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Major Dundee (1965) Directed by Sam Peckinpah (Part 4 of 5)

Check out the previous part here.

Columbia's vice president and numerous studio lawyers had arrived in Mexico determined to fire Sam Peckinpah from the production and replace him. But although Sam's erratic behaviour had alienated most of his cast and film crew, a few cast members rallied around their beleaguered director.

Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and Ben Johnson all threatened to walk off the set if Peckinpah was replaced. Heston went one step further and offered to forfeit his $200,000 salary if the studio relented and let Sam finish the movie. Much to Heston's surprise and chagrin, the studio willingly accepted his offer, which meant that the actor worked on the film for nothing. However, Heston's generous gesture allowed Peckinpah to retain the director's chair until the film finally wrapped at the end of April 1964.

By the time Sam returned to Hollywood to begin post-production work on Major Dundee, his personal relationship with producer Jerry Bresler and Columbia executives was so dire, Bresler would have much preferred to have kept Peckinpah out of the editing process altogether. But Sam's contract had guaranteed him the right to a first cut of the film and to screen that cut at a public preview. One of the basic tenets of studio post-production was that the first cut of any motion picture was usually no more than raw material of the finished product. Peckinpah was aware of this, but he also believed that the public was the ultimate arbiter of a movie's quality and consequently, only an audience and not the "studio suits" could decide if a picture really worked or not.

Peckinpah sensed that amongst the thousands of feet of exposed celluloid lurked a great movie; all he wanted now was to be left alone in the editing room to put it all together.

With the assistance of three Columbia editing staff, Sam got to work, sifting through 400,000 feet of exposed film. The assistant editors noted that the first sequence of edited scenes were all pure gold, realistically captured by award-winning cinematographer Sam Leavitt. Moreover, these scenes featured well defined, character-driven dialogue that immediately set the tone Peckinpah had been striving to establish for the film.

The first scene introduced the authoritative Major Amos Dundee, as he arrives with his troop at the burnt out Rostes farm. As Dundee views from a distance the mutilated bodies of his massacred cavalry troop and the Rostes family, he addresses his lieutenant thus: "I have only three commands. When I signal you to come, you come. When I signal you to charge, you charge. And when I signal you to run, you follow me and run like hell". Whilst Dundee attempts to muster volunteers to rescue the kidnapped Rostes children, he orders his scout, Samuel Potts, to locate the Apache, adding: "Do not get yourself killed, as that will inconvenience me."

The next scene is the capture of five Confederate escapees, led by the flamboyant Captain Benjamin Tyreen (a standout performance from Richard Harris). The five Rebels are sentenced to be hung for killing a prison guard. Dundee then offers Tyreen a reprieve if he and 20 of his men volunteer to serve their country's flag and join his expedition. A defiant Tyreen replies, "It's not my country Major Dundee. I damn its flag and I damn you. I would rather hang than serve." However, to save his men from the scaffold he reluctantly agrees, "But only until the Apache is taken or destroyed."

Damn-You-Major-Dundee

Thus in the film's opening scenes, Peckinpah had skillfully established the plot and a cast of disparate characters consisting of rival factions who hate each other more than the Apache they are after. The open hostility of this dysfunctional group is slightly tempered with the scene of Dundee leading his ramshackle command out of Fort Benlin to begin his mission. The Confederates start to sing their martial anthem, "Dixie", the Union troopers counter with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", and the civilian volunteers bring up the rear with "Oh, My Darling Clementine". This nostalgic scene was an homage to John Ford's famous cavalry trilogy, but Peckinpah had no intention of delivering a traditional Ford cavalry film.

For almost four months Peckinpah toiled in Columbia's editing room until finally, he had a first cut of two hours and forty one minutes. However, he told Bresler that he felt he had been somewhat impetuous and as a consequence needed to put another ten minutes back in before the first public preview. This would make it closer to the three hour movie as originally conceived, and if the audience reaction proved positive, it would vindicate him once the studio executive realised his version worked. But producer Jerry Bresler and Columbia Pictures had other ideas.

Whilst he waited for Bresler to make arrangements for a public preview, Peckinpah busied himself with sound effects and selecting a composer for the music score. But without Sam's knowledge, instead of organising a preview, Bresler took the director's cut to New York and screened it for a number of theatre exhibitors. Their damning verdict was, "too long and too violent." On his return to Hollywood, Bresler relayed the verdict to Peckinpah, whose immediate reaction was, "To hell with the theatre owners, let the public decide after the preview". But the producer remained adamant that the film needed to be cut to a two hour running time, which Peckinpah vehemently disagreed with.

The following morning when Sam drove up to the studio front gate, the guard told him he was under strict orders not to admit him and passed him a large cardboard box containing Peckinpah's personal belongings from the studio office, which had presumably been cleared out the night before. Sam Peckinpah was no longer an employee of Columbia Pictures and would have no further input into the post-production of Major Dundee.

The ruination of Peckinpah's version of the film now moved into its final phase.

PART FIVE...

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