Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant messy masterpiece Major Dundee rides onto Blu-ray once again in a deluxe two-disc Limited Edition set from Arrow Video. Starring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Senta Berger, James Coburn, and a host of familiar genre faces, this grand western “almost epic” is a sad story of what could have been. Arrow delivers an impressive release giving fans both cuts of the film packed with hours of excellent new and archival bonus features and essay materials to pick through. For the obsessive Peckinpah fan, this shouldn’t be missed. Recommended
After a botched counter-attack during the Battle of Gettysburg, Major Amos Dundee (Charlton “You damn dirty ape!” Heston) finds himself in command of a western outpost prison camp. With only a few Union guards, thin on supplies, and hundreds of Confederate POWs, his command is further tested by the Apache warrior Sierra Charriba. After Charriba’s latest raid massacred a small village and kidnapped the children, Dundee mounts a counter-attack with the help of his old friend and POW, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). Together, the long-ago friends and former comrades will lead a perilous charge into Mexico with a ragtag army of Union soldiers, Confederate POWs, and cutthroats.
Sam Peckinpah’s behavior on and off film sets is the stuff of legend. Famous for his combative nature with his cast, crew, producers, and studio bosses, Peckinpah is often propped up as a mad genius director. With films like Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and my personal favorite of his films Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - he was a visionary filmmaker that fought for his craft. Or he fought because that’s just what he did, craft be damned. Few if any Peckinpah productions ever ran smoothly and Major Dundee is an example of how his combative nature could probably do more harm than good.
There are a lot of stories out there about what went down during the production of Major Dundee. Some say Peckinpah’s behavior was to blame for the outcome, some pin it on Columbia Pictures studio bosses being too cheap, some pin it on producer Jerry Bresler. When you read through all the stories and listen to all of the interviews it’s pretty clear everyone was to blame. It’s the perfect storm of a film with an unfinished script that wasn’t ready to go in front of cameras, a combative alcoholic director, a producer better suited for beach party movies, and a studio that wanted an epic Western but didn’t want to pony up the budget. As a result, we now have a movie that is a beautifully brilliant incomplete mess.
The first half of Major Dundee is terrific material, arguably some of the best stuff Peckinpah ever shot. With the expanded material back in place, there are some excellent character scenes setting up the conflict with Dundee and Tyreen and the platoon of soldiers. We get more time with our narrator bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.) to understand his story. We get more time with James Coburn’s Sam and the two Apache scouts. We get more interplay between the Confederate POWs and the Union Soldier guards - some of whom are escaped slaves and that adds great tension. You get all of the stakes of forming a ragtag army that is about to illegally march into Mexico on an unsanctioned attack. And things start out great - but long about the time Dundee and his men liberate a small village from the French, the show quickly falls apart. And that’s the good version of the movie. The horribly truncated Theatrical Version is almost complete nonsense by comparison.
Even with its rough patchwork unfinished quality, the performances are what holds this film together. Heston and Harris are terrific leads. While Heston is often propped up as the main star, Harris holds his own often stealing the show. Senta Berger may be tossed into the pond as the bizarrely out-of-place love interest, but she makes good with the thin material she’s given. James Coburn gets ample time to shine as the one-armed scout Sam. Frequent Peckinpah collaborator Warren Oats only briefly appears here but he gets to chew one of the best scenes in the entire film. Other standouts include Brock Peters, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, and a blink and you’ll miss him drop in by Slim Pickens.
While there’s a lot to love and appreciate with Major Dundee, there’s a lot working against it. As I said, the first half of the film is terrific material; you can feel Peckinpah crafting this grand epic masterpiece. Sadly the scattershot middle and the rushed finale sideline this early material. There are stories that Peckinpah’s first edit was nearly four hours long and with some of the tangent storylines you can feel it. There’s some dispute as to whether or not that complete footage even ever existed at all, but regardless of the edit - the film always feels unfinished. It's the perfect storm of influences all pulling the film in different directions. While the Extended Version is the better version, it’s still far from the true masterpiece we should have seen on the big screen.
That said, every time I watch this beautiful mess I find myself liking it a little bit more. Maybe that comes from reading about the film and looking at documentaries about its troubled production, but I feel like there’s genuinely great stuff on display. This time around I found myself appreciating Richard Harris more than I had from prior viewings. I used to get hung up on the idea of an Irish southerner. Even with that toss-away line about his heritage, Harris just seemed like an odd fit. This go-around I found his calm and stately presence as Tyreen to be the perfect counterbalance to Heston’s gruff and edge-worn Dundee. They may have hated each other on set, but that created some great on-screen chemistry; enemies who respect each other, steel sharpening steel.
Major Dundee may not be the epic that it set out to be, but the stories and circumstances about its creation make up for any shortcomings. It’s a fascinating film to be sure. With Hollywood loving to shine its own star, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a dramatic biopic movie about the making of this film. Because it’s not the film that it should be it’s one I keep coming back to trying to understand where and how it all went so wrong but still create something that is still this fascinating to watch. If you haven’t watched Major Dundee in some time give it another run. Watching both versions relatively back to back is certainly an eye-opening experience!
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Major Dundee leads a second charge onto Blu-ray thanks to Arrow Video. Presented here as a two-disc Limited Edition set, the Theatrical and Extended versions each get their own BD-50 disc. The discs are housed in artful cardboard digipaks with a double-sided reproduction poster and a 58-page book containing essays and photos from the film. Each disc loads to an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
Unfortunately, I do not have the 2013 Twilight Time release at my disposal, I kept meaning to pick it up but it went out of print before I could snag it. The last time I watched Major Dundee was several years ago on the old 2005 DVD. The booklet and artwork state that the transfer for this Extended Version was sourced from a 4K transfer provided by Sony, so I can’t testify to the vintage of this presentation. With that, I have to say this is a damn beautiful looking film. Not perfect, but very good.
The ultra-wide Panavision 2.35:1 frame is gorgeous allowing for some truly impressive location shots. Now that Panavision format comes with some cooked-in issues - namely any time there’s a transition shot the image quality notably decreases. The Extended Version footage also still looks a grade or two rougher than accompanying finished footage - grain can be much heavier, softness can be an issue, and details a bit on the crunchy side. While imperfect it’s still a great-looking show.
Facial features, the impressive costume work, the amazing production design is all on display. Film grain is natural and organic with an only occasional thickness or “noisy” quality if there’s any kind of optical effect on screen. Colors are bold with some splendid primary saturation, those blue Union uniforms, red blood, the yellow accents to Tyreen’s uniform all pop. Flesh tones are healthy but you can still spot the occasional continuity issue depending on how much sun any particular actor got during the shoot. 4/5
According to the artwork for this set, the Theatrical Version transfer was sourced from a 2K scan that looks very similar to the Extended Version. Comparing the scenes that are relatively identical, the opening, Warren Oats’ trial, the final charge - the two versions often look identical. The only thing separating the two is the Theatrical Version appears to have a slightly noisier quality to the film grain - nothing distracting but more in line with what you’d expect from the scan differences. I also noticed a bit more speckling with the Theatrical Version - especially when Dundee is petitioning the Confederate prisoners to mount up and join his company. Overall it’s a pleasing presentation but you can tell that ever since the Extended Version was restored the Theatrical Version hasn’t received the same TLC. 3.75/5
Fans of the Extended Version get to enjoy two audio options - A DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix with the arguably superior new score by Christopher Caliendo or a DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono mix with the odd “marchy” score by Daniele Amfitheatrof. It’s not that Amfitheatrof’s music is actually “bad” it’s just not all that appropriate for the type of movie Major Dundee actually is. The Amfitheatrof score just makes the film sound like a plucky calvary adventure movie and not the brooding meditative western that it is. That said, it’s nice that Arrow included both with this version of the film making it easy for you to test those waters and see how music composition can affect mood and tone. The 5.1 mix is terrific stuff with a wide-open soundscape in keeping with the film’s expansive photography. Dialog is clear throughout. Sound effects are spacious and well organized to not sound overworked or tinkered with. Front/Center channels do most of the heavy lifting but there’s still plenty of active surround elements. The 1.0 mix is obviously a bit narrower sounding but still very effective. Even though a full surround design wasn’t available for this film’s original creation, I have to tip my hat to the 5.1 mix for how organic it sounds with the film. And again, I just like the newer score from 2005 better.
The Theatrical Version of the film comes with a solid DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track. It’s a great mix overall, but considering the care and attention given to the 5.1 mix for the Extended Version - with the vastly superior score - it’s a bit of a shame that the same couldn’t have been done for this version of the film. The original score with that title track song is just bad. Aside from that, dialog is strong and cleanly heard throughout. Sound effects are robust and active - especially during the big action sequences.
In true Arrow form, this release of Major Dundee is stacked with excellent new and archival bonus features spread between both discs. All of the Twilight Time extras have been carried over including the Nick Redman hosted audio commentary. He was always a welcome presence with any commentary track and it’s a shame we don’t get to enjoy any new ones from him. Glenn Erickson gets two commentaries, one on his own and one with fellow historian Alan K. Rode. The feature-length documentary Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey by Mike Siegel is a real highlight full of cast and crew interviews and an absolute must-see piece. You have plenty of materials to dig through once you’re done digesting both versions of the film!
Major Dundee very well could have been Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece western. It has all of the potential to be every bit as grand an epic as The Wild Bunch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. There were just too many fingers in the pie with their own egos to wax that kept this film from achieving true greatness. It now stands as an endearing curiosity with two vastly different cuts of the film. There are hints of its potential brilliance, but we’ll sadly never see what it actually could have been.
Arrow Video rides out with Major Dundee giving it a second life on Blu-ray in a beautiful Limited Edition two-disc Blu-ray set loaded with excellent new and archival bonus features and essay materials. After kicking my own ass for not snapping up the Twilight Time disc when I could have, this new set is a true gift. If you’re a fan of the film or a Peckinpah completionist, this is an essential piece for your collection. Recommended