It has become notorious for the feud between Peckinpah and the producing studio, Columbia Pictures, during its production and editing.
During the American Civil War, Union cavalry officer Major Dundee (Heston) is relieved of his combat command for an unspecified tactical error at the Battle of Gettysburg and 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 POWs led by his old friend and rival (from their days together 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 personal 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.
The wily 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 single-handedly delay a second detachment of French cavalry while the others escape.
The characterization of Dundee is loosely based on famed Indian fighters George Armstrong Custer and Ranald Mackenzie. Before the film's production, Peckinpah had been working on a Custer project (entitled The Dice of God) but later scrapped it for this film.
The movie has been read by many critics, most notably Jim Kitses, to be a metaphor for the United States of America, and its nature as a culturally diverse nation, often unified only by conflict; however, other critics, most notably Paul Seydor (Peckinpah: The Western Films, strongly disagree with this interpretation.
Peckinpah undoubtedly intended the film as a sort of parody or subversion of classic cavalry Westerns, particularly those of John Ford. 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 distnict 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 seen 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 full-throated 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". However, 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, however, gave up his entire salary for the film in order to keep Peckinpah on the project - a gesture rarely equalled 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.
Peckinpah's qualms with the movie continued into the post-production. 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 a lot of the 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. (Ironically, though 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 cut out, despite the protests of Peckinpah and producer Jerry Bresler. Many viewers of the original movie feel that these cuts ruined the movie's scope and created significant plot holes, though others argue that these plotholes exist even in the extended version.
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 - which presumably would have included the night-time Apache massacre which originally opened the film and has gained a measure of notoriety through screenwriting and film classes - will ever be fully restored.
A list of 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.
However, many significant scenes, some filmed, some not, 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
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.
Major Dundee has long been considered a lost masterpiece due to studio tampering. It also 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.
DVD; VIEWS; Heston rides again in two epic films; `Ben-Hur' and `Major Dundee' turned out quite differently for the actor, as covered extensively in separate special editions.(VARIETY)
Sep 20, 2005; Byline: Randy A. Salas; Staff Writer Actor Charlton Heston knows epic success in film: the 1959 -blockbuster "Ben-Hur," winner of...