Blu-ray movie review: ‘Major Dundee: Limited Edition’

Director Sam Peckinpah‘s troubled 1965 epic Civil War Western returns to the Blu-ray format packaged for hardcore fans in Major Dundee: Limited Edition (Arrow Video, rated PG-13, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 136 minutes, $59.95).

Film historians will quickly point out that Peckinpah lost control of the production when most crucial, in the editing room for the final theatrical cut, leading to the director’s dismissal and a released recut resulting in a shoddy, uneven story that never delivered his vision.

This producer’s extended cut of the film adds 12 minutes and mildly helps gel the plot as viewers learn about Maj. Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston), a disgraced Union calvary officer paying his penance as a commander of a prisoner-of-war camp in the New Mexico Territory.

After cleaning up an Apache massacre of ranchers and soldiers, led by war chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), Dundee vows to find young American boys kidnapped by the chief, end his reign of terror, and, of course, restore his tarnished reputation.

He assembles a ragtag group of his soldiers, Confederate prisoners led by Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) and assorted criminals, grifters and even drunks to go into Mexico and hunt the Apaches in the most “The Dirty Dozen” fashion.

Scenes between Heston and Harris are fiery gold throughout while Peckinpah‘s posse of veteran actors — including James Coburn as one-armed Indian scout Samuel Potts; R.G. Armstrong as the local minister, the Rev. Dahlstrom; and L.Q. Jones as Confederate Arthur Hadley — layer on the Western grit.

This producer’s preview cut of the film gave a better representation of Peckinpah‘s grand vision, filling in some head-scratching plot holes such as the reasons that Tyreen’s men were threatened with hanging, but ultimately the end of the film is a jarring disappointment, filled with action but often aimless and shedding a too-positive light on the forever ambitiously flawed Dundee.

Culled from a 4K scan by Sony, the high definition release takes advantage of its widescreen, Panavision colorful origins.

The presentation revels with outdoor scenes showcasing the desert landscapes of the Southwest honed in on Durango Mexico and the beauty of Villa Hermosa, all masterfully captured by cinematographer Sam Leavitt.

The package also includes the U.S. theatrical cut of the film (122 minutes) sourced from a 2K scan and still offers a pretty picture but clearly shows the shredding in storytelling.

However, both cuts reveal the extent of intrusion of Peckinpah‘s near masterpiece and allows cinema connoisseurs to imagine what would have been if the director completely stayed in charge and released a final edit to theaters.

Best extras: Here is where the limited edition release truly excels, even if to showcase an average Western.

Arrow Video pulls together some of the best extras from the 2005 DVD release and 2013 Twilight Time Blu-ray release, complete with separate musical scores from Christopher Caliendo and Daniele Amfitheatrof as well as adding some new goodies.

Let’s start with three separate, excellent commentaries from film historians.

First, a solo with Glenn Erickson, who is gleefully obsessed with comparing the screenplay with various cuts, and then Mr. Erickson teams with Alan K. Rode for more insight and even real history perspectives.

The third offers a final group track from Nick Redman (documentarian) and Peckinpah biographers David Weddle, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor, delivering the deepest production perspective of the three commentary tracks.

Next, three included segments offer a further exhaustive overview of the movie and the director.

First, and most important, is the 76-minute documentary ” Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey” filmed during the early 2000s that covers a brutal production and offers first-hand accounts from stars such as a Senta Berger (the forgettable romantic interest of Dundee), a candid Coburn, Jones and Armstrong as well as daughter Lupita.

Next, the 26-minute, memory-overloaded “Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes” has a collection of actors discuss working with the master director including Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones and Bo Hopkins.

Finally, a 45-minute addition features the director of the “Passion & Poetry” project Mike Siegel talking about the origins and continuing creation of a historical chronicle of the life and works of Peckinpah.

Also worth watching is the newly released 30-minute visual essay by David Cairns called “Moby Dick on Horseback.” He makes a solid argument that producer Jerry Bresler (head of the Gidget film franchise) had no idea what he was doing or getting into when he allowed Peckinpah to direct.

Mr. Cairns looks again at the difficult shoot and then reviews the issues and the deterioration of the character development. He reminds us of the screenwriter missing the third act, the loss of slow-motion killing scenes and whether Dundee was simply a rambling inarticulate mess or an unfinished masterpiece.

Rounding out his limited edition is a hard cardboard slipcase featuring new artwork by painter Tony Stella.

Besides the digi-packed pair of discs, the package contains a large (16-inch by 20-inch), folded, two-sided poster highlighting Mr. Stella’s work; an original movie poster; and a 60-page, full-color, glossy, bound booklet packed with photos and offering informational essays by film historians Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath, Jeremy Carr and Neil Snowdon.

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