Major Dundee‘s Warring Cuts Reflect Sam Peckinpah’s Place in Film History

Movies Features Sam Peckinpah
Major Dundee‘s Warring Cuts Reflect Sam Peckinpah’s Place in Film History

It’s the consensus that Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, reviled upon release and partly restored in 2005, has undergone a necessary reassessment in the half century since its premiere. Technically, the consensus is correct and thoroughly supported by the extended cut’s reception at the time of its release (and even several years hence): No critic submitted their review without acknowledging the contempt it met back in 1965. But how could a movie be assessed in the first place if audiences and journalists saw it in a reduced capacity, and how could it then be reassessed in light of the discrepancy between what people saw versus what Peckinpah had actually shot?

The folks at Arrow Video have given us all the chance to mull over this impossible question with a 2-disc Blu-ray containing both the theatrical cut and extended cut of the film, plus a booklet chock-full of smart thoughts from critics Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr, plus a poster in case you’re into the concept of Charlton Heston and Richard Harris staring you down as you fall asleep each night and wake up each morning. Major Dundee features both men at the height of their various brands of sexiness: Heston chiseled, stoic and in charge; Harris rakish, roguish and most of all Irish. The truth of the matter is that until science nails down time travel and enterprising parties retrieve Peckinpah’s unfettered vision from the 1960s, Major Dundee may never receive the assessment of true intent that it, like any other movie, deserves.

For now, 123 minutes of theatrical footage and 136 minutes of extended footage must suffice, though without watching them side by side, one after the other, catching which pieces are “new” versus “old” is a task so mundane that spotting the differences is hard without firm commitment. For the most part the changes are minimal: Trooper Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) plays “Taps” at a burial; Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), the Apache scout converted to devout Christian, is found crucified rather than assumed to have fled or returned to his people; Dundee is given more time to convalescence in Durango; and Riago’s wrestling match, well before his execution, with the “half-breed” Samuel Potts (James Coburn) has more time to breathe. That’s the most significant material. The rest occurs mostly in the margins, and does not add meaningful gravity to the film. Instead, it proves Peckinpah’s excess.

Granted, that excess is like fat on short ribs: You come for the meat but oh, the joy of well-rendered tissue. No contemporary movies prove the pleasure of footage deemed “unnecessary” by producers more than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (though in the most comical irony, his flabby Hobbit trilogy proves exactly the opposite—not everything left on the editing room floor has innate value). In Major Dundee, Peckinpah taught the same lesson decades prior, though critics of the day weren’t particularly open to it. He attempted an endeavor not seen in its era, a marriage of Western and war movie, romance and rivalry, a tale of obsession gone wrong and a moral epic of justice as Amos Dundee (Heston), a disgraced Union cavalry officer punished for unspecified cock-ups at the Battle of Gettysburg, seizes a chance for redemption by building a private army to hunt down Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), an Apache war chief with a taste for American blood. To support his cause, Dundee recruits Confederate prisoners, including his frenemy Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), ex-Unionist turned Confederate nemesis.

Such was Peckinpah’s brutality that when Major Dundee screened, stomachs churned and tempers rose. Maybe the critics who appraised his work afresh during the mid-2000s were made of stronger stuff, or maybe they had the privilege of having seen The Wild Bunch and Ride High the Country, the movies that brought him back to Hollywood’s fold after he was unceremoniously booted out by the seat of his pants over Major Dundee’s failure.

Was he given a fair shake? Not really. But would critics have embraced the movie even if they’d seen it in its full glory? They, too, were treated to the 136 cut in 1965, but what Peckinpah actually shot clocked in at over 160 minutes. We’re as capable of giving his work a fair shake as his audience was 52 years ago—perhaps even less. Major Dundee reenters pop culture in a problematic era in which some viewers decide on creative work’s quality based on whether it flatters their politics and ideology. This is a test the film won’t pass, and can’t. The truest test of quality lies in what Peckinpah, Heston, Harris and the massive supporting cast put into it, of course, but how to take a movie where those historically seen as liberators commingle with their enemies and oppressors? Aesop (Brock Peters), leading a group of Black freedmen under Dundee’s charge, is accosted by racist Confederates, saved by his white comrades, and eventually killed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment unbefitting of his character. Scrutiny put on the movie today may be harsher than in 1965.

Still, time remains an advantage for considering Major Dundee in either the context of 2005 or 2021, so far away from its debut. In the former, when America was still feeling the aftershocks of 9/11, the intransigent Dundee seemed more heroic than he does now. In 2021, it’s impossible to see Dundee as anything other than a colossal prick and Tyreen as the better man, which is saying quite a lot given that Tyreen fought for Robert E. Lee.

The idea of an implacable avenger tracking down a foe responsible for the slaughter of hapless Americans stirred, at the time, a cathartic release. We were hungry for black-and-white stories where “good” and “bad” existed along clearly delineated lines, though Peckinpah admittedly puts Dundee in a grey area: He’s out to stop a terrorist surrogate, and he’s also an asshole. Tyreen, too, bears the burden of sin, though there’s room to wonder what might have been if Dundee bothered to look up the words “mercy” and “leniency” in Merriam-Webster’s. He might have fought for Ulysses S. Grant instead. It is a stain on Tyreen’s character that he made the petty choice, as if to spit in Dundee’s face for his role in Tyreen’s court martial before the Civil War. Both men are flawed, to say the least.

In real life, the passage of time from 1965 to 2005 to 2021 has calcified Heston’s memory as that of a brute in line with Dundee: He opposed popular policies such as abortion access and gun control, and acted as a forefather for the culture wars we’re still fighting today over race and pride. Harris? He’s remembered as Albus Dumbledore, one of his final roles before he passed away in 2002. You do the calculus on that one, and factor in that pop culture has dedicated 22 years at least to shitting on Heston’s image through, say, Zapp Brannigan, the oafish Democratic Order of Planets General in Matt Groening’s Futurama. Try listening to Heston deliver any line in Major Dundee without Brannigan’s specter haunting him. The very thought makes the movie an unintendedly hilarious experience.

Yet Heston, however we think of him as a person, remains a commanding figure on screen, capable of turning outlandish one-liners into exhortations:

  • “By midnight, I want every man in this village drunker than a fiddler’s bitch.”
  • “You were a rock once, now you’re crumbling like old chalk.”
  • “Let’s say I’m giving him… equal opportunity.”

There’s nothing the man couldn’t turn from silly into striking. Likewise, there’s no bloodbath Peckinpah couldn’t turn into an opera, a ballet, a work of art soaked in viscera and scored with the screams of gunshots and dying men. Major Dundee is altogether a mess, where a thrilling first half gives way to a second half bogged down in bad romances, curtailed character arcs and excessive plotting leading into a satisfying climax on the Rio Grande.

The film doesn’t totally work, even with extra minutes. It does, however, bear viewing as an example of what happens when studios meddle with the filmmaking process, even for a filmmaker like Peckinpah. It’s fitting that Peckinpah’s journey as a director mirrors Dundee’s as a soldier: A bully unwilling to compromise and prepared to do whatever it takes to see his ambitions through. If nothing else, appreciate Major Dundee for the reflection of Peckinpah in his lead—and in his narrative.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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