Friday, March 8, 2013

Major Dundee Review: A Mistreated Cavalry Film Gets Respect

Since the dawn of the film industry, there has always been strife between the camps of artists and money-holders, when getting a product to the public. The second camp always won because they have the money, and the first one mutters in angry silence.

Fortunately, thanks to the techniques of film restoration, art wins in the extended version of "Major Dundee", an once-maligned movie by its studio, critics and moviegoers in 1964. It now gets the red carpet treatment, due to its director/co-writer, Sam Peckinpah, the master of modern action cinema, for better or worse (With the exceptions of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, Kevin Smith, Zach Snyder,  Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Stephen J. Cannell, Brian Helgeland, Walter Hill and Frank Miller, I feel Sam's understudies don't have the man's sense of romantic individualism).

Near the end of the American Civil War, a vicious Apache, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his forty-seven warriors have terrorized the New Mexico territories. A faction of the 5th U.S. Cavalry is sent to stop and dispatch them, but Charriba slaughters them, sparing three young boys to be indoctrinated. "Who will you send against me now?" he spits to a dying lieutenant, strung up by his feet.

The answer: Amos Charles Dundee (the gruff, posing Charlton Heston), an Union major demoted to being a prison warden, due to his glory-hounding antics in Gettysburg (not detailed, being one of the film's flaws that'll be addressed later). He doesn't have enough enlisted soldiers to form a hunting party, but he begrudgingly employs some of his prisoners, including drunks, horse thieves and Confederate soldiers.

One of the soldiers is a former friend from West Point, the cavalier, gentlemanly Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (the late, scene-stealing Richard Harris), who questions Dundee's loyalty and pride, along the way, forcing the major to choose the true enemy: Charriba, Tyreen and his Southern born and proud boys or himself?

If the film's a failure, it's an interesting one. Heston is the cast's front runner, but Harris pulls the carpet beneath him (even sucker punches him more than once!!!), giving the film a sharp edge. Fascinating are the other actors, including Jim Hutton (the late father of Oscar-winning Timothy; "The Green Berets") as a too-strict artillery officer; Michael Anderson Jr. ("Logan's Run") as a green, wet-eared bugle boy, the film's narrator; future Oscar-winner James Coburn ("The Great Escape", "Cross of Iron") as an one-armed, half-breed Indian tracker; Senta Berger (also of "Iron") as a sweet but strong village doctor and Brock Peters ("Soylent Green" with Heston; "To Kill A Mockingbird" and the first African-American actor to work on a Peckinpah film) as the leader of free African slaves-cum-Union soldiers.

There's also Peckinpah's stock actors: Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, John David Chandler, L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong. Yeah, Coburn and Berger are part of them too, since Peckinpah directed "Iron". Plus, Berger's assistant in "Dundee" is played by Begonia Palacios, who would later be the infamous director's second wife.

And there's the film's bad stuff, including characters coming and leaving during important plot points, back story details being scant (Peckinpah co-wrote the screenplay on a tight budget and schedule with Harry Julian Fink, who later co-created "Dirty Harry" with his wife, and Oscar Saul, who wrote the screenplay of "A Streetcar Named Desire") and behind the scenes animosity, like Heston, on horseback, nearly cutting down Peckinpah with a saber, and Peckinpah himself being locked out of the editing room by film producer Jerry Bresler (the two "Gidget" sequels) and then-executives at Columbia Pictures, who wanted a "John Ford-like cavalry film". To the movie-going public, however, "Dundee" was a mess.

However, time have passed and "Dundee" receives a renovation, thanks to cooler heads at Sony Pictures (nee Columbia). Missing footage has been found and restored to the original film. A better music score by Christopher Caliendo replaces the one by Daniele Amiftheatrof (awful name) which is both annoying (an trilling electronic vibe pops up when Charriba's seen or mentioned) and inappropriate (the song "Fall In Behind The Major", a proud march, is played after the massacre's aftermath/ the film's main title sequence). With the patching, "Dundee" is a stronger film, a fun rough draft to Peckinpah's magnum opus, "The Wild Bunch", a parallel to the war on terror (Charriba's the 19th Century's Osama Bin Laden?!) and a honest character study of a man who wants honor but has too much pride, a theme echoed in the director's films and personal life. Though not as brutal as "Bunch", "Dundee" is just as intelligent and thoughtful. I just wish it didn't rated as PG-13. Sure it has scenes of subtle yet bloody violence and mild sexuality, but the film came out before the ratings code.

So, fall in behind…nah, too corny. See "Dundee" and salute.

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