty of good material would go away with a cut like this. We Peckinpah fans would not be happy, but Dundee could have ended up a 95-minute action movie that retains most of its action and humor. Tough guys can still stand around saying mean things to each other. It might have been reviewed much more favorably.

 

That of course did not happen…

Jerry Bresler opted to stay safe and play it ‘the company way’ to best curry favor with the Columbia front office. By following Peckinpah’s continuity as much as possible, Bresler created nothing NEW and therefore didn’t have to take creative responsibility for his changes — ‘I tried to honor the script as best I could without throwing good money after bad … it was all Peckinpah’s fault, anyway… We assembled Peckinpah’s incompetent movie the best way we could.’

Bresler’s reward?   He moved on to preside over Columbia’s most confused movie of the decade, Casino Royale. Under Bresler’s watch, five credited directors worked in different directions, with no leadership at all. Val Guest had to patch and paste their episodes together. The grandiose, incoherent result only plays like a movie thanks to Burt Bacharach’s infectious music score.

It should be obvious that Major Dundee appeals to my editorial instincts. The material is there to cut it twenty different ways. For a creative editor, what could be a better puzzle than that?  I really wish that Sam Peckinpah hadn’t been such a hard case. It’s a shame that he had no diplomatic finesse. Why couldn’t he have been two-faced like so many other Hollywood ‘geniuses?’  Plenty of great directors have soft-soaped producers with whatever lies would get them what they needed.

James Coburn remembered the rocky condition Peckinpah was in when the studio fired him and barred him from the Dundee cutting room. According to the actor, Sam was in denial of how thoroughly he’d burned his bridges. He labored under the delusion that he was still a film artist in control, that Columbia would let him prove himself, that they’d love his final cut, and all would be forgiven. Dundee would become a 70mm stereophonic road show playing to hard-ticket audiences at the Cinerama Dome.

 

 

Of such massive studio betrayals was Peckinpah’s vicious loathing and mistrust of producers born.

After this debacle, it’s an incredible testimony to SOME quality in Peckinpah that he was able to relaunch his career, escaping from the bottomless hole he had dug for himself. The truth must be that Sam simply got his act together long enough to be sober and engaged for The Wild Bunch, and a few films that followed. The assignment to direct the big epic Major Dundee just came too early in his career. Film writers always say that great pictures magically come together and the happy people that film them often point to pure accidental good luck. For Dundee, too many things fell apart, accidentally or through simple disagreements. The production was a chaotic mess, and it’s a miracle that it looks as good and plays as well as it does.


What?  You might want to read a real review of the movie Major Dundee?  Rather than offer a quickie rundown of reasons why Major Dundee still appeals greatly to movie fans, let me just list links to my earlier reviews, any one of which eagerly sells it as the best western / war movie / historical action epic never made:

The Theatrical reissue (2005),

Sony’s 2005 DVD,

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray (2013),

Explosive Media’s German Blu-ray (2019).

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of Major Dundee is the most lavish disc presentation yet of this Sam Peckinpah epic. Each disc of the two-disc set has its own keep case that together tuck into a hefty display box with a large reproduction of the beautiful French poster art (I have that poster somewhere but have lost track of it). The extra-classy wrinkle is that this exterior box opens up like an old cigarette pack — the top comes off like a lid. Some packaging company was very creative.

The excellent transfer inside, a Sony 4K scan, improves on the Twilight Time encoding of seven years ago — some of the day-for-night scenes that were dark, are a bit lighter. It is probably the exact same encoding as the German disc from 2019. Viavison gives the viewer three ways to watch the film. The first disc carries the film’s 1965 Preview Cut, which Sony insists on calling ‘The Extended Version.’ It’s been given a new title sequence with simplified lettering to integrate a credit for Christopher Caliendo. The viewer has a choice of the remixed track with the revised Christopher Caliendo music score, or the original 1965 track with the original Daniele Amfitheatrof music score. As I’ve said many times, this ‘extended version’ is not a lost Peckinpah cut, but Jerry Bresler’s preview version finished in 1965 and shown in some foreign markets.

The extended version also has an Isolated Caliendo music score track.

The new ‘exclusive’ content is a 2020 commentary with myself and Alan K. Rode. It’s a discussion commentary in which we react to the film as it unspools, pooling our experience to try to explain why the immensely talented Sam Peckinpah can’t put all the blame for the ills of Dundee on his producer. Alan adds many comments about the Indian Wars in New Mexico and Arizona during this period in history — the ‘General Carlton’ mentioned in Dundee has a historical counterpart I didn’t know about.

The commentary I recorded and edited for the 2019 German disc release is not present on this disc.

Also on the extended version is the fine 2005 Sony commentary with Nick Redman and the Peckinpah biographers that knew the director and conducted core key research about him: Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.

 

German Peckinpah documentary filmmaker Mike Siegel contributes three lengthy video items that probably use every bit of every interview that Siegel shot with a Dundee cast or crew member. Siegel has excellent input from L.Q. Jones, James Coburn, Lupita Peckinpah, R.G. Armstrong, etc.. The first formal documentary is followed by another ‘let’s tell stories about Sam’ collection of interview anecdotes, and a third item in which Siegel presents his own story as a Peckinpah videographer.

Only on this Australian disc are Siegel’s interviews fully English-language friendly. The good German-language interview material with Senta Berger and Mario Adorf is now subtitled in English.

The second disc carries what Sony calls the ‘Theatrical Cut,’ the 1965 release version that chops 12 or 13 minutes off the Preview Cut, what Sony calls the Extended cut. Frankly, I don’t know anybody who still wants to see this! Also, it’s not the full ’65 theatrical cut as shown in the U.S.. Sierra Charriba’s “Who You Send Against Me Now?” dialogue line is missing up front. Also trimmed is transition riding shot where Dundee shouts, “No fires tonight!” If other snippets are missing, I haven’t found them yet.

This shorter cut carries an Isolated Amfitheatrof music score track.

Disc two also has Sony’s outtakes package rescued from a box of trims and outs retained for a 1965 Columbia promo reel. Several raw takes from this are presented with my commentary, the same as on the German Blu-ray from 2019. And Mike Siegel’s part-color copy of Columbia’s Riding for a Fall promotional short subject is present, the one that shows alternate action for the final scene of Richard Harris.

If you are fortunate to end up with one of these collectable deluxe Viavision [Imprint] Dundee sets, put on the ‘extended version,’ select your musical score of choice and sit back for two hours and fifteen minutes of the movie that best represents what Sam Peckinpah wanted to say within the western — a jaundiced, politically complex critique of foreign adventurism under arms. Charlton Heston concluded that Dundee didn’t deliver his intended message about the Civil War, but Dundee still communicates everything Sam Peckinpah had to say about the American character, and about a nation with ambitions to prove itself internationally, even while severely divided.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

 


Major Dundee
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent; Extended cut with both Christopher Caliendo & original Daniele Amphitheatrof music scores; 1965 theatrical with Amphitheatrof score
Supplements:
Disc 1:
2020 audio commentary by Glenn Erickson & Alan Rode;
2005 audio commentary with Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle;
Passion & The Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey — Mike Siegel’s 2019 feature length making-of documentary;
Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project — New English language version.;
Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes.
Disc 2:
Extended deleted scenes/outtakes with commentary by Glenn Erickson;
original Trailers, Exhibitor Promo Reel Excerpt, promo Artwork Outtakes;
Riding for a Fall vintage featurette from Mike Siegel.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in two Keep cases in heavy hard box
Reviewed:
November 29, 2020
(6396dund)CINESAVANT

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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.