50 Years Ago This Week – Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee

Major Dundee, Sam Peckinpah’s ill-fated Western starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris, opened in New York City on April 7, 1965—or at least some version of it did.  Taken out of the director’s hands and cut by almost a third (an “extended version” DVD release restores some of the lost material), the movie was a textbook example of the “troubled production.”  Unsupported by an ambivalent studio that got cold feet just before production, Peckinpah—as he would do repeatedly in the future—led his large cast and crew deep into Mexico on the wings of an unfinished script and with more of a notion than a plan.  Shadowed in the heat by second-guessing studio suits, the difficult, combative Peckinpah also had an uneasy relationship with his discontented cast. (Heston probably wouldn’t have run Peckinpah through with his saber had the director’s crane not lifted him out of the reach in the nick of time, but when the actor-on-horseback first turned and charged in a fit of rage, it very much looked like his intention.)  Yet it was the steadfast loyalty of those players—including especially Heston, who offered back his salary (Columbia snapped it up)—that prevented Peckinpah from being fired in mid-production.    

Peckinpah successfully delivered the soon-to-be-mutilated picture but emerged a marked man, and was fired from his next production (The Cincinnati Kid) after four days of shooting—cut loose, and for several years, essentially persona-non-grata.  But Peckinpah would re-emerge triumphantly with The Wild Bunch in 1969, the first of a remarkable run of eight notable films that he would direct over the following six years in the more permissive environment of the New Hollywood, before drink and hard living cut short his career (and eventually his life).  These included the enormously controversial and morally suspect Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a masterpiece with a production history as troubled as Dundee.

Dundee is no masterpiece, but it remains more than a curiosity, and in retrospect can be seen as a stepping-stone on the road to the seventies film.  The movie’s flaws are self-evident: structurally haphazard, it also includes some of the embarrassing cowboys-and-Indians tropes of the times and showcases the director’s reductionist and unimaginative sensibilities about women.  Nevertheless, it is attractively shot, takes on big questions for which it does not stoop to provide easy answers, and the leads are very well played.  The 1965 film, although still subject to the prohibitions of the production code, also anticipates Peckinpah’s signature desire to confront the audience with on-screen violence (even though by his reckoning the studio “cut 80 percent of the violence . . . the really bloody, awful things that happen to men in war were cut out of the picture.”)  Finally and most notably, Dundee also thoughtfully engages the themes that Peckinpah would explore throughout his career—starting quite explicitly with the Wild Bunch, which picks up many of the markers set down here—questions of honor, loyalty, and the obligations of men amongst men.