Post-Production Blues: Major Dundee

Scene from Major Dundee (1965)

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.

Director Sam Peckinpah

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.

Begoña Palacios

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.

 

Favorite Films: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and James Coburn as Pat Garrett

Film is an art form that involves the work of teams of people: producers, directors, writers, crew, and actors. As a result, virtually no film is perfect. That is particularly the case when directors like Sam Peckinpah are at odds with studio heads like MGM’s James Aubrey. Aubrey didn’t give Peckinpah anywhere near the resources he requested, partly because his attention was turned to completing the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

And yet Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (PG&BK) is a wonderful film. It is certainly a violent one: Martine left the theater at the Autry Center about a half hour into the film. There is a lot of swearing, a number of characters die bloody deaths; and yet … there are scenes of such beauty that one rarely encounters. I am thinking particularly when Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker is gut-shot, and his wife, played by the splendid Katy Jurado, throws away her rifle and follows him to the side of a pond where he has gone to die. In the background, the lovely song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is playing.

The sound track is by none other than Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed all the music—and who also had a minor part in the cast, playing the part of Alias. (It is quite evident that Dylan never acted before, but the film is great enough to encompass a host of minor flaws.)

PG&BK plays with the whole Billy the Kid legend. James Coburn as Pat Garrett is the unwitting tool of the Santa Fe politicians, led by General Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben Hur. In the past, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) had been a lawman, and Pat Garrett the outlaw. Now the roles have been reversed.

Martine Going Down the Stairs at the Lincoln County, NM Courthouse Which Billy the Kid Used to Escape

In June, Martine and I visited the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Pat Garrett was the sheriff of Lincoln County. Peckinpah did a wonderful job of recreating the courthouse room where Billy was held prisoner and guarded by deputies J. W. Bell and Bob Olinger, both of whom were shot during his escape. In the photo above, Martine is obscuring with her left shoulder a bullet hole which Billy may have created when he shot his way out of captivity.

There is a strange quality to PG&BK. It seems as if Billy and Pat spend most of the film avoiding each other. Only at the end does Pat seem to feel pushed to catch up with his old pal Billy at Fort Sumner and kill him. Even there, there is a certain delicacy on his part as he waits for Billy to finish making love to Maria (played by Kristofferson’s wife, Rita Coolidge) before making his presence known and killing him.