Hollywood is full of stories of battles between the director and the producers. One of the most tragic occurred between Sam Peckinpah and the money men behind Major Dundee. It was only Peckinpah’s third outing as a director of feature films, and he was given a budget of $4.5 million to shoot the film in Mexico. The original director’s cut came in at 4 hours and 38 minutes, and several million dollars over budget. Producer Jerry Bresler promptly denied the director any decision in the post-production process.
He had the film edited down to 123 minutes, which was the version I originally saw at a downtown L.A. theater around 1970. Today, I watched a 136 minute version, which calls itself “The Extended Version,” though is still a bit rough around the edges.
It is a pity that men of no artistic ability like Bresler have such an ability to mar a major work of art. Even with all its jagged edges, Major Dundee is a captivating film. Set in the final years of the Civil War, it tells of a Union officer (Charlton Heston) stationed to New Mexico Territory putting together a unit to revenge a massacre of men, women, and children by Apaches led by one Sierra Chariba. With few regulars on hand at Fort Benlin, he recruits a squad of black Buffalo Soldiers, a few cowboys and outlaws and the usual reprobates, and a group of Confederate prisoners led by Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). When the Apaches cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, Dundee and his men follow them and come into conflict with French troops which then controlled Mexico under the Emperor Maximilian.
Peckinpah always had a special feeling for Mexico. During the shooting of Major Dundee, he fell in love with one of his actresses, Begoña Palacios, and married her. Shown below is a Mexican fan magazine of the period with her picture on the cover.
I will never forget when I saw the rough cut of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) at Warner Brothers Studios. There was a scene of Bill Holden and his men leaving a Mexican village that seemed to go forever. There is a similar scene in Major Dundee, where Charlton Heston captures a small French garrison and finds that the villages does not have enough food to survive. He immediately orders that two of his mules be butchered. There is a long fiesta scene. When Heston and his men leave, the whole village comes out to see him off.
I rather like the special feeling that the director had for Mexico. It gives his films set there a certain glow. It is a pity that Peckinpah died at the age of 59 in 1984. He had indulged in booze and drugs, and they greatly weakened him at a time when he still had a lot to give as one of the greatest artists in the genre of the American Western.