THE SCREEN STRETCHES TO NEW HORIZONS TO TELL THE EPIC STORY OF THE SOUTHWEST!
After making his first bonafide classic in Ride the High Country, director Sam Peckinpah took a step towards the epic with Major Dundee. The film would, in many ways, define the rest of his career both on screen and off, as the drama behind the camera matched the action in front of it.
Charlton Heston stars as Major Amos Dundee, a vainglorious Union Cavalry officer, who mounts an expedition to hunt down Apache war chief Sierra Charriba. Building his own army of criminals, ex-slaves and Confederate POWs - among them one Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris), whose intense former friendship with Dundee is tainted with a sense of betrayal on both sides - Dundee heads into Mexico, his eye fixed firmly on a last shot at greatness.
Legendarily acerbic, Major Dundee would be the first time that Peckinpah had a movie taken away from him. While a director’s cut may be lost to us, this Limited Edition shows us the thrilling, morally complex epic that Peckinpah was aiming for. Beautifully shot and with a stellar supporting cast including James Coburn, Warren Oates, and L.Q. Jones, it remains a stunning achievement and an essential experience for anyone interested in the life and cinema of “Bloody Sam.”
Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee receives an all-new 2-disc limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow Video, presenting the film in two different versions: the original 122-minute theatrical cut and the 136-minute extended producer’s cut, the former sourced from a 2K restoration and the latter from a 4K one. Sony has supplied Arrow with the masters for their edition. Each version of the film has been placed on its own dual-layer disc and are both presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes. The theatrical version is exclusive to this limited edition.
As most may know, Major Dundee was Peckinpah’s first go at an “epic” Hollywood film, the filmmaker brought on to direct by producer Jerry Bressler and super star Charlton Heston based on his previous film, Ride the High Country, Heston liking the idea of making a more realistic looking western. Due to conflicts with Bressler and Columbia that almost led to the director being fired, along with Peckinpah just being Peckinpah—heavy drinking, long nights at brothels, raging on crew, etcetera—the film was taken away from him before he even finished filming everything he needed, and whatever edit he had managed to put together was severely cut down to 136-minutes by Bressler. The film was then trimmed further and released as the 122-minute version.
40 years later, in 2005, Columbia found the 136-minute edit (or pieces of it at least) and put the longer Bressler-edit back together for a new restoration (performed in 4K), which I believe did get a small theatrical release and then a new DVD edition. Though still not Peckinpah’s edit (which may have been, at the very least, over 150-minutes) it’s about as close to it as we’ll probably ever get.
The 4K master that came from that restoration has been the basis for every DVD and Blu-ray release since, which includes Twilight Time’s previous Blu-ray edition and Arrow’s here. The idea of using a master now around 16-years of age may make some grimace a bit, yet Sony’s restorations have held up remarkably well through the years (Dr. Strangelove being another example) and, even if it’s still far from perfect, the same holds true for Major Dundee.
On the whole Arrow’s presentation for both versions is good, limitations coming down primarily to materials. A majority of the film—in either version—is clean, damage of any sort rarely being an issue. At times you can make out some minor wear and/or fading on the edges of the screen, primarily within the extended version, but that is probably the worst of it. Some sequences have a dupier look than others (grain getting a bit heavier, blacks a little thicker, contrast a little off), and transitions also show the same effect, but the elements overall have a clean, fresh look. This can also be applied to the theatrical version, though it cuts some material down to montages that also look a bit dupey in comparison to the rest of the film.
The film, which had a limited colour palette to begin with thanks to the desert setting, was shot on Eastman Color stock, that Eastman look carried over here, and colours rarely leap out; blues and reds still have their moments, though. Black levels can be fine during brighter sequences, but they’re quite the mess during the darker ones, and there are a variety of factors that play into this. Some of it could come down to issues with gamma within the original master, or it could also come down to something related to the original elements and/or the original lighting during filming. Still, even if those things play into it, I'd still say a lot of it really comes down to the nighttime sequences that were filmed day-for-night, a technique where scenes were shot during the day with a filter, or some post-production process, applied to darken the image. The day-for-night in this film is not particularly good, awful even. The sequences are flat, black levels are crushed out with no grading or range, and the scenes are near-impossible to see because of it. Some other sequences shot on set look a bit better, but those blacks can still crush things out. This also holds true for the theatrical version.
Though the elements can limit things a bit, they’re still in strong shape, despite the film’s history, and the good qualities far outweigh the weak ones, aided by a strong digital master from Sony and an excellent encode on Arrow’s part. Grain is rendered decently in both versions (it's occasionally noisy), whether fine or heavy, depending on the materials, and the image is a sharp and clean as can be, again depending on the elements. Landscape shots manage to deliver impressive details in the distance, as do the battered, weary, and sweaty faces of our hapless unit, who only seem to age more as the film progresses. At times there can be what looks like ringing around some objects, though I suspect this has more to do with the original photography and the lighting.
Yeah, maybe a new scan (if that was possible) and another run-through would clear up some other things, but all current issues aside both versions come with sharp and clean presentations.
(All screen captures come from the Extended Version.)
Arrow includes two audio tracks for the extended version: a 5.1 surround track in DTS-HD MA, featuring the 2005 score for the film composed by Christopher Caliendo, and a single-channel monaural soundtrack featuring the original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, delivered in lossless PCM. The theatrical version only offers one soundtrack, a DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono soundtrack with the original Amfitheatrof score.
The 5.1 soundtrack is nicely done, keeping effects and dialogue focused to the fronts. Range and depth is excellent, dialogue sounding sharp and clear. Caliendo’s score ends up branching out more to fill the environment. It’s nicely mixed with great highs and lows. The mix also isn’t overly aggressive, never drowning anything important out. If you’re not thinking about it, you might actually forget you’re listening to a surround track.
The mono presentation for both versions is, of course, limited. Range and fidelity aren’t as good, and the music is certainly flatter. But the tracks are clean, dialogue is sharp, and there is no severe damage.
As to which to listen to on the Extended Version, that will ultimately come down to preference since one will have to factor whether they want a sound field closer to the theatrical experience, or whether they prefer one score over the other. Amfitheatrof’s score is completely wrong for the film, too upbeat with lyrics that come off tone deaf and seem to suggest Dundee is a hero. There is also some really weird electronic twang that keeps popping up that is almost comical (it’s referred to as a “sting” in one of the commentary tracks). But then Caliendo’s, while more appropriate, sounds more like a score trying to sound like a score from the time, which can take one out at times.
Quality-wise, they’re all fine.
Arrow’s 2-disc limited edition packs on quite a bit for special features, the material taken from previous editions released around the world with a couple of new additions from Arrow.
In a rather extreme step Arrow includes three optional audio commentaries for the Extended Version, all academic in nature. I deathly feared I’d be getting what would amount to the same commentary three times, but thankfully each one, despite sharing some similarities, does have its own focus.
The first, featuring film scholars and writers Nick Redman, Davide Weddle, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor, was recorded for the 2005 DVD edition and ends up being the more general, academic track of the three. The four participants give some backstory to the production, address the issues and conflicts that came up during the shoot, the film’s script problems, Peckinpah’s personal problems and share how all of this impacted the film. The four never tear down the film though they also don’t defend it much. They point out its faults, which includes how it brings up plot points or themes to then never address them, the choppiness of the story, the lousy coverage of some of the action scenes, and its poor technical aspects, which range from some questionable editing and shots (which may have come from Peckinpah not being able to shoot everything he needed) to the awful day-for-night material. They also discuss how this version compares to the original theatrical version, with differing opinions, Weddle (I think) saying he feels the film was ultimately beyond saving and the extended sequences do nothing for the film. At the very least, there seems to be an agreement the film was beneficial in that Peckinpah more than likely used the film as a learning experience, and the four point out those Peckinpah elements that show up here and in his later work.
On its own that track is fine, but I found myself more engaged with the two other tracks, both of which feature critic Glenn Erickson. For the second track Erickson is accompanied by critic Alan K. Rode, and for this one (recorded in 2020) the two look at the film more from the perspective of what it could have been. Both seem to have some sort of admiration for the film, but neither fully defend it outside of just being an interesting case study, even saying it’s clear the film “went off the rails” and don’t hold back every time something frustrates them, like how the film has all of these great actors yet all they do is “just stand around.” Erickson’s been fascinated by the film since managing to see it in school, and ever since he’s researched its history and tried to piece together what Peckinpah’s original cut would have been, Erickson claiming to have even made his own edits (according to him anyways). While the two will share production details, managing to not repeat a lot from the previous track impressively enough, Erickson will also reference the original script or his research to explain how a scene was originally intended to play out, what was missing in between scenes, what changed, and even point out the time in some instances: when we reach the 20-minute mark he points out Peckinpah’s original version would have actually been 40-minutes in.
It's a fascinating study of the film, as well as a decent defense on why it’s still a notable effort, despite its failures. The track also manages to be an awesome look at what caused the film to “go off the rails”, the two covering the topics in-depth while playing off of each other to keep the energy going. That energy might make it the one most prefer of the two Erickson tracks, as Erickson’s solo track (the third track on the release) goes a more technical route in explaining the original concept of the film, and it’s admittedly the driest track here. Erickson, clearly reading from a script of sorts, talks over each sequence in the film, explaining what was on page and comparing that to what ended up on screen, covering scenes that were either cut or never shot, even pointing out details existing in frame that hint at elements that were eventually left out. He also talks a bit more about a Roadshow version (mentioned in other features) and gets more into the various cuts of the film and the 2005 restoration (and new score). He also plays back a 2005 recording of an interview with Michael Anderson, Jr., who shares a couple of stories around the production, like when Richard Harris first arrived.
Again, compared to the previous track it is a bit staler and far more technical, but it may be my favourite track on here. Erickson has done an outstanding job in gathering all of his research through the years into one place, offering, as best he can through audio, an alternate version of the film that best represents what Peckinpah had intended.
(One interesting thing Erickson brings up in this track is that he is positive his LaserDisc edition showed a truck visible in the background during one scene between Dundee and Teresa. He feels it may have been digitally edited out for the 2005 restoration, though hasn’t been able to confirm since he can no longer playback the LaserDisc.)
Moving on through the remaining features on the first disc, Arrow has commissioned a new video essay from David Cairns called Moby Dick on Horseback, which is apparently related to how actor R.G. Armstrong described the film. Cairns’ 29-minute feature acts as a more straightforward account of the production, which we really only get scattered around throughout the commentaries. He first covers producer Jerry Bressler’s previous films and how that led to working with Heston and getting him onto what would become Major Dundee before making his way through the production to Peckinpah fighting to get his final cut. Cairns even quotes a letter Peckinpah had written to Bressler, where he unloads onto the producer over the material he cut out. The essay also looks at how touches that would become Peckinpah staples, like slow-motion, were probably removed, pointing out evidence that suggests these things were intended at one point.
It's a great little addition that builds off of the commentaries while offering a more streamlined look at the production. Arrow’s edition further covers the film’s production through one of director Mike Siegel’s films from his Passion & Poetry project—which initially brought us the 2005 documentary Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah—entitled The Dundee Odyssey. Making use of the interview footage he filmed that focuses on Major Dundee, Siegel’s film provides a firsthand account of the production and all of its problems from the likes of actors Mario Adorf, R.G. Armstrong, Senta Berger, James Coburn, Gordon Dawson, and L.Q. Jones, along with daughter Lupita Peckinpah and others. It is, in the end, a fairly run-of-the-mill talking-heads making-of, but the stories around tensions on set, Peckinpah’s drinking, his quick marriage to daughter Lupita’s mother, and the film’s frantic post-production keeps all 75-minutes of the documentary fascinating.
To accompany this is another short from the project, Sam Peckinpah Anecdotes, featuring 26-minutes’ worth of stories and thoughts around Peckinpah from Armstrong, Ernest Borgnine, Coburn, Bo Hopkins, Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, Isela Vega, and David Warner (Coburn’s story about how Bob Dylan reacted to Peckinpah’s “ways” on the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is pretty great). There is also a 44-minute interview with filmmaker Mike Siegel about the project, him recounting the lengthy process behind getting all of the interviews he did, L.Q. Jones apparently being the most difficult. He also uses the time to bring up his film that was influenced—more or less—by Robert Rodriguez, Pendechos!
The disc then closes with the trailer for the 2005 re-release and then a collection of animated galleries featuring production stills, glamour/portrait photos, colour stills, and a large gallery of poster art.
The second dual-layer disc (exclusive to this limited edition) also features a handful of extras. There is a 7-minute archival featurette called Riding for a Fall, which focuses on the stunt work involving horses and how to properly fall without hurting the horse or the rider.
The disc also provides additional deleted material from the film, including an extended version of the “swimming scene” that’s a little more revealing (it’s assumed the footage was placed in a promotional reel to entice theater owners to show the film) along with a “knife fight” scene involving Coburn and a peasant. The disc also holds some extended silent footage that looks to come from three master shots.
To accompany all of this Arrow also provides the footage edited together with a commentary by Glenn Erickson, who explains where all of this footage would have been within the film, and guesses at why it still exists. He also interestingly examines the editing of the knife fight scene, which he finds incredibly sloppy and is pretty sure it was only put together for promotional purposes.
Arrow’s limited edition also features a double-sided fold-out poster, along with a lovely looking 58-page booklet, featuring essays by Jeremy Carr (on the troubled production and end results), Farran Smith Nehme (taking the opposite route of Erickson’s and looking at the film as it is but pointing out its unique elements), Roderick Heath (examining the film as a maudit, a “fancy French phase meaning cursed film”), and then Neal Snowden (on Sam Peckinpah), all of them offering a wide range of insights into the director and film.
The big addition found in this set and available on the second disc is the original theatrical cut (though it was available on the Twilight Time edition as well). Having seen the theatrical cut after the extended I was able to question some of the changes right off of the bat, like how an early opening scene better introducing Harris’ character is missing, throwing him right in there and already dooming him without context. Certain character motivations are also trimmed, one sequence is cut down to montage, and some characters suddenly disappear.
Though the extended version does clarify some things, particularly the relationship between Heston’s and Harris’ respective characters, what got me is that the missing material doesn’t change the film all that much, other than filling in some gaps. The extended version starts off stronger thanks to the added material, and the film’s potential is there for the first hour or so, but then once we reach the mid-point the Extended Version, like the theatrical version, suddenly meanders about, introduces a pointless love interest, drops character arcs and development, and sends the plot off into another direction that fails to resolve much of anything. And though we get a couple of final action sequences (including one around the driving force that started the film off), there doesn’t feel to be much resolved and the film suddenly ends. There’s only what can be best described as a serious WTF around the last half of the film, and it’s clear, even without knowing the goings-ons behind-the-scenes, that there were serious production problems that go right back to the script.
But having this here to compare—along with all of Erickson’s material, the other features around the production, and some of the countering insights found in the group commentary and booklet—the set manages to pull off one of the more satisfying analysis’ of a film I’ve come across in a long while, covering it from a number of perspectives: as a learning opportunity for its now famous filmmaker, as a colossal misfire, as a minor masterpiece, as an example of Hollywood interference, all based on what the film actually is and—as Erickson says frequently—what it could have been. It’s about as satisfying a collection of supplements as one could ask for the film and Arrow has done a wonderful job putting it all together.
The older restoration and digital presentation still holds up remarkably well 16-years later, but it’s the supplements that end up being the real selling point for this release. The limited edition set works as a wonderful examination of a film that did go “off the rails” and guesses what the film could have been. It’s a release that ends up being far more satisfying than the film itself.