The story behind the making of Sam Peckinpah's 1965 cavalry Western, ''Major Dundee," is one of those sad but inevitable Hollywood tales that end in the maker's not wanting his name on what can only be called the finished product. In Peckinpah's mind, it certainly wasn't a movie -- not the one he wanted to make, anyway. As a corrective,
About 40 years ago, Peckinpah, then in his late 30s, wanted to make a film about the Indian-slaughtering Civil War legend George Custer. In ''The Dream Life," an invaluable book about film and American culture in the 1960s, J. Hoberman explains that after Harry Julian Fink's script treatment reached Peckinpah, the director's original vision turned into a Charlton Heston vehicle about a renegade Army officer.
Peckinpah was imagining ''Major Dundee" as a new-style, genre-warping Western set in 1864 and 1865. Columbia Pictures, which at the time was undergoing major executive changes, gave the director its blessing. So Peckinpah was free to depict the brutality, savagery, and chaos of war. The chaos certainly made its way to the movie's troubled shoot in Mexico, where many of the terrified crew members were fired, the budget was slashed, and some members of the cast, including Heston, were uncertain what ''Major Dundee" was supposed to be about. Peckinpah fought with the producer, Jerry Bresler, who wanted to fire him.
Heston intervened, forgoing his salary to keep the movie going under Peckinpah's control. Alas, it still came in long and over budget, and the director was deemed persona non grata not just at Columbia, where the movie's 164 minutes were hacked to just over 120 by Bresler, but everywhere -- Peckinpah didn't make a Hollywood feature for three years.
''Major Dundee" was a patchwork. This expanded version only underscores that the movie's flaws are fundamental. Its restoration constitutes a noble act of aesthetic justice more than a means of artistic improvement, but at least the stain of tragedy is gone.
Heston, still in his sexy, intimidating prime, plays the eponymous major, a martinet banished to a loathsome administrative post at a Texas prison as punishment for rogue acts in battle at Gettysburg. Conveniently,
Refusing to see any useful lesson in Gettysburg, he illegally compiles a weapons cache and pulls together a ragtag crew of disgruntled Union soldiers, freed black slaves (most prominently Brock Peters, who uses his luscious baritone whenever possible), and Confederate POWs, including a rascally Richard Harris as Dundee's Irish ex-friend and ex-Unionist Captain Ben Tyreen. The cast also includes Jim Hutton, who's funny as the upright artillery expert. James Coburn, as an uncouth, one-armed tracker, really seems to enjoy brandishing his obviously fake stump.
They cross the southwest desert into Mexico. A dusty town is occupied by a group of French soldiers, whom Dundee keeps locked up as he and his cavalry liberate the locals, bringing the town back to life, eyeing its women. Tyreen and the major even compete for the attention of a German doctor's widow (Senta Berger). This is by far the most dramatically and politically interesting passage in the film, with Dundee striving to contradict someone else's early suggestion that he's not an emancipator. For this stretch Peckinpah finds a way to weave the character tensions with the circumstantial comedy, while leaving the village ravished by American can-doism.
Expanded, ''Major Dundee" is still a mess of great scenes sprinkled among some fairly monotonous action. But it's never completely dull, even if Heston's self-styled machismo and the movie's quotable dialogue do lend the movie retrospective camp. When Dundee arrives at the Mexican village, his instructions are: ''By midnight, I want every man in this village drunker than a fiddler's bitch." Now that sounds like something Will Ferrell would say. But Heston, to his immense credit, isn't joking. This is one of his most fearless star turns: Nearly everything the major does is motivated by spite, contempt, and vanity.
In his single-minded (no, megalomaniacal) iconoclasm, Dundee mirrors his maker. The picture is more useful as a guide to Peckinpah -- and, as Hoberman intriguingly argues, as a reflection of its fraught American political era -- than as a great cinematic work. Indeed, ''Major Dundee" is one of those Hollywood headaches that usually knock the stuffing out of a director's career. Peckinpah, though, was a tank. He put the picture's debacle far enough behind him to come roaring back three years later with his bellicose landmark, ''The Wild Bunch."