The treatment of Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” (1965) has become one of the classic tales of Hollywood’s ability to butcher the work of great directors–not as appalling, to be sure, as what was done to “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but notorious nonetheless. Coming between the elegiac, autumnal “Ride the High Country” (1962) and the brutal end-of-an-era “The Wild Bunch” (1969), the picture schizophrenically shares some of the themes of both. It’s about a driven, tormented Union officer (Charlton Heston) who leads a widely diverse posse composed of cavalrymen, confederate prisoners, buffalo soldiers, and scalawags of various sorts into Mexico to track down a renegade Apache and rescue three children he’d kidnapped on his last raid; most notable in the band are the southern prisoner (Richard Harris) who was once his close friend but now his sworn enemy; the by-the-book lieutenant (Jim Hutton) whose callowness matures as the trip proceeds; and the laconic scout (James Coburn) on whose skill Dundee depends. But the cast of very rough riders also includes such genre stalwarts as Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, Brock Peters, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Karl Swenson and Dub Taylor, as well as Michael Anderson, Jr. as the inevitable adolescent squad man, in this case the bugler. (Senta Berger is the prospective romantic interest met along the way, in this instance a European woman in a Mexican village where the expedition enjoys a temporary peaceful interlude. And English actor Michael Pate, of all people, is almost unrecognizable as the brital Indian Sierra Chiba.)
Peckinpah, whose hot temper and penchant for drinking are well-known, got through the filming of “Dundee” in Mexico (though Heston later claimed that he had to take over for the “indisposed” director on some occasions), but in post-production he quarreled violently with producer Jerry Bresler, who recut the picture, which got a mixed reception when it was released. Peckinpah always claimed it was a ruined masterpiece, and this restored version, which adds twelve minutes to the running-time and boasts an entirely new music score (the director objected strenuously to the one Bresler introduced), at least gives some idea of what might have been. And what it demonstrates is that while “Dundee” remains an uneven work, it has flashes of brilliance as well as a general air of competence, even elegance, in storytelling that’s become increasingly rare in Hollywood. With its stock stable of character actors, it also makes one nostalgic for a time in American films when such familiar and unforgettable faces made regular, and welcome, appearances, and for the westerns in which they specialized.
Is this new “Major Dundee” superior to Bresler’s version? The answer has to be yes, if only because the march with choral accompaniment by Mitch Miller’s singers that used to accompany the opening credits is no longer present. (Otherwise the new music by Christopher Caliendo is no more than serviceable, lacking the strains of the really classic western scores by Elmer Bernstein or Jerome Moross.) The longer added scenes don’t appreciably deepen the film, and while shorter insertions increase the level of violence, they hardly bring it to the point that characterizes most of today’s PG-13 product. And the movie’s central problems are intractable. The nature of Dundee’s internal turmoil remains opaque beneath Heston’s granite countenance. And especially in the last third, the narrative logic gets frayed and the energy flags, mostly as a result of repetition of similar incidents. And at this point, the conventions in the story stand out in even greater relief than they did forty years ago.
Still, there’s something especially nice in seeing an old-style Hollywood adventure movie, in which real humans take the place of CGI creations and the action scenes have the stamp of stunt-man based reality rather than special effects, so nicely refurbished. Sam Leavitt’s widescreen images are beautifully composed, even if the location shooting often gives them a gritty, unpolished look and the lighting isn’t always ideal. Even in this form “Major Dundee” is no classic, but it’s good enough to make one remember the day when ordinary Hollywood movies had a bit of ambition beyond the bottom line and scripts that, however schematic, appealed to more than a juvenile mentality.