In later years, Sam Peckinpah was able to burnish his image as a much-aggressed maverick by insisting that his first big-budget picture, “Major Dundee,” was “possibly the best film I ever made in my life” before it was butchered by its producer and studio.
What the very welcome extended version of the 1965 Civil War-era Western makes clear, with its 12 added minutes and new score, is that “Major Dundee” might well have been a better picture before its director was dismissed in post-production after a fractious Mexican shoot. But it is also more evident than ever the film is inherently a deeply flawed work that was far from fully realized in both script and shooting.
A sort of rough draft for “The Wild Bunch,” with a highly promising premise and solid first act followed by unfocused digressions and a general relaxation of narrative discipline, “Major Dundee” was, in fact, never properly finished by Peckinpah.
After he was fired by producer Jerry Bresler and Columbia, pic was cut down to 124 minutes and a score by Daniele Amfitheatrof was commissioned to which Peckinpah strenuously objected (a particular sore point was the “Major Dundee March” sung by Mitch Miller’s Sing Along Gang over the opening credits).
Sony film restoration VP Grover Crisp and repertory sales veep Michael Schlesinger spearheaded the extended version, which they state is “the most complete cut of the film that could be constructed” from the materials still extant.
Among the additions are three never-before-seen complete scenes: The key introduction of Richard Harris’ character, an Irish Confederate who hates the Union officer played by Charlton Heston; the elaboration of Dundee’s fort as a jail, and a drunken weekend of Dundee’s that climaxes with the lady he has romanced (Senta Berger) discovering him with a half-naked Mexican whore.
There are also numerous, much shorter insertions throughout, some of which make the film considerably more bloody than the original release version (this one’s rated PG-13).
But the most unique addition is the brand new score, composed by Christopher Caliendo, to replace the unloved earlier one (both will be available for comparison’s sake on the DVD). Caliendo’s work is proficient and even credible as a score that might have been written for a Western in the mid-’60s. Dominated by horns and ripe with conventional military motifs, it never builds any themes or standalone noteworthiness.
Even in this new print, “Major Dundee” isn’t a very good-looking film; Sam Leavitt’s cinematography is often plain and the day-for-night battle scenes are so murky, it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
As was the case with the recent rehabilitation of the 70mm “Lord Jim,” it’s gratifying to see Sony expending such effort on an important but admittedly second-tier picture. The extended “Major Dundee” opens April 8 in New York, the following week in Los Angeles and subsequently in other cities.
To see Variety’s 1965 review of the theatrical cut of “Major Dundee,” click here.