Peckinpah pic 'Dundee' gets a musical overhaul

“Major Dundee,” Sam Peckinpah’s first major film as a director, has been given a new score for its upcoming theatrical re-release, and that’s got some in the music community crying foul.

As studios crank out DVD releases of old pics, they have been known to replace snippets of music to avoid paying pricey license fees on the old tunes. But rarely have they replaced complete scores.

In the case of “Dundee,” many Peckinpah fans applaud the switch in music, while music mavens fret that it sets a dangerous precedent.

Sony plans a theatrical re-release of the 1965 Charlton Heston Western, followed by its DVD bow. The studio discovered an early cut of the film that is “closer to Peckinpah’s original vision,” according to Sony asset management and film restoration VP Grover Crisp.

The extra 12 minutes bring the running time to 136 minutes, although the studio is calling it “the extended version” rather than “the director’s cut” because Peckinpah was fired before he could finish the film.

The studio has dumped the original Daniele Amfitheatrof score, with its upbeat Mitch Miller songs, and replaced it with a new and darker score by L.A. composer Christopher Caliendo.

Experts weighed in

Crisp consulted with four Peckinpah experts, who all agreed the director hated the original music, before commissioning the new 80-minute score. And, he says, the May DVD release will feature both scores (the Amfitheatrof in the original mono mix, the Caliendo in 5.1 Dolby Surround).

“This is setting a terrible precedent,” said Society of Composers & Lyricists prexy Dan Foliart. “It’s disheartening to think that our legacy as composers and songwriters is now up for grabs, something that could be tossed away on a whim at a later date.”

Amfitheatrof was a two-time Oscar nominee whose other scores included “Lassie, Come Home” and “Song of the South.” “Major Dundee” was his last film score; he died in 1983.

Peckinpah had no say in the music. But according to producer Nick Redman (who has produced two Peckinpah documentaries and several Jerry Fielding soundtracks from other Peckinpah films), the director felt Amfitheatrof’s score “ruined the film. The film is a doomed journey that ends in a very melancholy way. Everything that the (original) score does makes it a happy-go-lucky, triumphant experience. The music plays directly against what the film is about.”

Authentic sounds

Caliendo — whose credits include a 1992 concert commission from the Vatican, albums of chamber jazz and tangos and a pair of new scores for silent films — says while Amfitheatrof’s music was “physical, external and unpsychological,” his score is “purely psychological and mostly interior,” with authentic-sounding Indian and Mexican colors.

“Our purpose was to improve the film, not just to throw on another score to make money,” he said.

“This is a very unique circumstance,” Crisp insisted. “We looked at this as a grand experiment.”

He also pointed out that new scores for silent films (such as “Metropolis”) are commonplace. “We still want to respect the achievement of the original composer,” he said. “We are mindful of that, historically, culturally and aesthetically,” so DVD buyers will be able to view the film with either score.

Foliart is not convinced. “What happens if, on the 75-year re-release of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ someone decides that it would be more marketable with a contemporary approach? Or if, a few years down the line, someone decides to do an enhanced ‘Psycho’ and they think that maybe the string-section approach is a little too limiting and a larger orchestra would have been a better call?”

He conceded the studio has the legal right to dump the old score but views it as “a real intellectual property, preservation issue.”

But Redman said the decision “was not entered into lightly. It was well considered, with a very specific rationale. I think Sam Peckinpah would have approved of this score, because it is very much in keeping with the mood that he sought. I do not believe that the floodgates will open with executives at studios all over town rushing to replace the scores of their classic movies. I just don’t think that will happen.”

The 136-minute cut of “Major Dundee” opens April 8 in New York and April 15 in L.A.

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