- Major Dundee
The original film poster
Directed by Sam Peckinpah Produced by Jerry Bresler Written by Harry Julian Fink (story)
Harry Julian Fink
Starring Charlton Heston
Michael Anderson, Jr.
Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof
Christopher Caliendo (new score 2005)
Cinematography Sam Leavitt Distributed by Columbia Pictures Corporation Release date(s) March 15, 1965 (U.S. release) Running time 123 minutes (theatrical)
136 minutes (2005 restored version)
USA:152 min (unreleased director's cut)
Major Dundee is a 1965 Western film written by Harry Julian Fink and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It starred Charlton Heston and Richard Harris as officers from opposing sides in the American Civil War who band together to hunt down a band of Apaches.
During the American Civil War, Union cavalry officer Major Amos Dundee (Heston) is relieved of his command for an unspecified tactical error (though it is implied that he showed too much initiative) at the Battle of Gettysburg and was sent to head a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory. After a family of ranchers and a relief column of cavalry are massacred by an Apache war chief named Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), Dundee seizes the opportunity for glory, raising his own private army of Union troops (black and white), Confederate prisoners led by his former friend and rival (from their days at West Point), Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), several Indian scouts, and a gang of civilian mercenaries to illegally pursue Charriba into Mexico. Tyreen bears a grudge against Dundee. Before the war, Dundee cast the deciding vote in Tyreen's court-martial from the U.S. Army for participating in a duel. However, having given his word of honor, the chivalrous Tyreen binds himself and his men to serve loyally, but only until Charriba has been dispatched.
The film is narrated by young bugler, Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson, Jr.), whose diary is meant to serve as an ironic counterpoint to the action. In the cut version, this intention by Peckinpah/Fink does not come across very well. When the diverse factions of Dundee's force aren't fighting each other, they engage the Apaches in several bloody battles. The Americans lose most of their supplies in an Apache ambush, forcing them to raid a village garrisoned by French troops loyal to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. However, there is little to loot, and Dundee ends up sharing some of his dwindling food with the starving Mexicans. Beautiful resident Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the widow of a doctor executed for his support of the rebels under Benito Juárez, causes further tensions between Tyreen and Dundee.
Dundee makes it easy for his French prisoners to escape. When they return with reinforcements as he had expected, Dundee surprises them in a night attack and makes off with badly needed supplies. Teresa ultimately has a short-lived affair with Dundee. In an unguarded moment with her, he is wounded by the Apaches in the leg, forcing him to seek medical help in French-held Durango. The doctor successfully removes the arrow, but Dundee has to remain there to recuperate. He is tended by a pretty Mexican, whom he eventually takes to bed. When Teresa comes upon them unexpectedly, her relationship with Dundee comes to an abrupt end. Dundee starts drinking heavily as a result. Tyreen has to sneak into town and shame Dundee into resuming his mission.
Charriba proves impossible to pin down, so Dundee pretends to give up and starts back for the U.S. The Apaches give chase and end up in a trap. Charriba is finally killed. With their bargain concluded, Dundee and Tyreen prepare to resume their own personal battle, but the vengeful French appear, forcing the two men to set aside their differences. The two cavalry forces charge each other at the Rio Grande River. When Tyreen is fatally shot, he rides off to singlehandedly delay a second detachment of French cavalry while the others escape.
The screenplay, by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, and Peckinpah, was loosely based on historical precedents. However, contrary to claims by the production team at the time, it was not actually based on a true story. The film's novelization was written by Richard Wormser. During the Minnesota Dakota War of 1862, Union forces in that state were forced to recruit Confederate prisoners from Texas to make up for their meager numbers in fighting the Indians. Unlike the movie, where there is much animosity between the Union and Confederate troops in Dundee's command, the rebels, called "Galvanized Yankees", fought well and without much complaint. Both Union and Confederate forces also battled Apache, Navajo, and Comanche Indians throughout the war along the U.S.-Mexico border, making the scenario of the movie at least somewhat plausible. Before the film's production, Peckinpah had been working on a Custer project, based on the novel by Hoffman Birney The Dice of God, but later abandoned it for this film. (His screenplay was filmed by Arnold Laven, as The Glory Guys).
Critics of the film have also pointed out similarities between this and Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick. Many of the characters are similar to those from that book, with Dundee as Captain Ahab, Tyreen as Starbuck, Ryan as Ishmael, and other minor characters, with Sierra Charriba and his Apache tribe substituting for the whale, as is the general plot line (an obsessive idealist drives himself to destruction, disregarding the effects on others). These references to Moby-Dick were likely intentional on the part of the screenwriters. Some have also pointed out similarities of the plot to the Vietnam War, which are highly unlikely to have been intentional, as the war had not significantly escalated at the time of the film's production.
The opening scene at the Rostes Ranch and the funeral after the first skirmish with the Indians were inspired by scenes from The Searchers, while the scene where Dundee's troop exits Fort Benlin, each faction of the command singing its own distinct song, is a deliberate parody of an equivalent scene in Fort Apache. The characterization of Dundee, particularly his personality as a martinet and his relationship with Tyreen, has been related to John Wayne's character in Howard Hawks' Red River. The Mexican Civil War setting recalls Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz. The film also includes several references to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia – the execution of Hadley, and Dundee's drunken exile in Durango, closely mirror sequences from this film.
Peckinpah found the script in late 1963. The early draft by Fink (as in the novelization) focused on Trooper Ryan and presented the film as a typical adventure story. Peckinpah largely discarded this, and began making the movie into a complex character study about Dundee, making him a glory-hungry officer who would do anything to gain fame and recognition. He had the support of Heston, who had seen and enjoyed Peckinpah's previous film, Ride the High Country, and was eager to work with the director. Actor R.G. Armstrong, who had a small part as a Reverend who tags along with the expedition, referred to the 156 minutes version of the film as "Moby-Dick on horseback". The production of the movie was very troubled: Peckinpah was often drunk on the set, and was supposedly so abusive towards the cast that Heston had to threaten him with a cavalry saber in order to calm him down. Peckinpah also fired a large number of crew members for very trivial reasons throughout the shoot. Columbia studio executives feared that the project was out of control, and that Peckinpah was too unstable to finish the picture, so they cut the shooting schedule of the film by several weeks. Heston gave up his entire salary for the film in order to keep Peckinpah on the project – a gesture rarely equaled in Hollywood history. However, the studio forced Peckinpah to wrap up shooting very abruptly; Heston alleged that Peckinpah, towards the end of the shoot, simply became drunk and wandered off the set, and that he (Heston) had to finish directing many portions of the movie himself.
The length of Peckinpah's original cut has been disputed. According to some sources, including the 2005 DVD commentary, the original cut was 4 hours, 38 minutes long, which was initially edited down to 156 minutes. Included in the unseen longer cuts were several slow-motion battle scenes which were inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. The movie was also fairly gory for the standards of 1965, and more bloody and violent scenes were cut out. A bombastic musical score by Daniele Amfitheatrof was added to the film despite Peckinpah's protests, as was the title song, the Major Dundee March, sung by Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang. (The song has gained a negative reputation over the years, it became a major hit at the time – unlike the film, which tanked at the box office.) One of the most bizarre parts of the score was the use of an electronically altered sound (the employment of three anvils of different lengths, played-back at half-speed) every time Charriba or the Apaches would be seen or even mentioned ("Until the Apache is taken or destroyed" was one of the film's catch phrases). At the film's initial release, it was 136 minutes long. After a disastrous premiere – the movie was almost universally panned by critics – an additional thirteen minutes got cut out, despite the protests of Peckinpah and producer Jerry Bresler. Some feel that these cuts ruined the movie's scope and created significant plot holes, though others argue that these plot holes exist even in the extended version.
Major Dundee helped cement Peckinpah's image as a renegade filmmaker, which he would enhance with the conflicts on his later films, such as Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Others, namely Peckinpah's biographer David Weddle (author of If They Move, Kill 'Em: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah), argue that Peckinpah is just as much to blame for the final product as Columbia and Jerry Bresler. Since its release on DVD, Dundee has begun to get recognition and notice from the public at large, and not just Western fans.
In April 2005, the New York City based Film Forum premiered an "expanded" version featuring several restored scenes, along with a new musical score by Christopher Caliendo. This expanded version was actually the 136 minute cut authorized by producer Jerry Bresler before he left Columbia Studios. It had recently been unearthed in Sony Pictures' archives. It played in selected cities in North America and has been released on a Region 1 DVD. All of the cuts were edited out of the release version at the last minute; it is highly unlikely that Peckinpah's director's cut will ever be fully restored.
Restored scenes are listed below. These include both brief inserts and additions to existing scenes, as well as four major scenes restored to the film.
- Ryan playing Taps over a shot of soldiers burying the victims of the massacre.
- A brief scene, after Dundee, Sam Potts (Coburn), and the other Union troopers survey the massacre at the Rostes Ranch, where Tyreen and his Confederates attempt to escape through a mountain stream. They were trapped by troops from the fort and Dundee's command, leading into the "assembly" scene where Dundee announces to the fort's prisoners his need for volunteers. It is important as it introduces the character of Tyreen, who is only awkwardly introduced in the original cut, and gives the reason why he and his men are to hang later in the film (they killed a guard during their escape attempt).
- Tyreen's men refusing to wear the Union jackets provided to them by Dundee.
- Children watching Dundee's expedition leaving Fort Benlin.
- The wrestling match between Potts and the scout Riago is much longer, with Dundee chiding Potts because the artillery (Lt. Graham) bet on him.
- Paco, one of Potts' Indian scouts, is killed by Apaches before the river ambush.
- The fiesta scene in the Mexican village is longer, with Potts leering at a pretty girl, who snubs him (which would have led to the knife fight scene detailed below), and Teresa trying to comfort a crying baby.
- Dundee recovering from his leg wound in Durango, while being tended to by Melinche (Aurora Clavell), eventually falling in love with her.
- A scene where Dundee and his officers – Tyreen, Potts, Lt. Graham (Hutton), and Sgt. Gomez (Adorf) find an Apache trail marker, and then debate strategy on how to fight Charriba. At the end of the scene, we learn the fate of Apache scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), who had earlier in the film been accused of being an agent of Charriba's by Dundee and others. In this version, he is found crucified in a tree. In the theatrical cut, his character disappeared without a trace.
- Available as extras on the DVD are an unfinished knife fight scene between Potts and Gomez in a Mexican village, a longer version of Teresa and Dundee's interlude at the lake, and several silent outtakes – including a master shot which would have opened the massacre scene at the beginning, of Lt. Brannin and his men riding past a sheep farmer to the Rostes Ranch.
Many significant scenes were still missing from the film. For a complete list of these, and a comparison of the original script and the two released versions of the film, see here. For the 2005 version, a new score was commissioned, and composed by Christopher Caliendo. This score was composed and recorded with a small studio orchestra to authentically sound the way director Peckinpah might have approved it had he been alive at the time of the film's restoration, and the way the music might have been done in its original 1965 release as opposed to today's larger orchestra-type scores. The new score is regarded by some critics as being better than the original, which was disliked by film experts, though many concede it is far from perfect; for example, there has been criticism of Caliendo's decision to leave unscored several sequences which did have music in the original version.
- Charlton Heston as Major Amos Dundee.
- Richard Harris as Captain Benjamin Tyreen.
- Jim Hutton as Lieutenant Graham, a bumbling, inexperienced artilleryman
- James Coburn as Samuel Potts, a wily "mountain man" or half-breed, much like Jerry Potts
- Michael Anderson, Jr. as Trooper Tim Ryan, the bugler
- Senta Berger as Teresa Santiago, the wife of an Austrian doctor, she serves as the head doctor of a Mexican village
- Mario Adorf as Sergeant Gomez, Dundee's solid right-hand man
- Brock Peters as Aesop, leader of a small group of black soldiers stationed at Fort Benlin
- Warren Oates as O.W. Hadley, an irresponsible Confederate. He deserts, but is caught and executed by Tyreen.
- Ben Johnson as Sergeant Chillum, Tyreen's right-hand man
- R.G. Armstrong as Reverend Dahlstrom, a local minister who joins the expedition to avenge the deaths of some of his congregation
- L.Q. Jones as Arthur Hadley, O.W.'s brother
- Slim Pickens as Wiley, a drunken mule-packer
- Dub Taylor as Benjamin Priam, a disheveled horse thief recruited from Fort Benlin's prison
- John Davis Chandler as Jimmy Lee Benteen, a racist rebel who picks a fight with Aesop
- Karl Swenson as Captain Frank Waller, Dundee's second-in-command at Fort Benlin, he disapproves of Dundee's expedition and thinks him a dangerous loose cannon. He tries to talk Dundee out of his plan and in the original script, attempts to arrest Dundee on the orders of James Henry Carleton, the commander of the Union troops in New Mexico.
- Albert Carrier as Captain Jacques Tremaine, commander of the French lancers who pursue and fight Dundee's men
- Michael Pate as Sierra Charriba, the chief of a tribe of renegade Apaches who terrorize settlements on both sides of the border
- José Carlos Ruiz as Riago, a "Christian Indian" scout whose loyalty is suspect
- Begonia Palacios as Linda, a young Mexican assistant to Teresa who has a short-lived affair with Ryan
- Aurora Clavel as Melinche, an Indian woman in Durango who nurses Dundee back to health, and is seduced by him. In the original script, she is arrested by the French, although this is not included in the final film.
- Enrique Lucero as Doctor Aguilar, who operates on Dundee in Durango
- Francisco Reiguera as Old Apache, sent to lure Dundee into an ambush
- Major Dundee at the Internet Movie Database
- The High Hat - Review
- Review of Major Dundee
- DVD Savant Review of the Extended Version
Films directed by Sam Peckinpah 1960s 1970s 1980sThe Osterman Weekend (1983)
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