A Remounted 'Major Dundee' Rides Out of Film History

Charlton Heston and Senta Berger in the 1965 western that was director Sam Peckinpah's first big-studio film.
Charlton Heston and Senta Berger in the 1965 western that was director Sam Peckinpah's first big-studio film. (Columbia Pictures/sony Pictures Repertory)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

Sam, they're playing it again.

And this time, they're playing all of it. Well, most of it.

This means, Sam Peckinpah, that your second 15 minutes are here. That in itself is remarkable, because you're an angry, racist, misogynist bully who liked guns and the men who used them, and thought a woman deserved a good slap in the face now and then. You abused drugs, actors and studio executives with equal abandon. You never met anybody you didn't want to fight. You're a monument to pre-Prozac male ugliness, you and your peers Hemingway, John Wayne, John Ford and all the other bad-boy tyrants who happened to be great artists. Lots of people these days like to pretend that your sort of boy doesn't exist.

But, damn your incorrigible soul, you did. You insisted on making what many consider the greatest American film, "The Wild Bunch" in 1969; you made a number of near-great ones, too, like "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and "The Getaway" and "Straw Dogs."

But before any of that, way back in 1965, you made your "ruined masterpiece" "Major Dundee" with big star Chuck Heston in the tough-as-steel-shoes title role, busty German babe Senta Berger as absolutely the kind of doctor you'd find in a rural Mexican village in 1864 and Richard Harris, in Cher's eye makeup with Ann-Margret's sex-kitteny ways as Heston's ex-best friend, a man scorned and full of hell's fury. These three, plus an army, pursue, then flee, then pursue again an Apache raider in Mexico.

When you turned the film in after a fraught, fractious shoot -- you were at the time just a TV director with two indie films to your credit, on your first big studio film -- an ungrateful front office trimmed it clumsily, turning you ever bitter, though you were probably a guy who wanted to be, even needed to be, bitter. Thus the movie, which failed anyway, entered lore as a castrated epic, ruined by callow commercial idiots. (It helped the story that the producer's experience consisted entirely of two "Gidget" films!)

This new version restores 12 minutes found in a London warehouse; it's called the "extended" version, as opposed to a director's cut, since a bit is still missing and since you've been dead for 21 years and nobody knows how close to your dream this one gets. As important, it has a new musical score written by Christopher Caliendo, replacing a treacly soundtrack by studio hack Daniele Amfitheatrof (with a tune sung by "Mitch Miller's Sing Along Gang"!) which reportedly drove you nuts.

There are two ways to look at this film today. The first, and probably least productive, is to see it as a trial run for your inestimably greater "Wild Bunch" and pick out the many "Bunch" precursors. It's got dozens: the core cast of such Southern scalawags as L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson; the love of landscape and the eerie ability to play groups of men off each other as if on a Stratego board; the sense (racist but vivid) of Mexico as the United States' whorehouse and bean ranch; the overweening, preening ego of alpha males, particularly ex-partners who now feel a powerful love-hate passion; the nihilistic appeal of mega-violence as a final, almost orgasmic letting-go.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Far more rewarding, though, is to see it as it was conceived: a star-driven big-budget studio western in a year that marked the apogee of the studio western, as the Italian geniuses (like Sergio Leone) were coming in to undercut the traditions with yet more vivid, more mannered, more twisted Marxist readings (to which, in some form, "The Wild Bunch" was responding five years later).

Among "Major Dundee's" competition that year were "Shenandoah," "Cat Ballou," "The Sons of Katie Elder," "For a Few Dollars More," "The Rounders" and even "The Outlaws Is Coming," starring the Three Stooges. It's interesting to see it trying to find a niche: It's not comic like "Cat" and "Rounders," nor cheap and perfunctory like the Duke's less-than-brilliant "Sons." It's not Italian revisionism like "Dollars," it's not especially banal and pandering like "Shenandoah," and it's not a goof like the Stooges' thing.

It's the year's high-end adult western, selling a better grade of savagery, a broader scope, and some actual ideas. It bravely touches on something none of the others did, namely issues. It looks at American involvement in foreign wars, racism (black soldiers, led by Brock Peters, have to deal with Confederate racism) and it has a surprising psychosexual undercurrent in the twisted relationship between Heston's Amos Dundee and his second in command, fellow West Point grad, ex-friend and competitor, the Confederate Capt. Ben Tyreen (that's Harris in a performance that for sheer weirdness rivals Brando's sashaying turn in drag in "The Missouri Breaks").

Still, it's no surprise to see the film playing by industry rules in so many ways: Berger's lush Eurobosom, no matter how ludicrous, is one such example. Then there's a number of conventional comic characters to leaven the macho intensity, most notably Jim Hutton in a comic arc as a prig-twerp cavalry officer who hates horses, wants to be an artillery officer, and is loosened up by the ordeal. Michael Anderson has an achingly familiar spin as a sentimentalized kid trooper who narrates the adventure, and grows to be a man (with the help of a Mexican señorita) on the chase.

The plot is raw quest. Heston plays a disgraced but ambitious Union major exiled from the eastern campaigns (he led a disastrous if vague foray at Gettysburg) to garrison duty in the southwest. He decides -- possibly unwisely -- to cross the border into French-occupied Mexico in pursuit of the evil Sierra Charriba (played by longtime Indian imitator Michael Pate, another achingly conventional studio touch), who has ambushed and massacred a unit and kidnapped three white children. Shorthanded, the major takes lots of volunteers, including the aforementioned southern scalawags, some Confederate capturees, the blacks and assorted riffraff and jailbait; he wants to rescue the kids but he wants to rescue his career even more, and even when he recovers the kids, he doesn't turn back.

A word about Heston: His reputation has declined as his politics have skewed rightward, and heading up the National Rifle Association probably wasn't a move that helped much. But he was every inch a '50s and '60s movie star, a figure of compelling authority who had the strength to sustain a film. In "Major Dundee," everything happens around him, or off of him. Without him in the center, carrying the heavy thing on his broad, noble back, there's nothing there for Harris's ravings to play against, for Hutton's mild comic skill to contrast to, for Berger's heaving bosom to cradle into, for all the cracker-boys to do their egg-sucking scum stylings beneath, for Anderson's manhood quest to achieve validation because of.

Ironically, what the producer cut, and what this extended version largely restores, is almost all Heston. It's an extended sequence in which, wounded, he leaves his men (presumably to forage in the bush; the details are a little hazy) and goes off to recuperate in Durango for what appears to be about six months. Heston, never the most internalized of actors, gets to do the dark-night-of-the-soul routine for the first and only time in his career: In mufti, he gives up on his discipline and professionalism, becomes a drunk, lives with a whore (as bosomy as the bodacious Berger), hates himself, loses confidence and hope. He's like van Gogh on an absinthe bender, not the Michelangelo he played in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" that same year. Ultimately, his nominal enemy Harris saves him, though, as in all of Peckinpah, the motives for the heroism are ambiguous. He may save him because he loves him, he may save him because he wants to kill him himself or because he wants to watch him fail. That complexity between them -- the subject of much of Peckinpah's great work, which also runs though "The Wild Bunch" in the William Holden-Robert Ryan relationship -- is what makes the movie nearly great.

Plus, it gives us a chance to do a little psychobabbling of our own. This sequence was incredibly important to Peckinpah and its absence traumatized him for years. Is it going too far to suggest that it is possibly the most autobiographical aspect of the film, which already has autobiographical elements, being about a visionary fellow who leads a large complex operation south of the border, in defiance of his masters and in defiance of his supposed allies and assistants, driven by his own fury and megalomania and artistic belief in the size of his talent and the importance of his mission? Hmm, is this a movie about a rogue cavalry officer or a rogue director with self-hatred issues?

Who knows? What's important is that "Major Dundee," not a great movie but a great star-driven, big budget 1965 studio western, is back in all its fractured glory and confidence. Like many causes, the lost ones are the most interesting.

Major Dundee: The Extended Version (150 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is rated PG-13 for extreme violence by 1965 standards and dangerous cleavage.

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