Blu-ray Review: Major Dundee - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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Specialty label Twilight Time has almost certainly made a whole lot of Sam Peckinpah enthusiasts very happy with their new, limited edition release of the 1965 epic Western, Major Dundee. This two-disc set takes the previous DVD special edition and nicely updates it with excellent high definition 1080p presentation. Disc one features the 2005 “extended version,” which is actually producer Jerry Bresler’s 136-minute cut graced by a new score by Christopher Caliendo. The second disc has the 122-minute original theatrical cut, with the original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Shot in Mexico (at great expense due to incongruously selected locations) by Sam Leavitt, Major Dundee is a beautiful mess that unfortunately will never been seen the way Peckinpah intended. According to the Peckinpah experts heard on the excellent audio commentary (Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle), the maverick director’s original cut exceeded four hours. As Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo informs us in her typically valuable liner notes essay, Peckinpah was effectively removed from his own film after executives disapproved of his subsequent two hour and 41-minute cut. A troubled production, one that saw Charlton Heston (starring as the title character) gallantly forfeit his entire salary in order to keep the production alive, resulted in a tragically compromised vision.

Major Dundee (192x250).jpgFor students of cinema, particularly the endlessly fascinating career of Sam Peckinpah and the bygone era of classic Westerns in general, this release is an essential case study. The basic plot is deceptively simple. Set during the Civil War, the story kicks off following an Apache massacre of civilians and U.S. soldiers. Led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), the Apaches have kidnapped three young boys. Disgraced Major Amos Dundee (Heston)—whose prior wrongdoings are never made entirely clear—sees an opportunity to get out of his detail at a New Mexican POW camp by assembling a posse to rescue the children.

The group turns out to be quite a motley crew of prisoners, Native American scouts, and a particularly cantankerous Confederate captain named Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). Tyreen and Dundee have a seriously troubled past, but they must work together in order to achieve Dundee’s lofty goal. Scout Samuel Potts (James Coburn) estimates the odds of successfully rescuing the boys at a thousand to one. The first half of the film is quite compelling with Dundee and company pursuing a very clear-cut objective. Unfortunately, narrative clarity becomes dreadfully tangled about halfway through after (mild spoiler alert) the boys are recovered from the Apaches.

There is much to admire about Major Dundee and Twilight Time’s package is nearly comprehensive. The extended cut does not effectively remedy all of the basic storytelling shortcomings, but the extra 14 minutes go a long way towards improving the flawed theatrical version. The presence of the ’05 score presents a problem. While Caliendo did craft an arguably more appropriately subtle set of cues, it can only be seen as revisionism. The original score is a bit bizarre and over the top (though to my ears not strikingly bad). Peckinpah expressed deep displeasure with it, so it’s hardly representative of his vision. But Caliendo’s work is nothing more than speculation, regardless of how nuanced. Both scores are presented as isolated tracks for those who wish to study them further.

The transfer offers a muted, earthy color palette. Clarity and detail are terrifically satisfactory. While black levels are impressively deep, occasionally there’s the odd shot that’s perhaps a bit too high contrast. The visuals are excellent overall, however, with plenty of natural grain structure visible. The extended cut boasts a 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix that works well with the new music. The original theatrical version has its original mono mix, presented in crystal clear, lossless DTS-HD MA. The isolated scores are available in perfect DTS-HD MA 2.0.

Major Dundee booklet cover (212x250).jpgAdditional extras include four minutes of silent extended outtakes, a two-minute slideshow of trailer artwork outtakes, a short excerpt from an exhibitor promo reel, a slightly extended scene between Dundee and Teresa Santiago (leading lady Senta Berger), and an incomplete “Knife Fight” deleted scene. The gem, however, is the aforementioned audio commentary. The quartet of historians provides a thorough history lesson about Major Dundee that hasn’t a dull moment. They don’t shy away from discussing the less successful aspects of the film.

Visit Twilight Time’s official website for ordering information. As with all their titles, Major Dundee is limited to a production run of 3,000.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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