It should have been a classic. Major Dundee, a new kind of western with Charlton Heston as the titular major. This was the 1960s, and Heston had already played Moses and Judah Ben-Hur (he won an Oscar for that one). Box office-wise, he could do no wrong. For Dundee’s foil: Richard Harris, another Oscar nom and the darling of British kitchen sink realism. At the helm: Sam Peckinpah, a writer/director who cut his teeth in television before moving to the silver screen. His previous film, Ride the High Country, was adored by critics and audiences. His film following Major Dundee, 1969’s The Wild Bunch, would rewrite the western and usher in a new era of studio filmmaking. The pieces were there, but a classic Dundee wasn’t. Instead, Heston, Harris, and Peckinpah had to settle for one of the messiest masterpieces in American cinema.

The troubles started early. Columbia Pictures cut the budget before shooting began, and the script Harry Julian Fink turned in was a bloated mess lacking a third act. Peckinpah—an unstable genius on his best days; a reckless alcoholic on his worst—decided to shoot the movie in remote Mexico, hoping to limit studio interference. It didn’t. Fighting and drinking on location was common, and no one ever got on the same page. Heston thought he was making a Civil War epic about a disgraced soldier’s redemption. Columbia thought it was getting Lawrence of Arabia in Mexico. And Peckinpah was subverting both by making a movie about a megalomaniac’s quest for endless war. R.G. Armstrong, who plays a preacher in Dundee’s army, summed up the film best when he observed, “We were making Moby-Dick on horseback.”

Moby-Dick, yes, but you also don’t have to squint too hard to see shades of the Vietnam War, particularly in Major Dundee’s murkier tangents. The story: Dundee (Heston) is a disgraced Union officer relegated to overseeing a prison in Texas. A group of Apaches have sacked a nearby town and abducted three youths. Dundee is charged with retrieving the kids, and for help, he’ll take Confederate prisoners-of-war and degenerate criminals. The Rebels refuse to follow until Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Harris) agrees to a deal with Dundee. You see, Tyreen and Dundee are old friends from West Point, but Tyreen threw his lot in with the Johnny Reb after being court-martialed. But Tyreen is no Southerner; he’s “an Irish potato farmer with a plumed hat fighting for a white-columned plantation house you never had and never will.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Dundee, on the other hand, is a Southerner, possibly one of those rich kids from a white-columned plantation who defected to the right side of history. Heston, who was active in the civil rights movement, probably saw a lot to admire in Dundee’s Blue turn.

All of that works, but the third act is a mess. It was made under considerable duress, and Columbia wanted Peckinpah out. Heston intervened and told the financiers to apply his salary to production costs as long as the director stayed. Peckinpah worked tirelessly to bring Dundee in and delivered his cut to Columbia at 156 minutes. Columbia chopped it down to 122 minutes, gave it an ill-fitting jaunty score, and released it to an unimpressed public in April 1965. Major Dundee was dead on the table. Bigger and better things awaited all involved, but Peckinpah went to his grave claiming that his 156-minute cut of Dundee was his true masterpiece.

We’ll probably never have Peckinpah’s cut, but in 2005, 13 minutes of Dundee was restored to Columbia’s 122-minute release, and now we can start to see Major Dundee in all its intoxicating glory. The theatrical release and the superior extended version have been beautifully restored and are available on Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray set, which includes hours of extras examining the troubled production and what might have been. 

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 49, “Moby-Dick on horseback.”