Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor, Michael Pate, Karl Swenson, Begonia Palacios, Aurora Clavell
Written by: Oscar Saul, Harry Julian Fink, Sam Peckinpah
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Running Time: 136
Date: 03/15/1965

Major Dundee (1965)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Major' Restoration

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the unheralded cinematic events of 2005, Sam Peckinpah'spartially restored Major Dundee (1965) reestablishes that film as amasterwork to rank alongside Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch.

After the success of his low-budget 1962 film Ride the High Country, Peckinpah was entrusted with this epic. But like many maverick filmmakers, he ran into troubles with Columbia Pictures when he tried to defend his vision. Despite help from Heston, the studio chopped away his footage (somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes) and finished it off with a musical score that Peckinpah hated.

Now for the film's 40th anniversary, the same studio has restored whatever footage could be salvaged (12 minutes) and recorded an entirely new score, more along the lines of what Peckinpah wanted.

Charlton Heston stars in the title role, a disgraced Union officer during the Civil War. Assigned to track down a murderous, renegade Apache, he is forced to build his unit from among freed slaves, deserters and prisoners. The supporting cast includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and L. Q. Jones.

Peckinpah brilliantly plays with the grandiose size and pageantry of the war with his drunken, dishonest, cowardly soldiers. They actually feel ragged, with their mismatched uniforms, beards and other accoutrements. Dundee is a military disgrace, and in one sequence, he disappears into a drunken stupor, taking up with a small town hooker, after being wounded in the leg. Yet the film somehow manages to be an exciting, beautifully filmed action Western with a bold conclusion.

Major Dundee has "outsider art" written all over it. It's an ode to the unstable, explosive force that was Sam Peckinpah, as well as to the powerful studio system that crushed him and kept him down.

DVD Details: Sony has released the ultimate Major Dundee DVD, including both the original score and the new one, as well as a commentary track by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman. Other extras include vintage featurettes, extra footage and outtakes, stills and trailers.

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