Release Date(s)1965 (June 29, 2021)
Studio(s)Jerry Bresler Productions/Columbia Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: A+
- Overall Grade: A
Major Dundee is one of Hollywood’s legendarily troubled productions which was doomed from the start when Columbia Pictures hired Sam Peckinpah to direct, but then interfered with him at every step along the way, from slashing the original budget up front to locking him out of the editing room at the end. Peckinpah’s own lack of experience and natural intransigence didn’t help, nor did the fact that the script was never finished in the first place. The ordeal was a pivotal one for Peckinpah, and it shaped the way that he would live the rest of his life in constant antagonism with studios and producers. A hypothetical director’s cut of Major Dundee may or may not be his “lost” masterpiece, but since he was never able to shoot everything that he wanted in the first place, it simply doesn’t exist. Peckinpah’s own rough cut of what he had ran approximately 155 minutes, then producer Jerry Bresler took over and cut it down to 136 minutes for previews. That version was further trimmed by Columbia to 122 minutes for the theatrical release. Worse, the sound mixing was done hastily, with a questionable score by Daniele Amfitheatrof acting as cover, and a truly inappropriate title song by Mitch Miller’s Sing Along Gang. The final theatrical version has moments of brilliance, but many ragged edges along the way, along with myriad incomprehensible plot holes.
In 2005, Sony restored Jerry Bresler’s 136-minute preview cut under the aegis of Grover Crisp. A new score was commissioned from composer Christopher Caliendo, replacing both the original score and the title song. This version, known somewhat inaccurately as the “Extended Version,” does clear up some of the plot holes and provides better motivation for a few of the characters, though many more issues still remain. Major Dundee began life as a lengthy treatment by Julian Fink which was expanded into a full screenplay by Fink, Oscar Saul, and Peckinpah, but the fact that it was never really completed resulted in some unresolved plot points and a fairly muddled finale. Even Peckinpah’s own lengthier rough cut would likely like still leave unanswered questions because the script never sorted them out. The broad outlines of the story are fairly clear: during the Civil War, disgraced army major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) leads a rag-tag group of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and outlaws to chase down the renegade Apache Sierra Charriba and rescue some boys who were captured by Charriba during a massacre. However, the devil is in the details, some of which are never ironed out in any version of the film.
And yet, both the theatrical cut and the extended version are still unmistakably Sam Peckinpah films, displaying both his best and his worst tendencies in equal measure, even without any of his trademarked slow motion (more on that later). Much of Major Dundee is perfectly in line thematically with his following feature The Wild Bunch—in fact, many shots, sequences, and ideas in that film were lifted wholesale from Dundee. The character of Amos Dundee is one of Heston's best roles, and he’s superb here playing a far more morally complex character than he usually did. Dundee is really a George Armstrong Custer figure who is seeking his own glory instead of being a heroic leader; in fact, he displays few leadership skills at all along the way. His former friend and current antagonist among the Confederates, Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), is a far better leader of men than Dundee will ever be, and a more honorable one as well. Even the oft-maligned Daniele Amfitheatrof score is slightly better than its reputation would indicate, and while the Major Dundee March is still awkward, it works better if read ironically—when the Gang sings “Fall in behind the Major, and we’ll all get home again,” it provides a counterpoint to the trail of corpses that Dundee has left in his wake.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Major Dundee is a 2-Disc set which offers the extended version of the film on Disc One, with two different soundtrack options, and the original theatrical cut on Disc Two. Major Dundee was photographed in 35 mm Panavision by cinematographer Sam Leavitt, and framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. The transfer for the extended version was taken from a 4K scan while the theatrical cut came from a 2K scan, though the differences between the two transfers are relatively minor. In any event, the theatrical cut is mostly a historical curio at this point, as the extended version is unquestionably superior. The 4K scan is nicely detailed with fairly even grain, though that evenness is the result of some processing. There is some ringing visible, especially when characters are framed from below against the sky. It’s more prominent in shots which bracket transitions such as dissolves, so it’s likely that the restoration team used noise reduction to smooth the coarser grain from the optical printing, then applied sharpening to compensate for the softness. The color balance is very good, with the flesh tones perhaps being a bit bronzed, but that’s pretty typical for cinematography from the period. Contrast and black levels are solid, though the day-for-night footage in the extended version is still timed much darker than in previous versions and there isn’t much detail in those shots.
The audio options for the extended version include English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with the new score by Christopher Caliendo, and English 1.0 mono LPCM with original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof. The theatrical cut only offers English 1.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, which is indistinguishable from the LPCM track on the extended version. Both have optional English subtitles, though the extended version has SDH while the theatrical cut does not. From the strict point of view of sound quality, the 5.1 track is preferable as it sounds far smoother and more dynamic, if a bit more laid back overall, and it offers directionalized sound effects as well. The mono track is more forward, but also more compressed and harsher. However, Major Dundee being Major Dundee, the choice between the two tracks is not so simple, and it all comes down to the musical scores. Peckinpah hated Amfitheatrof’s score and it has been justifiably criticized for being anachronistic, but Caliendo’s score is no less anachronistic. One is too old-fashioned for the story, and the other is too modern. Those who grew up watching the theatrical cut may actually find Caliendo’s score to be even more distracting than Amfitheatrof’s, since it’s so jarringly different. All things being equal, new viewers may have a better experience with the 5.1 track while more experienced viewers may prefer the mono. Having listened to both soundtracks for years now, the theatrical mono is preferable despite all of its flaws, but everyone’s mileage may vary.
MAJOR DUNDEE: EXTENDED VERSION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A-/B
MAJOR DUNDEE: THEATRICAL CUT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B+/B
The following extras are included on each disc. All are presented in HD aside from the deleted scenes and the German theatrical trailer, which appear to be upconverted from SD:
DISC ONE: EXTENDED VERSION
- Audio Commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, & David Weddle
- Audio Commentary by Glenn Erickson & Alan K. Rode
- Audio Commentary by Glenn Erickson
- Moby Dick on Horseback (29:06)
- Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey (75:25)
- Passion & Poetry: Sam Peckinpah Anecdotes (25:43)
- Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project (43:55)
- 2005 Re-Release Trailer (2:26)
- Animated Galleries: On the Set (91 in all – 8:27)
- Animated Galleries: Color Stills (45 in all – 4:25)
- Animated Galleries: Portrait Stills (55 in all – 2:56)
- Animated Galleries: Promoting Major Dundee (112 in all – 11:21)
DISC TWO: THEATRICAL CUT
- Riding for a Fall (7:23)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes: Compiled Scenes with Commentary by Glenn Erickson (6:40)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes: Major Dundee and Theresa's Swimming Scene (:40)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes: Knife Fight (3:38)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes: Silent Extended Outtakes (4:20)
- UK Theatrical Trailer (3:17)
- UK Theatrical Trailer Uncropped (3:18)
- US Theatrical Trailer (3:26)
- German Theatrical Trailer (3:27)
The first commentary with Redman, Seydor, Simmons, and Weddle was originally recorded for the 2005 DVD release of the extended version. The late Redman produced the recordings of the new Christopher Caliendo score; Seydor wrote the book Peckinpah: The Western Films – A Reconsideration; Simmons wrote the book Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage; and Weddle wrote the book “If They Move, Kill ‘Em”: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. All were devoted Peckinpah scholars, and needless to say they bring a great deal of knowledge to the table, though Glenn Erickson points out that they sometimes left questions open which could have been answered by referring to the script. While they do discuss specific scenes and they also debate the value of the added footage, their primary focus is on Peckinpah himself and how Major Dundee fits in with the rest of his filmography. As a result, they are often fairly critical of the film relative to other Peckinpah masterworks. Understandably, they tend to lay most of the blame for the issues with producer Jerry Bresler.
The second commentary with Erickson and Rode was recorded for the 2020 Via Vision’s Imprint release. They take a less Peckinpah-centric approach and make the case that many of the issues with the film should be laid at the director’s own feet. Rode notes that while this is not a defense of Bresler, the producer was caught in the middle between Peckinpah and Columbia after the studio cut the budget for the film. Erickson adds that Bresler was an old-school company man who expected directors to serve as subordinates—he never stood a chance against a personality like Peckinpah’s. If there was a way to make things worse on a set, Peckinpah would do it. Rode also notes that Peckinpah’s capacity for self-destruction was matched by his alienation and betrayal of those who were closest to him, yet he was fiercely loyal to his actors, and many of them were just as loyal to him. Rode also offers historical background in the settings presented in the film, while Erickson makes the provocative point that Peckinpah was not a visual director at all but rather relied on cinematographers like Lucien Ballard to guide the visuals for him—something that Sam Leavitt didn’t do for Major Dundee.
The third commentary with Erickson was recorded for the 2019 German Explosive Media GmbH release (which is why he closes the track by saying “auf Wiedersehen”). Erickson spends much of the time comparing scenes in the film to how they were written in the script and points out missing scenes which could have clarified many of the plot holes that plague the film. He examines the evidence for whether or not those scenes were actually shot by Peckinpah, especially the conflicting information regarding the missing Rostes Ranch massacre that was originally intended to open the film. He notes that Peckinpah shot thousands of feet of slow-motion footage for the film, but it didn’t work and none of it was included in his own rough cut, let alone in Bresler’s truncated final cut. Erickson also analyzes some of the themes in the film, such as the way that it eventually transforms into a fable about unsuccessful American interventionism in foreign lands. At several points, Erickson supports his analysis of the film by using audio excerpts of an interview with Michael Anderson, Jr. that Dick Dinman did for his show DVD Classics Corner on the Air. There’s a lot of great information to absorb in all three commentaries, but Erickson’s solo track may be the best place to start for those who are less familiar with Major Dundee, as it focuses on trying to makes sense out of the fractured narrative.
Moby Dick on Horseback is a visual essay by historian and critic David Cairn which analyzes how the myriad production difficulties impacted both Major Dundee and Peckinpah’s career as well. Cairn uses clips from the film to support what he’s saying, and also to provide an ironic counterpart—he makes his feelings about Bresler’s background abundantly clear by including inappropriate clips from one of Bresler’s previous productions. As a result, this essay displays a refreshingly dry wit compared to most of the other extras, though Cairn makes many serious points as well. He slows down some shots to show how slow motion may have been used in the final cut if Peckinpah had filmed it properly. He also makes the interesting observation that the great films which followed Dundee are always teetering on the verge of disintegration, and it’s the tension between being fully achieved works and rambling inarticulate messes that gives them their undeniable power—they are Peckinpah’s worldview seen through the alcoholic haze of his own experiences.
Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey is a feature-length documentary about the making of Major Dundee which was directed by Mike Siegel. It includes interviews with actors Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, R.G. Armstrong, James Coburn, and L.Q. Jones, as well as Peckinpah associates and family members Gordon Dawson, Chalo Gonzalez, and Lupita Peckinpah. It’s more of a memoir than a linear recounting of the making of the film, with everyone relating their own experiences during the production and the difficulties of shooting on location, as well as their inevitably complex relationships with Peckinpah. Needless to say, none of them have anything kind to say about Bresler. The interviews are interspersed with behind-the-scenes photographs and limited film footage shot during the production. Passion & Poetry: Sam Peckinpah Anecdotes is another feature directed by Siegel containing interviews with nine veteran Peckinpah actors: Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, and Isela Vega. It’s a loose collection of colorful anecdotes about what it was like to work with Peckinpah, with the subject of his alcoholism coming up repeatedly. Coburn says that Peckinpah was a genius for at least three hours a day, depending on how much he was drinking—a working alcoholic, but a wonderful director. Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project is a conversation with Siegel where he discusses his ongoing historical project about Peckinpah. He talks about his own surprisingly complicated biography, including experiences with the likes of Roland Emmerich and Robert Rodriguez, and what it took to bring him to the point where he devoted decades of his life to documenting the works of the legendary director. He has interesting stories of his own about interviewing some of the surviving members of Peckinpah’s cast and crew.
The rest of the extras are rounded by various short features as well as trailers. The Animated Galleries show a total of 303 behind-the-scenes photographs, production stills, posters, and lobby cards from the film from all over the world. Riding for a Fall is a vintage promotional film which focuses on the horse stunts. The Deleted and Extended Scenes are trims and outtakes showing footage which may or may not have been used had Peckinpah retained final cut, some of them with commentary by Erickson. Many are raw takes with the slates visible at the beginning or end.
Arrow Video’s new Limited Edition compiles all of the extras from each of those previous versions with the exception of the isolated score tracks. The package also includes a 60-page booklet with essays by Jeremy Carr, Faran Smith Nehme, Roderick Heath, and Neil Snowdon, as well as a two-sided foldout poster. (The essays from previous releases are not reproduced here.) The two Blu-ray discs are housed in separate digipaks and, along with the booklet, are all contained within a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Tony Stella.
In a way, Major Dundee is the perfect metaphor for its director: sprawling, out-of-control, periodically brilliant, but a bit of a mess. While there can never be a definitive cut of the film, Arrow Video’s comprehensive new Blu-ray set is unquestionably the definitive home video release for the Major Dundee to date—it’s highly recommended for film fans in general and Peckinpah fans in particular.
- Stephen Bjork
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