By early January 1964, two thirds of the Major Dundee script had been completed and the film’s secondary characters all cast. Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chandler and R.G. Armstrong, who had featured in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, had all been assigned roles. These fine character actors, together with Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor and Ben Johnson, who were also cast, would later become known throughout the industry as "The Peckinpah Stock Company".
But as the cast and crew prepared to leave for Mexico in late January, Peckinpah received devastating news from producer Jerry Bresler. The head of production at Columbia had been unexpectedly replaced by Mike Frankovich, who felt that a western film, even one starring Charlton Heston, did not warrant a lavish budget and certainly not road-show status.
Consequently, and without any discussion, Frankvich had cut the budget by $1.5 million and shaved 15 days off of the shooting schedule. An infuriated Peckinpah berated Bresler and Columbia’s “damn accountants”, further stating that he took this decision to be “a personal betrayal of the highest order”. His response was, “to hell with them” – he would make the film he wanted to make, confident that when the studio money men saw the first raw footage from the daily rushes, they would let him continue.
But Peckinpah had a more immediate problem to contend with – he was working from an incomplete screenplay. This had resulted from the time constraint placed on him to completely rewrite the unworkable script originally written by Harry Julian Fink. Although Peckinpah and his co-writer, Oscar Saul, had been able to develop an incredible cast of interesting characters and place them into various scenarios and individual vignettes, they had as yet been unable to pull them together into a cohesive story with a credible ending. Saul expressed his grave concerns to Peckinpah – the complete story structure was so weak, it would probably cause the plot to flounder. Peckinpah replied, “Don’t worry, it’ll come together on the shoot”.
When Peckinpah arrived at the film’s first location in Mexico, he was still in the foulest of moods. Ever the obsessive perfectionist, he had demanded that the studio’s wardrobe department authentically age all of the cast’s individual uniforms, so as to depict their progressive deterioration as Dundee’s men chase the Apache marauders further into Mexico. But when the uniforms were unpacked, Peckinpah detested them and subsequently fired all of the on-location wardrobe personnel. Amongst the new staff flown in was a young wardrobe assistant, who immediately impressed Peckinpah with his innovative idea of lightly blowtorching the uniforms to give them the gradually-aged look Peckinpah wanted.
Next it was the prop men's turn to face the wrath of the now incessantly shouting director; the guns misfired so frequently, it swiftly depleted the stock of blank ammunition. The following day it was the sound engineers who were screamed at, then the caterers, after some of the cast found maggots in their food.
Throughout the Dundee shoot Peckinpah would fire a total of fifteen Columbia-contracted staff, which directly impacted on the progress of the production. The intense pressure of directing his first big budget movie also led him to drink more heavily, often arriving on set in the morning still drunk from the night before. James Coburn, who played Dundee’s scout Samuel Potts, described Peckinpah thus: “Sam was a working alcoholic who was a genius filmmaker for three hours a day, after that he was just a mean, drunken son of a bitch."
With the first month of shooting falling well behind schedule, Jerry Bresler, described by one of the cast as “wall-to-wall worry”, arrived in Durango intending to speed up the production. But his arrival created immediate friction between himself and his director, culminating with Peckinpah threatening him: “Jerry, I’m not going to shoot another foot of film until you leave this set”. A chagrined Bresler had no choice but to fly back to LA.
Moving the film equipment – along with hundreds of horses and ponies – to various locations across the inhospitable Mexican terrain was akin to a full military operation, and swiftly racked up costs. The production was now seriously falling behind schedule despite shooting 12 hours a day, six days a week, and all in the searing heat of the Mexican desert.
Peckinpah gave his near exhausted actors very little direction, but he seemed to instinctively know when a scene was not quite right, ordering the actors to repeat it and blandly adding, “but this time do it differently”. Often he appeared to be just wildly shooting thousands of feet of film, which prompted Charlton Heston to ask, “What the hell is this film about?” R.G. Armstrong, who played the fire-breathing civilian preacher Reverend Dahlstrom, had earlier described Major Dundee as “Moby Dick on horseback”. And as filming progressed, Armstrong perceived that reality was indeed paralleling the story – Peckinpah, like the Dundee/Ahab character, had become obsessed with his quest.
Although Peckinpah admired Heston, he felt the actor's performance in many of his films always seemed to have too much swagger and posturing to be entirely convincing. Never the diplomat, Sam would often tell his star – in front of the cast – to stop posing and try to act natural. Needless to say these outbursts infuriated the actor.
It all came to a head during the filming of a scene with Heston moving his cavalry troop down a hill at a trot. Peckinpah, stationed atop a camera crane, shouted to Heston “Chuck, that was absolute crap, you came far too slow. Go back and do it again.” “You told me to do it at a trot,” yelled Heston. Peckinpah fired back, “I did not, you goddamned liar”. Heston’s fuse finally blew and he wheeled his horse around, drew his cavalry sabre, and charged at the director at full gallop. Peckinpah screamed at the crane operator, “Crank it up! For Chrissakes crank it up!" As the crane arm lifted, Heston’s outstretched sabre missed the seat of Peckinpah’s pants by a whisker, which highly amused the cast and crew.
By the middle of March the film was 14 days behind schedule and $600,000 over budget. Columbia’s vice president, accompanied by numerous “studio suits”, arrived in Mexico and immediately drove to the production’s Rio Balsas location. Their mission – to remove Sam Peckinpah from the Major Dundee project and replace him.
The character Teresa Santiago was not in the original story, but producer Jerry Bresler wanted a “love interest” injected into the script. Peckinpah balked at the idea but Bresler insisted that a female role be written, and that Austrian actress Senta Berger be cast in that role. The end result was an unlikely – and superfluous – romantic sub-plot that went nowhere.