Sam Peckinpah’s long fought relationship with the studios started right here with Major Dundee. Exactly what his cut was is long debated, with stories including an alleged nearly five-hour cut, another over two and a half hours, but we are stuck with the premiere cut, which is 136 minutes, and the shortened 122-minute cut that eventually went on general release at the time. After Major Dundee Peckinpah battled both the studios and the censors till the day he died of heart failure spurred on by years of drug and alcohol abuse.
The film is almost an ironic deconstruction of the John Ford Calvary films, and Peckinpah’s trademark nihilism was probably a little too much for the studio in 1965. It also has an obvious influence from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, with Charlton Heston’s title character essentially serving as a stand-in for Captain Ahab, the obsessive idealist who drives himself and those around him to destruction. There has also been much discussion about whether it’s a parable of US involvement with Vietnam. The film’s basic plot is about a renegade Union officer who decides to take his ragged army of Union troops, Confederate POWs, civilian mercenaries and scouts illegally over the US/Mexico border to take out the Apache because of their frequent raids. The war hadn’t escalated enough in the public consciousness in 1965 for it to definitely be intended as a parallel, but Peckinpah’s next and probably best film, The Wild Bunch, was undoubtedly about Vietnam.
Charlton Heston gives one of his better screen performances here, showing more depth that he would rarely ever display on the screen before or since. Richard Harris, who to some extent acts circles around Heston, plays an Irish immigrant who was court-martialled by the US army right before the outbreak of the Civil War and so joined the Confederacy, Dundee had been the deciding vote in the court martial. James Coburn hides behind a bad beard and a missing arm, and kind of falls in the background against the personal rivalry between Heston’s and Harris’ characters. Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones from Peckinpah’s unofficial repertory company all give solid character performances.
It’s one of Peckinpah’s messier films, mainly due to studio interference but also because it lands at a weird crossroads of being clearly a revisionist western before that was understood as a sub-genre while being made on a such a scale that it’s more in tune with the classic westerns of the ’50s and ’60s. Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country is more effective because it has a low-key approach that’s more like the Budd Boetticher westerns, and the studio didn’t take much notice of it. Peckinpah also had a hand in the screenplay for One-Eyed Jacks, which straddles the classical Western and the upcoming revisionist westerns much better than Major Dundee. That is probably due to the various idiosyncrasies of those involved from original director Stanley Kubrick to star-turned-director Marlon Brando, plus the uncredited screenplay work from Rod Serling and Peckinpah.
However, if you are a Peckinpah fan it’s a must, and the cinematography is just beautiful. The added score by Christopher Caliendo, which was composed in 2005, is incredibly effective. It’s also the first film where Peckinpah put his beloved Mexico front and centre as a setting. Despite it’s clear flaws from choppy editing and an obviously tacked-on and utterly unnecessary narration, it’s a film that will probably reveal itself on repeated viewings. Peckinpah certainly made worse films later in his short-lived career, even his very popular “adaptation” of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway is probably an inferior film to Major Dundee (mainly due to the decision to excise the last few chapters, which are the complete point of the novel.)
Arrow Video has compiled a nice package for the film, which includes both the reconstructed 2005 cut—which is more or less the premiere cut with the 2005 score—and also the 122-minute cut, which is what people generally saw in 1965 (and which was destroyed by the critics.) You get three different commentary tracks on the extended version. There is also a feature-length documentary on the making of Major Dundee, which is compiled from Mike Siegel’s on-going Passion and Poetry project on Peckinpah, along with two more long supplementary pieces connected to that. David Cairns supplies a video essay, and the 2005 trailer and animated stills galleries round off Disc 1. The second disc is a little lighter on extras, with just a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, some deleted scenes, and a few trailers from around the world. The booklet contains new writing by Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr along with archive material, and you get a foldout poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella.