Friday, November 11, 2005

Major Dundee d. Sam Peckinpah, 1965

"Peckinpah's Mitigated Epic." "Failure on account of the studio." Here, as is often the case in Hollywood, the truth is far more faceted than the legend would lead one to believe. The re-release of Major Dundee adds twelve minutes, a revamped score, and - as I understand - a slightly chopped narrative intended to limn more closely Peckinpah's original vision. The question begged: did Peckinpah's original vision assume a great film, or did it merely offer up one adequate?

On the whole, Major Dundee is a bit of a mess. A miscast Charlton Heston (at least in this version of the film, and let it be stated that I do not assume this to be Peckinpah's actual vision of Major Dundee. This is only a reworking, by a studio, of one of the great director's failed films - failed, supposedly, on account of the studio.) plays the eponym. Unfortunately, the character is a shallow sketch, hardly a fully realized figure. Heston is a great icon - fording seas, crushing stone tablets, et cetera - but he's hardly actor enough to pull off the density of this role. Major Dundee is man who thinks he's chasing something - kidnapped children - only to realize that he's chasing something else - justice against the Indians kidnappers – only to then realize that he is chasing something else again - vengeance, not justice - only to realize, far too late, that he is actually running away from himself. This pursuit is trashed by Peckinpah around halfway through the movie. Odd enough, because the first full 1/4 of the film is centered on gearing up for said pursuit. This is indicative of the primary problem is Major Dundee: the film has enough threads running to provide ample subject matter, but each is weaved too little to make anything out of the action.

Finally, in the coup de grace - and a true prescient harbinger of what's to come for Peckinpah - the film in ends in glorious balletic violence. In a film mostly devoid of meat - of the strong, focused thematic material that would so earmark the director's later work - it's nice to see terrific, perfectly staged eye candy.

Whether Peckinpah's fault or not, Major Dundee is a failure, even in its restored version. But it is an interesting failure. Pretty much all the themes that would haunt Peckinpah in the following decade and a half are present - male machismo, the nature of violence, the role (or lack thereof) of women, the death of an era - but all are presented in a tone far too uneven, and a manner far too scattered, to really have anything beyond the effect of passing fancy.


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