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There must be a general rule in Hollywood that if you're going to make a flop, you might as well go all out. Have your director be a drunk, let the script go unfinished when the cameras roll and, while we're at it, cut the budget just days before shooting. Then, when your director's final cut is unsatisfactory, chop it to bits and finally release an incomprehensible film. Fifty years later, your flop just might earn a cult following. That last part doesn't always happen, but it has with Columbia Pictures' 1965 disaster Major Dundee.
The film was directed by the great Sam Peckinpah, who had earned mainstream success with his second feature, the elegant Western Ride The High Country (1962). Charlton Heston saw that film and became interested in working with Peckinpah. The director had come upon a story by Harry Julian Fink, which touched on themes that he was interested in – essentially, it was Moby Dick in the West. Producer Jerry Bresler and Columbia agreed to make the project.
Heston plays the title character, Major Amos Dundee, a disgraced Union soldier who has been assigned to a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico territory. After a nearby settlement is ravaged by the Apache (a la The Searchers), he decides to take it upon himself to go after them and their chief, Sierra Charriba. Unfortunately for Dundee, his group of Union soldiers are too small to take on the Apache alone, so he has to enlist the help of the Confederate prisoners, including Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). Dundee and Tyreen know each other too well – they went to West Point together and fought against each other during the war.
Even though he will have no support from the Union (there is, after all, a Civil War going on), Dundee decides to follow the Apache at all costs. It's clearly not a good idea, since you've got infighting between the troops and the Apache are always one step ahead. Add in the French (who are occupying Mexico at this time) and you've got the recipe for complete disaster. At one point, he has to change his goal to surviving his blunder.
Dundee does have some moments of sheer Peckinpah brilliance and does set up The Wild Bunch (1969) nicely. You can easily tell that the two were made by the same man, beginning with the central relationship in Dundee - Tyrell and Dundee. These are two characters that respect each other, just like Robert Ryan and William Holden's Wild Bunch characters. But unlike in The Wild Bunch, these two egos are actually fighting on the same side, even if it is for different reasons (Dundee uses the old “but you promised!” gag to keep Tyrell around).
However, Peckinpah was a bit too ambitious, making the film entirely on location and having this idea that he could make Lawrence of Arabia in the West without having a third act in the script. In fact, Dundee is like a trash bin holding a myriad of cinematic references and not adding up to much. It's like Peckinpah tried to turn John Ford on his head, mixed in some Seven Samurai and put in a dash of David Lean's intimate epic style without really learning how to weave that together. It didn't help that his personality made him impossible to work with or that his final cut wound up being over two and a half hours.
Bresler eventually cut it down to 136 minutes, but when he left Columbia, the studio cut it even further before finally releasing an incomprehensible version that critics slammed and audiences ignored. Even if Peckinpah was too ambitious behind the camera and the studio made too many changes, what we do finally see features some fine acting and amazing visuals. Give credit where it's due – without Richard Harris and Heston's fiery performances, Dundee probably wouldn't retain much value today. And, like the great Westerns of its time, it features a stunning supporting cast, from James Coburn to Warren Oates and Ben Johnson. On the visual side, Peckinpah and cinematographer Sam Leavitt take full advantage of the super wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio, framing these beautiful Mexican landscapes. Peckinpah also introduces the brutality and violence he would become known for. He never shied away from showing the brutality of the West, making Ford's Calvary movies look like cartoons compared to Dundee.
On Home Video: Earlier this year, Twilight Time released a stacked, two-disc Blu-ray set, featuring the 122-minute and 136-minute cuts. It also features silent outtakes and other footage, plus a commentary from Peckinpah scholars. There's also the company's trademark isolated score tracks for both cuts. It's amazing to me that some of the greatest films of all time are still unreleased in high-definition, but we can get obscure, under-appreciated films like Dundee on Blu-ray.
We'll never know how Peckinpah wanted Dundee to look, but the extended cut we see isn't completely without merit. But it's a story told time and time again – a director gets his hands on too much money after one success and the final product doesn't live up to expectations. If you only know Peckinpah through The Wild Bunch or The Getaway, Dundee might leave you disappointed, but at least you see how he developed into a master filmmaker.