Lost and Found: Peckinpah’s Major Dundee

Is there a more woeful career in modern movies than that of Sam Peckinpah, who died in 1984, two months shy of 60, having managed to direct 13 feature films, most of which reached audiences in something other than their intended form? Well, there might be, for the movie business has never been too kind to mavericks. (And certainly Peckinpah — who abused drugs, drink, actors and studio executives in roughly equal measure — was in part the architect of his own destruction.) Among his many personal disappointmentss, perhaps none held more promise than Major Dundee (1965), Peckinpah’s almost-great Civil War–era Western about a disgraced Union officer (Charlton Heston, at his most appealingly granitoid) scouring the New Mexico landscape, and eventually Mexico, for the renegade Apache who is in many ways his doppelgänger. The production was famously problematic from the start. Columbia attempted to fire Peckinpah on more than one occasion, and Heston surrendered his own salary to accommodate the film’s budgetary overruns. But it was when Peckinpah delivered his 164-minute cut of the picture to producer Jerry Bresler that things went from bad to worse. The director was barred from the editing room, while Bresler hacked nearly half an hour away from the print and then, following a bad preview screening, removed even more. The result was disavowed by Peckinpah and performed poorly, both critically and commercially, upon release, despite its mangled glories: a majestic sense of landscape that no amount of re-cutting could diminish; an unusually troubled portrait of American race relations that effectively telescoped the century between the Civil War and civil rights; and a small army of vivid Peckinpah rogues, led by a spellbinding Richard Harris as the shackled Confederate captain, Ben Tyreen — a poet-warrior grown weary of mankind’s ceaseless brutality, now awaiting his inevitable fate with tragic-romantic grace. Supervised by veteran film preservationist Grover Crisp, this restoration of Major Dundee is being promoted not as the director’s cut, but merely as an “extended version,” and that speaks to the sad fact that much of what Bresler cut from the film is forever lost. But the 12 minutes excised from the preview version have been recovered, and they go a long way toward clarifying some of the film’s murkier passages. Of chief interest is one long, dreamlike encounter between Heston and a Mexican hooker in the bowels of a Durango bar, an episode that is like asphalt poured over one of the earlier cut’s most gaping narrative potholes and, on its own terms, a scene so pregnant with boozy Peckinpah atmosphere that the aroma of tequila and cheap sex waft off the screen. It’s a moment well worth the 40-year wait. MAJOR DUNDEE | Directed by Sam Peckinpah | Story and screenplay by HARRY JULIAN FINK, with PECKINPAH and OSCAR SAUL | Produced by JERRY BRESLER | Released by Columbia Pictures | At the Nuart

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