Major Dundee: Return of a classic

Forty years after it was butchered by the studio, Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee has been partially restored. Geoffrey Macnab welcomes its return
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Peckinpah believed that Major Dundee was one of his finest films. His producer Jerry Bresler and the bosses at Columbia Pictures had a very different opinion. The 160-minute version conceived by the director never reached the screen. "They held no previews of the original picture as made and no one ever saw the film or got a chance to judge it until after cuts were made that destroyed it," Peckinpah later claimed.

A partially restored version of Major Dundee is screening at the London Film Festival later this week. Twelve minutes have been restored and a new score added. Nonetheless, this is still far from the film Peckinpah thought he had made. Some debate still exists as to whether the long version of Dundee ever existed. Grover Crisp, the Sony executive who has overseen the restoration, was not able to find anyone who had actually seen the original director's cut. Nor is there agreement among film historians as to what part the director played in the post-production. (Most accounts suggest he was barred entirely from the editing room.)

It's commonplace to paint Bresler as the villain, the studio hatchet-man who betrayed his visionary director. That, Crisp says, is only partly the story. Major Dundee was a vexed project from the outset. The budget was trimmed days before shooting began. The script was never completed. There were huge logistical problems involved in shooting in remote Mexican locations. "Whatever the film he intended was never wholly conceived on paper and definitely wasn't shot," Crisp says.

Some now see Major Dundee as a botched trial run for later Peckinpah glories. Nonetheless, this is a substantial movie in its own right, boasting arguably Heston's finest screen performance as the driven, Captain Ahab-like cavalry commander who enlists thieves, renegades and deserters to help him track down the Apache, Sierra Charriba.

Peckinpah was always antagonistic to the "nine-to-five guys", by which he meant anyone who didn't share his obsessive perfectionism. He was famously prickly ("very difficult to be friends with," as one of his ex-editors Monte Hellman recalls), and hid behind the masks of alcohol, machismo and drugs. His volatile temperament made him almost unemployable as a director. Straight after Major Dundee, he was sacked from The Cincinnati Kid after rowing again with his producers. On almost every film he made, there were disputes.

Bresler had originally wanted John Ford to make Major Dundee, but Ford was unavailable. At first, Peckinpah seemed like the natural replacement. After his warmly received 1961 feature, Ride the High Country, he was regarded as Ford's natural heir. No one in Hollywood had yet realised that Peckinpah wasn't in the business of making gentle, elegiac Westerns.

Over the years, Peckinpah has acquired a reputation as one of the sacred monsters of recent Hollywood history. That wasn't how he appeared to the young British actor, Michael Anderson Jr, whom he cast in the key role of Trooper Tim Ryan, the film's narrator, in Major Dundee.

Anderson had his first meeting with Peckinpah on 22 November 1963, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. "I was 20, working down in the wilds of Mexico with this motley crew and Peckinpah," Anderson recalls. "He turned out to be an amazing fellow and a brilliant director. You could tell when you worked with him that he had a sure vision and a steady hand. He was just... slow." Not that Anderson blamed the director for the microscopic pace. When you have 60 horses and three cannons riding across the frame, or you're staging an elaborate battle sequence, he says, "there was no quick way to do it."

Within three weeks, Columbia tried to sack Peckinpah. Heston (who later offered to defer his salary to get the picture made) stood by the director and Peckinpah was allowed to stay. Anderson offers a vivid picture of him in his working outfit of bandana and US cavalry long coat striding up and down the set. The cast knew to keep their distance. "He was not a buddy, buddy guy. Even as a younger man, he had this caustic attitude."

But, contrary to his later reputation as a bully and arch-manipulator, Peckinpah was "fun and he was funny". Gradually, though, the actors began to realise just how bloody his vision of the West really was. They would be riding past small villages and notice that Peckinpah and his designers had dotted the landscape with "bodies hanging... more graphic than anything I had ever seen before."

Peckinpah had intended to open the movie with a Hallowe'en party in the cavalry outpost. With the party in full swing, the Apaches arrived, killing everyone. "They never shot it," Anderson recalls. "That didn't serve the picture well. It meant you never saw the violence that everybody else was reacting to."

As relations between the studio and the director deteriorated, Anderson was caught in the crossfire. He recorded his voiceover narration for Peckinpah and then he re-recorded it for Bresler. "You could tell Sam was struggling. The most that he would say was: 'They are giving me a hard time.' But the fact that he even said that - and that look on his face - you could tell he was very, very sad."

It's one of the ironies of the DVD age that the Hollywood studios now spend fortunes restoring the films they themselves cut to pieces. Sony has belatedly made amends for the studio's barbarism by investing heavily in the new version. Its motives are hardly altruistic - there are huge profits to be made by dusting down old classics - but Peckinpah fans aren't likely to complain. This may not be the film the director intended, but at least it's far closer to his vision than the butchered version put out by Columbia 40 years ago.

The extended 'Major Dundee' screens at the London Film Festival (020-7928 3232; www.lff.org.uk) on 30 October

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