After producer Jerry Bresler had privately run the film Ride the High Country for actor Charlton Heston, they both agreed that its director, Sam Peckinpah, should be hired to helm their new joint project.
Bresler had previously managed to interest Heston in a somewhat sketchy, 40-page treatment written by Harry Julian Fink titled And Then Came the Tiger (Fink would later write the Dirty Harry screenplay).
Fink’s story takes place in the remote New Mexico Territory during the last year of the American civil war. The main protagonist, Amos Dundee, a Federal officer relegated to command a prisoner of war camp, sets out to subdue a band of renegade Apaches who have massacred a detachment of his troopers, a family of settlers, and abducted the settlers' three young male children. To enable him to undertake this independent expedition, Dundee must supplement his
To enable him to undertake this independent expedition, Dundee must supplement his meagre federal force with civilian volunteers and a motley crew of paroled Confederate prisoners.
The vengeful Dundee leads his undermanned company across the Rio Grande into Mexico which is embroiled in a revolution. The Juaristas are battling thousands of French troops who have occupied their country in support of the puppet emperor, Maximilian. The French consider Dundee’s incursion a violation of international law and prepare to do battle with the American invaders. Dundee’s rag-tag command must not only fight the Apache, but also take on a whole regiment of French lancers.
The story is partially based on historical fact; during the American Civil War many Southern prisoners volunteered for duty fighting off Indian raids on the Western frontier rather than face the squalid conditions of a Federal prison camp. These Confederates became known to history as “Galvanised Yankees”.
Moreover, Hollywood had used the theme of civil war Southerners and Northerners being forced by circumstance to fight together as a unit against marauding Indians in several earlier movies. Two Flags West (1950), Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957) all had similar storylines to Bresler and Heston’s proposed project. However, none of them had been treated as a blockbuster production with a $4.5 million budget. Bresler had every intention of making this a big three-hour roadshow movie, and when he sent the story and offer to Peckinpah, he received an immediate acceptance from the director.
With his leading man and director eager to start as soon as possible, Bresler convened a meeting where the three men discussed the key elements of the story and interface of the main characters. Peckinpah saw Amos Dundee as a Custer-type glory hunter driven by selfish ambition to right a military mistake he had made at the Battle of Gettysburg, which led to him being relegated to the position of a prison warden. He also tabled a suggestion that the second-in-command, Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen, be portrayed as Dundee’s alter ego, together with a back story of the history between them. As a former West Point classmate and friend of Dundee, Tyreen had been cashiered out of the Union army for killing a fellow officer in a duel, and Dundee had cast the deciding vote at the court martial. This would add extra tension to their already polarised relationship.
Heston saw great potential in these scenarios, which would allow him to portray a darker side to the flawed and neurotic Dundee character.
Discussions now continued apace on the cast’s secondary leads. Heston had originally proposed Anthony Quinn for the role of Ben Tyreen and Peckinpah had wanted Lee Marvin to play Dundee’s one-armed scout Sam Potts. However, when both actors turned down the roles they were then offered to Richard Harris and James Coburn, respectively. Australian actor Michael Pate, who had carved a career out of playing numerous Native Americans onscreen, was cast as the renegade Apache chief Sierra Charriba.
Before they could allocate other actors to the numerous supporting roles, it was imperative that the scant story be developed into a workable screenplay. Peckinpah agreed to supervise Harry Fink, who had been hired by Bresler to write a first-draft script of his original story. After ensuring that Fink knew to incorporate all the ideas that had been discussed at the conference, Peckinpah took off for Durango in Mexico to scout suitable locations for the movie.
When he returned some weeks later, Fink sent him a batch of screenplay pages he had written that covered the first third of the film. As he read through the script, Peckinpah grew aghast at Fink’s overly convoluted plot, which meandered all over the place, and dialogue so peppered with profanity, it would never get past the censor. Fink had also not elevated the Tyreen character to full co-star status, as Peckinpah had ordered. In Fink’s version, Tyreen is practically relegated to being no more than a mere onlooker to the whole saga.
A furious Peckinpah wrote to Fink and copied in Bresler, “... Your first draft is so appalling, it’s completely unworkable ... no film company or director would or could shoot your script ... I want no part of it”. Bresler immediately brought in a new writer, Oscar Saul, who together with Peckinpah set about writing a whole new screenplay.
It was now almost the end of October 1963 and the film was due to begin shooting in December, which was now impossible. Bresler managed to get the shoot rescheduled to the 1st of February 1964. This was the latest possible date that did not conflict with Heston’s next project, The Agony and the Ecstasy, which was scheduled to begin filming in Rome in the summer of 1964.
Without Heston as the lead, Bresler knew he would lose the financing for his movie, and consequently, Peckinpah would be robbed of his chance of directing a major motion picture. A desperate Peckinpah now faced the unenviable task of writing from scratch a 180-page script with a three-hour running time that included over twenty separate speaking parts as well as casting the parts... all within three months.