Major Peckinpah


Major Dundee 4.0

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Bear with me. War of the Worlds, or WOW for short, gives you exactly what you expect, and Me and You and Everyone We Know, opening Friday at Landmark's Hillcrest, gives you what you don't expect. Both are enjoyable in different ways and degrees, and I'll elaborate as soon as I'm able. For me, however, the event of the summer so far, and as far ahead as I can see, is the "extended version" of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee, buried in the back half of the week at the Ken Cinema, Monday through Thursday only. You can have your Star Wars the Sixth, your Batman the Fifth, your Mr. and Mrs. Smith, your Howl's Moving Castle. I'm with Sam.

The Ken has been a welcoming place for Peckinpah over the years, having shown within memory his name-making Ride the High Country as well as restorations of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I didn't like in its shorter form and couldn't sit through in its longer, and of course The Wild Bunch. In all honesty, I would have considered Dundee, falling between Ride and Wild in the Peckinpah filmography, to have been the event of the summer even in an unextended version. I always thought the purported butchery of it by the studio -- Columbia -- gave the critics permission to underrate it, while at the same time to exalt its martyred director. I'll go further: I put it after Ride and before Wild in quality besides chronology. A preference for the later film is a preference for self-indulgence (and for one of the prime symptoms thereof, slow-motion action scenes). Which is not to say that Peckinpah did not butt heads with the studio -- Warners -- over that one, too. Thus the need for a restoration.

I myself soon grew weary of Peckinpah's behind-the-scenes battles, unconvinced as I was that his limited talent entitled him to unlimited rope. To rein him in a little ought not to ruin him. It did not -- his own opinion to the contrary -- ruin Dundee, a Civil War-period Western of knotty complexity, to do with a mixed-nuts posse of Union regulars, Confederate POWs, a handful of custodial "coloreds," Indians, and ragtag civilian volunteers in pursuit of an Apache raiding party south of the border, and pursued in turn by a platoon of the French occupation army. It sounds almost farcical in so brief a summary. It plays remarkably well.

The original studio cut, running just over two hours, boasted many indelible scenes: the pre-credits tableau of a massacred cavalry troop, with the Apache chief, Sierra Charriba, gloating over the flayed commander hanging by his heels, "Who you send against me now?" and the answer coming in the whomping red letters of the title; the arrival of that character at the site of the massacre, the incantatory issuance of his standard order to his men, "If I signal you to come, you come; if I signal you to charge, you charge; and if I signal you to run, you follow me and run like hell," and then the symmetrical sectioning of the screen by his deployed forces, left, right, and center; his night-time address to a mass of Rebel prisoners picketed on all sides by torches, appealing to them in vain for volunteers to hunt the Indians, then muscling his way fearlessly into their midst, plowing through them like a human cowcatcher; the recruiting parade of renegades and reprobates that passes through HQ; the quick-stroke delineation of the green lieutenant who will be the Major's last choice for his second in command, and who doesn't know enough to bite off the end of a cigar before drawing smoke; the moment of decision at the border when the Rebel leader must choose whether to keep his "word" (priceless currency in The Wild Bunch, too, you'll recall) or to peel off and join a pack of fast-closing Confederates; the internal tensions in the night camp that almost, if not for the intervention of a two-fisted Bible-thumper, erupt into a race riot. But such a list must trail off into a too-many-to-mention. Suffice it to say that the chance to watch Peckinpah's geometrical management of the wide screen in its intended dimensions -- to watch him carve up the giant rectangle with lines, columns, rings, blocks of men and horses -- is a chance to be jumped at.

My memory of the blood bath off screen, whatever I once knew of it, has naturally faded, and the only potential reference work within arm's reach is my autographed copy of Charlton Heston's The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976 (autographed inside the back cover, upside down). Beyond some broad allusions to an inexperienced director on his first big-budget production, running behind schedule and over budget, this source provides a first-hand record of the star's rhetorical offer to return his salary in an effort to save the director's job (the bosses didn't take it as rhetorical, they took Heston's salary), and also of the kinds of ambitions that run amok in pre-production: "Tony Quinn's unavailable for Tyreen, so they're now submitting Major Dundee to Steve McQueen... . Lee Marvin will be Potts, I think, and maybe Omar Sharif for Gomez." In the end they settled for Richard Harris, James Coburn, and Mario Adorf, respectively. And they settled for two hours instead of two and a half.

The new "extended version," not to be confused with a "director's cut," puts back about twelve minutes of footage, or roughly half of what would fill out Peckinpah's first edit. As in the restoration of The Wild Bunch, the put-backs are mostly minor and largely debatable. The movie at two hours was already a bit short on action and long on character, and you don't have to be a bean counter to sympathize with the studio for digging in against further disproportion. (Critics of the day, while lamenting that it was taken out of Peckinpah's hands, were also prone to complain it was overlong.) At least one addition, however, qualifies unequivocally as major, and it comes at the one spot that always stood out glaringly as choppy and abrupt: Dundee's dive into debauchery and the bottle during his recuperation from a wound. This has now been nicely smoothed out, at a cost of not more than five extra minutes. It would have been a battle worth winning.

Another alleged addition that might qualify as major would be the graphic revelation of the fate of the Indian scout, Riago, but I seriously dispute that this has never before been seen. I swear I've seen it. (Did Dundee, like The Wild Bunch, get cut further after its initial release?) On the other hand, I thought I detected, unless my ears blinked, one inexplicable deletion. When the assembled troop rides out of Fort Benlin, the Rebs break into a full-throated "Dixie," and the Blue Bellies respond with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," but the civilians are then supposed to chime in-- as they certainly did in the shorter version -- with "My Darling Clementine," to complete the cacophony of the company. And one bit of footage that should have been cut, from both versions, is the repeated shot, the recycled shot -- at widely separated points in the film -- of the Apache chief eyeing his prey from the crest of a hill. In the second instance it's completely unnecessary: we know that the Indians who appear on the horizon are Sierra Charriba's; we don't need to see the chief himself.

An alteration, undeniably major, which seems to me not just debatable, but utterly deplorable, is the substitution of a brand-new musical score by Christopher Caliendo for the original one by Daniele Amfitheatrof. The latter may be no one's idea of one of the great Hollywood composers, but he wrote, among other worthies, the score for what I have long cited as my all-time favorite Western, From Hell to Texas -- or at any rate my favorite till it finally comes out on DVD and I see my error. Even now, without having seen it in decades, I could hum the opening melody of the wordless male chorus. No doubt the title tune of Major Dundee, sung by Mitch Miller's Sing Along Gang, with its asinine lyrics ("Fall in, behind the Major./ Fall in, and mind the Major./ Fall in, and I will wager/ That the Major brings all of us back"), now sounds quaintly dated, and it ill suits an ornery hombre of Peckinpah's reputation; and some of the neighing and braying comic effects are regrettable. But the overall score is more than competent, with a memorable march theme in supple variations; and Mitch's Gang packs it up after the opening credits, no harm done. The new score, in contrast, is indifferent doodling that never finds a focus, a pattern, a catchy phrase, a whistleable bar. It adds nothing, and for anyone who has seen the film before, it subtracts a lot. And Peckinpah, dead these twenty-plus years, can have had no say in it either way. Apparently he, whose displeasures are legion, is known to have bridled at Amfitheatrof's score, but the restorer's duty is not just to Peckinpah. It is to history. (What's to stop someone, in future, from throwing in bits of slow-motion to bring the movie more in line with Peckinpah's "vision"?) The forthcoming DVD release promises to give the viewer a choice of soundtracks, though of course not a choice of screen sizes. This was our one chance to see it again on a big screen. In the meantime, the Amfitheatrof score and the original two-hour cut, albeit in a cropped TV print, can be had at Kensington Video on VHS. Nothing is altogether ideal.

From this distance in time, after the director's numerous other battles with the brass and after the degeneration of his career into self-parody and impersonal potboilers (The Killer Elite, The Osterman Weekend), it becomes more apparent that the true subject of Major Dundee is not so much, in a line lifted from the daily-diary narration, "a command divided against itself," not even so much a nation divided, as it is a man divided, a man conflicted. The true subject, to come right out with it, is Peckinpah himself. The two principal antagonists -- Maj. Dundee (Heston at his sculptural best), the Union officer fallen out of favor with his superiors and relegated to the role of jailkeeper at a remote New Mexico outpost, and Capt. Tyreen (Harris at his Brando-est), the Confederate turncoat cashiered out of the U.S. Army and now fallen into captivity -- represent two sides of the same coin, former comrades at war with each other in more ways than one, linked by their common Southern backgrounds, by their military demotions, and by the double-E in their surnames. Dundee: the glory-seeker, the self-doubter, the guilty boozer, the headstrong hardliner who can't help but stray from the course, the damn fool. Tyreen: the self-romanticizing rebel, a sophist, a gallant, a dress-up dandy of humble origins, "a fanciful man" who, above all else, "has style."

Together they describe their creator to a T, and their wrangling dialogues can readily be heard as internal. (A complementary companion to Dundee, for its monstrous depiction of military higher-ups on the frontier, and for its romantic rivals among the lower-downs, would be the Peckinpah-scripted The Glory Guys, directed by Arnold Laven: it came out in the same year, 1965, shares some key cast members, Michael Anderson, Jr., Slim Pickens, Senta Berger, and is unjustly neglected simply because Peckinpah didn't direct it.) There is something quite prophetic in the filmmaker's self-characterization, his self-analysis, through these two grapplers. Not just prophetic, to be sure, but diaristic, a direct reflection of his daily reality on the project, roaming the wilds of Mexico on a mission of doubtful outcome, with inadequate support or approval, an uncertain reception awaiting back home. To the extent that this is prophecy, it's the self-fulfilling kind. One of the men says a mouthful when, talking as the pot to the kettle, he says to the other, "When are you going to learn you made all your own troubles?"

The best thing I saw in this year's San Diego Latino Film Festival, Machuca, gets a one-week return engagement at Hazard Center starting Friday, the July selection in the ongoing series, Cinema en Tu Idioma. This Chilean film is a world-class piece of cinema, as I can objectively testify from my recent travels through Zurich and Milan, among other places, where it either was currently playing or had just finished playing. That's one route to renewing our appreciation for this vital monthly supplement to our local film scene.

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