By Tony Williams.
Major Dundee dissects the soul of a particular form of dangerous American ambition taking short cuts, left and right, to achieve its aims.”
The films of Sam Peckinpah are as controversial as the director’s personality, especially the problematic question of Major Dundee (1965). Was this a possible Peckinpah masterpiece ruined by Columbia Studios and producer Jerry Bresler, or a disaster from the very beginning for which the director bears a great deal of responsibility? The film’s theatrical release and disastrous critical response led to Peckinpah’s temporary blacklisting from Hollywood until his accomplished TV movie version of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine (1967) led to his triumphant return and the making his universally acknowledged masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969). Yet issues surrounding Major Dundee still make it even today the critical equivalent to Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” with the production’s fate often assigned not to an arrogant captain but a combative and drunken director (not sailor). Columbia executives join in a chorus of not “What shall we do with the drunken sailor” but “What shall we do with the drunken director, early in the morning.” Some ascribe most of the blame to the director and deny that he could ever have achieved the masterpiece he sought. Others take a more measured response yearning for discovery of lost footage Peckinpah shot in the hopes that they will excavate the equivalent of Orson Welles’ original version of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
As before, the jury will remain out for some time. However, in the meantime, Arrow have provided a remarkable Blu-ray 2 disc DVD set with accompanying booklet that provides more material for debate, an act that combines the best alliance of education and entertainment. Despite the release of an extended version in 2005 restoring some missing footage, Peckinpah’s actual director’s cut remains as much a mystery as Welles’s original Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1968). Even if discovered, Peckinpah is not around to edit it. There is always the question as to what scenes were un-filmed when the studio decided to pull the plug at the end of the Rostes Ranch location when the main star was not around to object. Also, according to the screenplays Glen Erickson had access to, many scenes were ruthlessly edited out by Breslin and Columbia resulting in the choppy and incoherent structure within the surviving narrative for which the studio blamed the director (he naively felt that the film was his and not Columbia’s). Introduced to this film in a class taught by Jim Kitses (whose Horizons West still remains a classic text on the Western), DVD CineSavant.com editor and film industry worker Glenn Erickson has constantly reconstructed the film in his mind according to intuition and screenplay sources as well as interviews with surviving production members to re-create something he regards as another Peckinpah masterpiece in its original conception and valuable stepping stone to The Wild Bunch.
Despite the release of an extended version in 2005 restoring some missing footage, Peckinpah’s actual director’s cut remains as much a mystery as Welles’s original Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1968). Even if discovered, Peckinpah is not around to edit it.”
This box set contains both the 136-minute extended version released in 2005 that is the producer’s preview cut and the 122-minute theatrical version on separate discs. Disc one contains the 2005 audio-commentaries with Peckinpah scholars Nick Redman, David Weddle, and Garner Simmons in addition to two other commentaries, the first with Erickson and Alan Rode and the other featuring Erickson alone. Other features include “Moby Dick on Horseback” an imaginatively edited visual essay by David Cairns along with Mike Siegel’s “Passion and Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey,” a feature-length documentary containing interviews with James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, and Gordon Dawson and another from Siegel’s ongoing project “Peckinpah Anecdotes” with contributions from others such as Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, David Warner, Bo Hopkins, and Isela Vega. Animated still galleries feature rare on-set, behind-the-scenes, and marketing material. Accompanying this set is a beautifully illustrated booklet with color stills (including one of Bugler Ryan and Beth Rostes prior to the missing Rostes Ranch Massacre sequence) with informative essays by FilmInt contributor Jeremy Carr, Farran Smith Nehme, Roderick Heath, and Neil Snowdon. Cairns’s video essay represents one of this collection’s notable achievements. Seizing on Peckinpah’s derisive remark to Bresler about the producer’s cut as “Gidget Goes to Mexico” Cairns opens his essay with a clip from the Bresler-produced Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and engages in his own form of creative re-editing that utilizes the slow-motion Peckinpah wanted for certain scenes as well as providing a much more enlightening example of the video essay than certain pompous academic types. The approach is not surprising, since Cairns and Erickson have relevant production experience that informs their writing.
Erickson and Michael Curtiz scholar Rode provide exemplary teamwork commentary within this new addition. Influenced, consciously or otherwise, by that 1965 BBC TV documentary The Epic that Never Was,dealing with the doomed I Claudius project directed by Josef von Sternberg and featuring Charles Laughton in the title role, Rode envisages Major Dundee as a potentially great national epic about America left unfinished due to producer interference. Both critics recognize the available extended version as merely providing a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been, its original script resembling Herman Melville’s Moby Dick confirming R. G. Armstrong’s well-known description of the film as “Moby Dick on horseback.” While Erickson attempts to supply missing pieces to a fragmented jigsaw, Rode provides his usual expert historical information noting the producer’s inauspicious Hollywood background and the film affected by three contrasting visions – Peckinpah’s, Charlton Heston’s envisaged Civil War conceptions, and Bresler’s industrial establishment bias. Original writer Harry Julian Fink only supplied a 40-page treatment ending when the troop departs from the fort leaving Oscar Saul Jr. and Peckinpah to fill in the gaps often working from intuition and filming at distant locations that added to delays. Erickson supplies interesting information from screenplay drafts such as Dundee being a General for just over two days with his refusal to pursue Robert E. Lee during Gettysburg. Dundee senses a trap and this leads to reduction in rank and relegation to a prison warder for incarcerated Rebels soldiers in New Mexico. Rode sees Dundee as “a prisoner of his own ambition” looking for a way to return to glory with Erickson shrewdly commenting “In America, you’re either winning or nobody.” Eliminating the first fifteen minutes “messed up a good script” with Bresler seeing seemingly redundant elements according to his Hollywood tunnel vision removing elements designed to provide valuable insights into the remaining film.
Although Michael Pate’s Sierra Charriba appears as the archetypal savage, Rode points out that the Union General in charge of New Mexico had an extermination policy directed against the native population who were originally favorable to the Americans until bad treatment and treachery turned them against the Union and white settlers. Other excisions removed three of the five steps designed to show Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) turn into the efficient officer he becomes at the end of the film. Rode surmises Peckinpah’s original cut ran three hours which he reduced by fifteen minutes before Besler destroyed the original negative in the process. Erickson regards the opening ten minutes of the original as a serious loss. There the audience sees Jody McCrea’s Lt. Brannin as an arrogant Custer wannabee (very much like Dundee) spending five wasted weeks pursuing Charriba using Christian Indian scout Riago as a convenient scapegoat (anticipating Dundee’s later actions). He makes a wrong decision to spend Halloween at the Rostes Ranch (when his base was only 6 hours away) with three families one of whom being the Cartwrights (probably a dig at Bonanza!). Missing scenes documented in the screenplay included flash cuts showing boys made up like Indians intercutting with Apaches until both become indistinguishable anticipating montage scenes intercutting Janice Hedden’s murder with the talent show in Straw Dogs. Dundee arrives after the massacre, fifteen minutes into the film, a cardinal sin for a star making a late entrance, according to Hollywood convention.
Glenn Erickson’s frequent references to the script contain insightful recognitions of a more sophisticated structure that never reached the screen.”
Rode comments that Bresler was not a creative producer, unlike the director who wanted to make a new kind of Western. Heston later wrote in his diary, “I don’t think the film is a debacle but unstable and volatile,” in other words out of control. We also learn that James Coburn made his first Peckinpah film in the role of Potts intended for Lee Marvin while Richard Harris replaced Anthony Quinn as Tyreen. Rode also supplies relevant historical information concerning Mexican history that may have confused audiences as to why the French are there. After Juarez won in 1857, his government suspended all payments to European powers for economic reasons leading Napoleon III to invade and place Austrian archduke Maximilian on the throne.
The opening scenes revealed Bugler Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) receiving his first kiss from Beth Rostes (Helen Samuels) whose dead body we see in the opening minutes of the theatrical version. While that version suggests he finally sleeps with Linda (Begiona Palacios), the script operates differently, stating that he thought he did since Gomez (Mario Adorf) carries him out when “drunk as a zombie.” Erickson’s frequent references to the script contain insightful recognitions of a more sophisticated structure that never reached the screen.
If not dreaming Don Quixote’s “the impossible dream,” Erickson constantly imagines how he could make his own search for this cinematic holy grail “real,” re-editing the film six times on his editing table, and working on what Dundee could have been and might have been by engaging in his own form of participation in the movie. He also notes how cuts lost the irony of the final scene. Only eleven men survive but Potts draws Dundee’s attention to another Apache saber marker suggesting one of Charriba’s chiefs has survived and contrary to the closing lyrics of that obnoxious Mitch Miller Sing Along Gang song, “We’ll (not) all go home again.” As Erickson comments about the first use of Mitch Miller’s marching song incongruously following the aftermath of the massacre, “This is so bad that a case can be made for intentional sabotage.”
In his solo audio-commentary reconstruction, Erickson really flourishes. However, I wish to emphasize that Rode is certainly no Bresler but admirably complements him. If only such a complementary relationship had existed between Bresler and Peckinpah, then we would have seen a Major Dundee that would also have complemented The Wild Bunch. Erikson ironically remarks on the missing scenes, especially those of the Rostes Ranch massacre. “The real massacre is the producer’s massacre of Peckinpah’s film.” Its absence spoiled the whole movie from the beginning. “If Jerry Bresler wanted to sabotage Major Dundee he couldn’t do worse than chose Mitch Miller’s song.” Erickson sees the relevance of the film to contemporary and present American foreign policy. “Dundee represents himself as the “American response to terrorism” seeing the Apache Indian concealed among the Rostes ranch corpses as a fanatical terrorist. These observations are important since they suggest the film Peckinpah wanted to make. It was not a traditional Columbia Western nor a Civil War epic that contemporary stalwart of Hollywood Epic Cinema envisaged but one responding to dark Gothic dimensions of the American Experience. Producer Bresler was a company man “who wanted a product to sell without interference from a censor.” The aftermath of the massacre with its shot of Lt. Brannin slowly tortured to death refuted such expectations. Charriba’s use of a broken saber as a calling card throughout the film anticipates playing cards used by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now (1979) to inform the Viet Cong of his presence. As with everything, Peckinpah was ahead of his time and the gore would have been nothing in the era of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Brannin models himself on Custer as his flowing scarf (later bloodstained) reveals in a recovered opening shot. “The original screenplay reveals the epic Major Dundee could have been” with Peckinpah’s version anticipating The Wild Bunch “but with more to say about American adventurism.” If Peckinpah subverts John Ford in his Westerns he also takes aim at the noble sacrificial Americans of The Magnificent Seven (1960) who save a Mexican village. By contrast, Dundee poses as a false Messiah (“Viva Dundee”) freeing a village from French occupiers but using them only as a means to an end while fully conscious of the fact that his grateful liberated will be slaughtered immediately he leaves.
Like Lt. Brannin, Dundee is a destructive (and self-destructive) Custer figure wanting to become a hero and knowing full well that if he succeeds, the East will ignore his insubordination as it did Custer’s.”
Citing other screenplay omissions, Erickson notes that Captain Waller (Karl Swenson) comments on Dundee’s allowing 37 of his men to die on an unauthorized mission. Like Lt. Brannin, Dundee is a destructive (and self-destructive) Custer figure wanting to become a hero and knowing full well that if he succeeds, the East will ignore his insubordination as it did Custer’s. Like Custer, Dundee knows the Army opportunistically needs heroes rather than discipline at the most convenient time. Major Dundee dissects the soul of a particular form of dangerous American ambition taking short cuts, left and right, to achieve its aims. Amos Dundee is more villain than hero. Had Peckinpah been allowed to make the film he wanted this concept would have been more evident. Even Dundee’s seemingly unmotivated desire to provoke the French (well before George H. Bush era’s “Blame the French” remark) has its contemporary rationale as Erickson recognizes. “By choosing a foreign enemy, Dundee has caused unity among Americans who hate each other.” Restored footage would have made Peckinpah’s epic motivations clearer to an audience who wonders “why Dundee continues his pursuit after the return of the captive children. An uncut Major Dundee would have been a masterpiece.” It would have been very much ahead of its time in Hollywood cinema then, as Erickson recognizes.
Additional scenes would have revealed Dundee’s unscrupulous methods in preventing Captain Waller’s clerk reaching his superior officer to stop an unofficial pursuit of Charriba. Dundee uses people. He tests and corrupts the naïve Lt. Graham into his first mission of stealing horses from a Captain (Dennis Patrick) whom he threatens to shoot, thus violating a military rule. Had this sequence survived it would have given added irony to Dundee’s later line to Teresa. “He is corrupt but I will save him.” This is one of the many disconnected fragments affecting the film’s carefully planned nuances due to ruthless cuts made. Noting R.G. Armstrong’s famous comment about the film, Erickson suggests that he is the real Ahab character in the film. If Bugler Ryan is the only survivor of the film’s suggested final massacre, he is its Ishmael, his journal being “the only record” of the quest – unless he too goes down with Dundee’s ill-fated and decimated survivors in the missing climax.
Despite Heston’s then-Civil Rights associations, the first scene with Aesop (Brock Peters) and his “coloreds” shows that Southerner Dundee reluctantly accepts this group into his troop. He is short of men and regards them as second-class soldiers. By diplomatically preventing the confrontation between the Northerners and his men at night, Tyreen complements Aesop and his men on their earlier river crossing proving himself a better officer than Dundee, who is clueless as to how to stop a conflict that would destroy his command early in the mission. He is a more natural leader than Dundee, more presidential in preserving this already divisive State of the Union. Even Charriba is a better strategist than Dundee catching his quarry in a trap. As Erickson comments, “Charriba reads Major Dundee like a book” – hence, he is not a good leader. In the screenplay Walker pursues Dundee with an arrest warrant issued by General Carter until he encounters Confederates instead, played for humor. Bresler jettisoned much of “what might have been the film’s more memorable moments.” In 1880 American military men could break all the rules and become a conqueror. Is Dundee, then, “exceptional?” Tyreen certainly does not think so. Erickson compares Dundee’s opportunism to devious traits embodied in William Walker and Oliver North.
Erickson finishes his commentary with the desire that financial support for him may suddenly emerge, allowing him to explore those deepest recesses in Columbia’s archives in the hope that more out-takes and alternative scenes may exist especially the Rostes ranch massacre. Helen Samuels, who played the ill-fated Beth Rostes, suggests they shot those scenes. Michael Anderson Jr. denies it. Garner Simmons suggests that Sam did shoot as much as possible. At present we shall never know, but at the time of this writing a team is exploring Brazil in the hope that Welles’s original version of The Magnificent Ambersons has survived. One can only hope that more missing footage from Major Dundee has survived.
Tony Williams is an independent film critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.