Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Major Dundee

"Major Dundee" (Sam Peckinpah, 1965) Semi-restored version of "Major Dundee" that's a bit closer to the idea Sam Peckinpah had in mind when producer Jerry Bresler took the film over, edited it with a meat cleaver and threw on a wildly inappropriate score (a ranch massacre with bodies littering the desert and the main house on fire until it collapses is set to a bouncy Mitch Miller tune?* Say, what? Peckinpah has been accused of bad taste in his movies, but he'd never have pulled something as agregious as that!).

Peckinpah's first big-budget movie has a great story. A hard-nosed Union Major, Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston)** side-tracks a bit from the Civil War to capture or kill the marauding Apache chief who torched that outpost. To do so, he must cross the border to Mexico in a mission that doesn't officially exist. His requisitioned army of nobodies employs cut-throats and horse-thiefs, Confederate Rebels and Buffalo Soldiers. No one asks: Can't we all get along? It's just assumed that they can't, but a sense of order and hierarchy is maintained within the groups, while the groups test and prod each other en route.

The cast includes Richard Harris as leader of the Confederates (who has a past with Dundee), a small band made up of Peckinpah irreg'lars Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Davis Chandler. Brock Peters is in charge of the Buffalo Soldiers. Slim Pickens and Dub Taylor are two of the criminals, R.G. Armstrong as a vengeful preacher and in Dundee's command are Michael Anderson Jr. (who narrates), Mario Adorf, Jim Hutton (whose character arc is almost as interesting as Harris' character's) and crusty scout James Coburn.

That's a great cast. And the film is full of detail (you want to see it on a big screen). There are some extraordinary screen-caps from the film below that show Peckinpah's innate ability to fuse landscape and character, not unlike John Ford, whom Peckinpah seems to emulate while presenting either a celebrational rabble or a ceremonial piety but infused with a more cynical rough-hewn presentation. I don't think John Ford would have had a soldier swatting flies away from a war wound, but I could be wrong.

Heston is a bit of an odd man out in the film, his acting rhythms are slower than Peckinpah is able to deal with in his cutting style (in fact, there's a couple places where Peckinpah cuts in the middle of Heston's reaction shots just to speed the man up a bit) and the clashes show. In an interview, R.G. Armstrong calls Heston "a poser," (which is certainly true, but also calls him "the nicest guy in Hollywood"—Heston gave up his salary to keep an embattled Peckinpah as director***), but Heston loosens up quite a bit in this film than he had in any previous one, setting a tone for his subsequent work as less heroic, more recognizably human presences.

But the movie falls apart somewhat, when the troop liberates a starving town from the French; everyone looks impoverished (even the dogs outside town are skin and bones), the exception being the widow Santiago (Senta Berger)**** whose nursing duties among the starving citizens hasn't reduced the glow in her cheeks or made her any less voluptuous. Her presence and the subsequent romance with Dundee just doesn't sit well with the grit of the rest of the movie, and so Peckinpah wounds Dundee and sets him on a rehabilitating toot that manages to negate a lot of the nobleness of the character, and undermines a couple other parts as well.

Production began before a suitable third act was constructed, and Peckinpah was convinced that once filming had begun, the script would be hammered out. But production delays and disputes between the director, the studio and the producer ate up a lot of that valuable work-time. And Peckinpah began to drink, most days towards the end, showing up drunk on the set.

up until the romance, it's a gritty, atypical Western story with integrity and a nice mature brusque edge to it. Studio interference would hamper this film and dog Peckinpah for the rest of his career.

Figures in a landscape:A broken arch does not connect (and thus dooms any romance)
between Major Dundee and Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger)

Peckinpah gives shape to Richard Harris' Captain Tyreen caught between
his sense of honor and loyalty to the Confederacy.

The remains of Dundee's command escape the French across the Rio Grande.
A shot with such depth it approaches 3-D.

* The opening credits run over the shot of the house burning, and the structure collapses when the director's credit comes up. Peckinpah liked to do things like that.

** To give you a flavor of the writing by Peckinpah and Harry Julian Fink (Dirty Harry), Dundee is characterized as a "$70 red-wool, pure-quill military genius or the biggest damn fool in Northern Mexico."

*** When asked by a reporter if that would set a precedent among Hollywood actors, Heston said, "It's not even going to set a precedent with ME!" A great line.

**** Peckinpah was dissatisfied with the romance storyline imposed on the script but not the actress: Senta Berger would work with Peckinpah again (and James Coburn) in the director's fine Nazi war film "Cross of Iron."


Walaka said...

Isn't there an iconic shot from this film of Heston (?) clutching a bloody sword and a tattered American flag in the same hand? I seem to recall it being the cover of at least one film textbook.

A favorite remembered exchange - Heston's character berates Hutton's for (I think) rescuing him after being to told to take charge of the company and leave:

"Captain, I gave you an order!"

"No, sir, you gave me a command."

I love good writing.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Type in "Major Dundee" in "Google Images" and the very first image you get is probably the one you speak of: http://www.seraphicpress.com/images/major-dundee.jpg
He is handed the American flag by Tyreen—Harris' Confederate soldier—who has himself saved it from the failing grasp of Brock Peters' Buffalo Soldier. That would be a major moment of sentimental symbolism to see Tyreen and Dundee joining hands on the Union flag-staff...but Peckinpah doesn't show it—the act itself speaks volumes, but it's good enough for Peckinpah to show the two men in the same frame without them connected by the flag-transfer.

It's been a while since I wrote this, but you can also tell by that picture that Peckinpah took care to make sure that Dundee's troop looked like they'd been through a long mission with the particular soiling of clothes, an extension of John Ford's insistence that troops got dusty and dirty out there on the prairie--Sergio Leone even makes a joke out of it in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly"--but Peckinpah's troops are sweat-stained, grimey, unkempt and rag-tag, far removed from the Hollywood gloss, something Heston took a lot of pride in, too.

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mondrega said...

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GoryJory's (';') Scriptorium said...

Harry Fink's script was outright rejected, and Sam called in my cousin, veteran Hollywood screenwriter, Oscar Saul (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE) to help him work on the screenplay.

He was in Peckinpah's 'Circle of Trust.'