Famously, and infamously, the majority of the films of Sam Peckinpah were made – and unmade – in the editing room. For instance, as two UK film scholars, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, demonstrate in a nice essay that contrasts a quiet dialogue scene played out in a single long take in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954) to several no less dramatically muted dialogue sequences in Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), even in the most anodyne moments (and not just action sequences like the frenetic montage of the final shootout of The Wild Bunch ), Peckinpah was all about filming his story from multiple perspectives, building it up with fragments that fracture space and only vaguely respect chronology and continuity (1). Of course, one can only edit with the material at hand, but from Major Dundee (1965) on Peckinpah would strive to construct creative possibilities for himself at the editing stage by shooting a lot of footage (an awful lot, in fact), filming it with multiple cameras, and relying on inspiration on-set or on location to give him more and more actions to film and from more and more angles. This meant that there was no necessarily right way to put a scene together in editing, but in the best of cases, key sequences in Peckinpah films can seem right even as we realise how random or arbitrary their assemblage is. For example, that final shootout in The Wild Bunch jumps all over the place – from gringos to Mexicanos, from men to women and children, from killers to the killed, and so on – but it also obeys a seeming logic of escalation: from pistols to machine guns to grenades, the sequence becomes a demonstration of ever more massive firepower and thereby ends up saying something salient about American violence, especially in the film’s historical moment which is also that of escalation of the war in Vietnam.
Strikingly, virtually no film of Peckinpah’s from Major Dundee on was allowed by its producers to correspond to his original vision, and there’s grown up around Peckinpah a veritable mythology of the independent visionary destroyed by the ever more bureaucratised administration of the late studio system. But Peckinpah’s own hubris – his sense that artistic vision could be built up piecemeal – is not without its own dire role in the problems that endlessly plagued him as a filmmaker. Thus, in the worst of cases, the over-reliance on editing could lead to flashy but empty demonstrativeness (for instance – a minor instance – in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia , a car almost has a minor fender-bender and the scene is without consequence, yet it is delivered through that combination of multi-shot montage with slow-motion that had become a Peckinpah cliché by the 1970s). Or it could encourage sheer laziness or sloppiness: there are, for instance, few films as lackadaisical as Convoy (1978) and there one senses that a story of good ol’ boys just having a good ol’ time – boozing, brawling, ballin’ – without much diligence or intelligence found its match in a director who was by then just drifting by in a druggy, boozy good-time haze and couldn’t be roused to do anything that demanded effort.
Major Dundee was drastically reworked from Peckinpah’s conception by the Columbia Pictures executives and he was banned from overseeing the final cut. That’s made Peckinpah’s plans for the film take on legendary proportions in the minds of film scholars, so much so that, for instance, a recent restoration that included much of the excised footage found thus far also sported an absolutely new score in rejection of the one the studio had put on the film for its original release. The new score is an invention of the present, of cinephiles who want to project back into the past the film they think Peckinpah should have made – and could have made, had he been given his chance. (I, for one, miss the rousing “Fall in Behind the Major” song that I’ve remembered for the last 50 years from when I saw the film as a young kid at the time of its first release.)
Yet it is clear from its production history that Peckinpah was no innocent in the chaos and confusions of Major Dundee as a narrative work. If a film like Convoy (and there are in fact few films “like” Convoy in its uncaring ineptitude) suffers from a lazy cynicism – why bother to make a good film since this one has a built-in audience of trailer-trash rednecks? – Major Dundee was a film for which Peckinpah had high ambitions and, at first, he was encouraged in these by Columbia. The studio initially thought of the film as one of their big releases for the year (it was imagined as a possible “roadshow” picture – to be exhibited in its first run at major movie palaces only and with high priced tickets to be purchased in advance, just like at the theatre) and Peckinpah started on pre-production with seeming carte blanche to do whatever he wanted (which, in his case, as noted above, could dangerously tempt him to begin shooting without a worked out script and little but the hope that it would all come together both through inspiration once the shooting began and through creative construction once editing commenced). Immediately, though, Peckinpah alarmed his producers by spending loads of money scouting locations far removed from each other across vast reaches of Mexico, and this threat of an expensively dispersed production (which would require actors and crew to traipse all over the country far from the watchful eyes of the studio executives) set off alarms back at the studio’s administrative offices. Immediately, a scaling back on the production (and on studio ambitions for it as an important picture) was put into place.
Not just in its mode of production (filming on far-flung locations) but in its very dramatic conception, Major Dundee is a sprawling film. Despite the fact that its title singles out one figure, the film is more epic and episodic than that, giving us a range of interesting characters (grizzled scout, wet-behind-the-ears young recruit, by-the-books-straight-laced-officer, peckerwood good ol’ rebel soldiers, Irish dandy, German and Mexican sexpot senoritas, African-American flag-bearer, Bible-thumping preacher, and so on) and loading on to them a series of weighty issues: racism and prejudice, love versus infidelity, the crisis of masculinity, honour and class (and classiness), personal initiative versus institutional rules and regulations, and so on. Just as The Odyssey is not just Odysseus’ story alone but also that of the men along with him (and the women who wait for them), Major Dundee’s epic tale of men who venture across the waters with the eventual hope of returning home is a tale marked by dispersion, detour, interruption and a wavering of purpose (in its characters, but also, it must be said, in the film itself). It is noteworthy, for instance, how (spoiler alert!) easily and early is resolved the ostensible narrative purpose of the troop’s quest after Charriba and his forces: supposedly, the point is to rescue settler children the Indians have kidnapped, but those kids are returned without fuss to Dundee’s troop within the first third of the film. Or, to take another example of the film’s refusal to solidify its many episodic dramas into solid, consequential narrative, note how the issue of racism simply peters out: in long shot, during the final battle, the African-American flag-bearer is summarily killed and the film gives no special emphasis to the fact. (At the risk of a horribly bad pun, I’m tempted to say that the plotline literally “peters out” since the character is played by the noted actor Brock Peters who – as was often the case with African-American actors at the time – is not used to his full thespian advantage despite the film making segregation one of the explicit issues it raises.)
If Amos Dundee tries to hold together within the story world of the film what the film itself is trying to hold together as a work of narrative art, we might well be tempted to think of the film then as an allegory for the filmmaking process and of Dundee as allegorical stand-in for the director. Through the 1960s, there were any number of films about men who come together from diverse backgrounds and with diverse skills to form into a team and undertake a perilous mission together: think, for instance, of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) or Richard Brooks’ well-named The Professionals (1966) or Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1968) or Peckinpah’s own The Wild Bunch (and later well-named The Killer Elite ). These films are all about men who work within a division of labour and engage in veritable feats of engineering that involve complicated gismos and gadgets, but these are also films made by men who work within a division of labour and engage in veritable feats of engineering that involve complicated gismos and gadgets, and in this respect then the films speak of craft and command, labour and leadership, mission and masculinity, and speak of this not just in regards to their fictions but to their own status as makers of fiction. Refusing to give up his quest, even as the desk jockeys back home threaten to pull the plug on him, dealing with recalcitrant labour, fighting for resources, struggling with the material difficulties of working at one’s craft in faraway places (both movie productions and army missions have to rely on scouting trips), confronting one’s own inner demons, Dundee is a veritable stand-in for Peckinpah and his torments hint at those the director would face.
In this respect, here’s an interesting moment in Major Dundee, where, having gone into hiding in a Mexican village after being wounded by Indians and proceeding to descend into drunken dissolution there, Dundee looks in a mirror and notices with wonderment how much he’s grown a scraggly beard in the meantime. Despite a voiceover narration – of pages from a diary – that the studio imposed on the film to attempt to give it some narrative coherence, the progression of time is not always clear in the film, and in this scene it almost seems intended to render blurry just how long and how far the seemingly prim Dundee has descended into the pits of self-degradation. Even at their best, the films of Sam Peckinpah hover not far from chaos. The epic ambition of Major Dundee is to take the plunge and hope for the best. It’s up to the viewer today to decide if the gambit worked.
1. John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, “Preminger and Peckinpah: Seeing and Shaping Widescreen Worlds”, Widescreen Worldwide, ed. John Belton, Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, John Libbey Publishing, Hertfordshire, 2010, pp. 71-90.
Major Dundee (1965 USA 136 mins)
Prod Co: Columbia Pictures Corporation/Jerry Bresler Productions Prod: Jerry Bresler Dir: Sam Peckinpah Scr: Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul, Sam Peckinpah Phot: Sam Leavitt Ed: Howard Kunin, William A. Lyon, Don Starling Art Dir: Al Ybarra Mus: Daniel Amfitheatrof, Christopher Callendo (restored version)
Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, Michael Anderson, Jr., Senta Berger, Brock Peters, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L. Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Michael Pate