Major Dundee Part Two

majcvrDuring the American Civil War, an unspecified incident at Gettysburg has resulted in Major Amos Dundee (Charlton Heston) side-lined in charge of a prison in remote Eastern New Mexico. Frustrated and feeling ill-done by the ignominy of his position, he latches onto a series of Apache raids which have culminated in a massacre near the prison as an opportunity to salvage his reputation. Abandoning his charged duty in order to gather a motley force of Union volunteers, Confederate prisoners ‘encouraged’ to volunteer, and local thieves and drunks, to hunt down and kill the Apache Indian chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his warriors, while also rescuing three children captured in the latest Apache attack. As he chases the Apache bandits across the border into Mexico, he then also has to contend with being horribly out-numbered by thousands of French troops that are also in Mexico and threaten him as a foreign transgressor. Either Dundee returns as a conquering hero or he will be facing probable court-martial and infamy.

Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee is, as I discussed in Part One of this review, a flawed film that under better circumstances might have been a masterpiece: its premise is a fascinating study of the Old West and the ills of American military intervention and hubris (quite timely bearing in mind the film was made and released as the Vietnam War was escalating). The film is full of interesting characters and blessed by a very strong cast which, as well as Heston, includes Richard Harris, James Coburn, Jim Hutton, Michael Anderson Jr., Brock Peters, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. Visually it is very impressive, with the wide-open vistas typical of the best Westerns, and authentic-looking sets and costumes. Its darkly cynical central viewpoint echoes that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns but with its American cast and locations it looks rather like a John Ford movie.

Unfortunately, its becomes pretty clear as the film progresses that when it started filming, the script wasn’t actually finished, and as the film goes on, it progressively falls apart. The cast is very large with many characters. Richard Harris’ Confederate Captain Benjamin Tyreen is a perpetual thorn in Dundee’s side- the men have a long history together dating back to their youth at West Point, a friendship broken by the Civil War and Tyreen choosing the ‘other side.’ Dundee’s band of solders includes several negro solders (including Brock Peters as Aesop) that leads to inevitable friction between the Confederate prisoners and black solders in Union uniform. Actress Senta Berger as Teresa joins the film at its midpoint, a supremely unlikely romantic thread suddenly appearing as if from some other movie, quickly dismissed to little narrative point at all. Sub-plots regards an out of his depth rookie officer, a possibly untrustworthy Indian scout, and a Confederate who tries to desert, add to the busy mix.  

With so many characters and narrative arcs being set up, it would have proved difficult for even a fully-realised script to maintain them all into a properly balanced film, but left unfinished, it results in character arcs set up in the first third being left unresolved, and some character decisions in the last third coming out of nowhere and frustratingly undeserved. Its really very frustrating that there is such a great film in here, if only it had been made in better circumstances, and its evident that too much was left unwritten, too much left un-filmed, and the film cobbled together in an editing room from which Peckinpah himself was excluded, with some stunts and violence being excised to appease the studio heads only further damaging its awkward finale. Even more damning, the film was saddled with a terribly ill-judged score with a vocal march/theme that undermines everything Peckinpah likely intended, almost making the film a parody, comical ‘stings’ whenever Apaches turn up onscreen more suited to an episode of the 1960s Batman tv series.

However, a restoration just after the millennium left an extended version (on disc one of this set) being the way to watch and discover the film, restoring ten to fifteen minutes of footage and replacing that horrible music score. It remains far from the roadshow epic the film was originally intended to be, but much superior to the theatrical version that resides on this set’s second disc: I watched some of this and was quite appalled. The extended version is far from perfect, but its clearly much improved from the film audiences saw on its original presentation, and I really enjoyed the film, for all its faults. Sometimes the problems within flawed films only add to their allure, their fascination, and that’s possibly the case with Major Dundee. I suppose much of the interest in the film derides from director Peckinpah’s later films and naturally the films disastrous production, rather than the actual quality of the film itself, but really, in the extended version its not a bad film at all, rather its a flawed one with suggestions of greatness. Regardless of Peckinpah’s part in the proceedings, Heston (who actually had forgone his own salary for the picture, doing it for nothing in order to keep Peckinpah on, at least until filming was finished as best it could) is always worth watching: one of those iconic stars of the screen his casting is both perfect and ironic, considering the flaws in his character. 

Major Dundee Part One

major1I started writing a post about Sam Peckinpah’s oft-maligned and clearly broken 1965 Western, Major Dundee; I’d bought the recent Arrow 2-disc Blu-Ray, swayed into a rare blind-buy simply because of how gorgeous and finely curated the release is, as well my past affinity for and interest in both Peckinpah’s other films (chiefly Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, which itself was a sumptuous Arrow release awhile back) and those of Charlton Heston (for all the many Hollywood icon reasons, but also curiously having seen his Hollywood debut, Dark City not so long ago). My post started with a commentary about broken films and how Major Dundee fits into a particular group of films that includes Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil and it became evident it was bogging-down my actual comments regards Major Dundee, so I’ve decided to split the post into two: so here’s part one, and thoughts about broken films in general (hopefully Part Two will follow shortly).

There is clearly something seductive, for film lovers, regards broken films, or the films that never got made. In a way, its difficult to distinguish between the two because although Major Dundee got made, it clearly isn’t the film that Sam Peckinpah intended it to be. Hardcore fans of the director can no doubt wax lyrical regards what it could have been; the three-hour roadshow epic that would have been a Western intended to rival epics like Lawrence of Arabia, and Peckinpah’s subtle (or maybe not so subtle) inversion of the traditional Western hero and America’s usual rose-tinted myth of the Wild West. With films such as Major Dundee, it is at the heart of their fascination; the endless wondering about what might have been, what should have been, and the why: the latter is where the ranting comes in, and usually becomes a heated discourse about the dichotomy of the art and the business of film-making. 

Peckinpah himself was guilty of this, always bitterly blaming others regards the failure of Major Dundee, a revisionist commentary whenever he mentioned the film in the years after its release, when even the strongest of his apologists would accept he deserved much of the blame himself too, the film a troubled production. Its clear though that Peckinpah had valid reason to feel bitter- taken out of the editing suite, I can only imagine his horror when he only finally saw the finished film at its premiere. I haven’t watched all of the theatrical version, only initially watching the extended version and then later sampling the theatrical, but what I have seen of it with its awful Daniele Amfitheatrof soundtrack music is astonishingly bad. Its a good example of how a film can be ruined by a bad music score, as right from the main titles it turns the film into a bizarre parody of Peckinpah’s intentions. Just how derided and woeful this music score is, can possibly be construed from the fact that it was replaced by a new score by Christopher Caliendo in 2005 when the film was restored to that first assembly: there are likely other examples, but I cannot recall another case of a film getting its score totally replaced during a restoration. 

major3The extended cut that has become how we now watch Major Dundee is no directors cut- I understand from what I have seen/read that its a producers assembly from when Peckinpah was taken off the picture which was then further edited into what then became the theatrical. I’m always fascinated by alternate cuts of films, and how even the slightest alternate edits of scenes can change their meaning and tone and indeed the film itself, and not always for the better.    

A discussion regards broken films can get side-tracked by directors cuts and extended cuts of films- the home video boom of VHS, Laserdisc and DVD allowed for so many versions of films to be released and this actually saved some of the films and possibly damaged others. The assembly cut of Alien 3 is one of the best examples of a broken film being ‘saved’, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like -to the extent I can likely never rewatch it- the Redux version of Apocalypse Now, so its not the case that restorations and extended versions are always such a good thing. In any case, this isn’t what I’m really getting at with regards this post about broken films, and I’m concious not to get pulled into this particular hornets nest. Maybe there should be a distinction between ‘lost’ films, and those broken films which can be ‘fixed’ sometime later via restoration. Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is gone, lost, and the film the subject of much adoration and grievance from those who appreciate what might have been. 

So getting back to Major Dundee and its status of being a film that ‘might have been/could have been…’ in just the same way as Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and so many other films where troubled production and disagreements/dissatisfaction from studios resulted in films not being everything they might have been. Very often the stories about the making of the films can be more interesting than the films themselves, and I’m confident I’m not alone in saying that the making of Major Dundee is possibly more fascinating than the film we have. Decades of tall-tales, rumours and hearsay only add to the myths surrounding some of these movies, and indeed any film-lover will have interest in the politics and friction surrounding the making of the films that work and are a success, never mind those that fell astray. Films are a uniquely collaborative medium, whatever the auteur theory that persists and is generally accepted. How much the director is author of a film is possibly a tangential discussion when examining broken films, but its a valid one: in the case of Peckinpah, Major Dundee‘s failure is usually attributed to others even by those who hold Peckinpah partly responsible too, but had Major Dundee been a perfect film, likely credit would have mostly, if not wholly, been given to the director. It is always Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Its curious that very often when films don’t work out as well as hoped, its not the directors total responsibility, there’s plenty of candidates subjected to blame (for my own part, I always feel the central part of what works or undermines a film is its screenplay- everything, the actors performances, the directors visual flair, is dependant on the foundation of a working and concise effective script, but its just as wrong to call it Hampton Fancher’s Blade Runner). I think I’m digressing into authorship of movies and I didn’t intend to.  

There is a tension between the business of making movies- a studio and its backers financing a film hoping to make a profit in return- and the art of making films, the creative team making a film worthy as a piece of entertainment and indeed possibly a work of art in itself. Sometimes both happens, sometimes one and not the other- bad films have made lots of money, great films have failed and made a loss. I have often stated that I don’t think anyone intentionally makes a bad film but I suppose in the real world, every project/film is a pay check and ones personal investment evidently varies. Film lovers generally -maybe rightly, who knows?- cite the creatives a the good guys and the studio brass as the bad guys, the ones who complicate matters citing budget and time overruns in the face of a directors efforts to make the perfect, best film he can. Its out of all this tension though that films flounder and fail, as films if not as products made for a profit. I mentioned in an earlier post the popularity of horror films as a genre when many if not most of the horror films made are very poor, but part of their popularity is how cheap they are to make, how easy they are to market and usually how that translates into something profitable.

major2So again, trying to get back to Major Dundee– its a film that had problems from the start, and its one of those films that was made without a finished script (which, if you consider my own thoughts regards how important a foundation a good screenplay is, speaks volumes), and I’m always surprised and aghast at how often that happens. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was being shot and Robert Wise didn’t have a finished script, the last third of the film was a blank, pretty much, and they made it up on the fly, mostly. Which seems an incredible thing considering the investment into what was such a major motion picture and no small reason why the film turned out as troubled as it did. So it was with Major Dundee in regards how the film starts very well- the first half, at least in the extended version, is a great entertaining film- but slowly fragments into a incoherent mess as it runs into its second half, with a very odd romantic element for Dundee that seems abruptly thrown in from some other movie, and very messy finale with characters suddenly acting very strangely (probably because whole scenes have been cut or never even shot). Cutting the budget and production schedule and shooting it in a very difficult location were only part of the films problems, as was feuding actors and its drunk and antagonistic director but hey, the making of Major Dundee would make a great picture in itself. 

Part Two of this review of Major Dundee will follow…

The Village in the Woods (2019)

village1I’m not sure what it is regards horror films, but as a genre, their general quality seems really poor: I actually think this is often because they can be fairly cheap to make and therefore attractive to studios, producers and directors who can’t get access to the more expensive cinematic toys. Maybe its just too easy to make a bad one, or maybe audiences are too forgiving as long there’s plenty of diverting scares, titillation or gore: its certainly not a genre predisposed for deeper meaning regards the human condition. Of course there are very good horror films, and yes there are horror films with all sorts of subtext, informative and challenging, but I’d contend there are not very many of them. Generally, horror films just seem to get by with a little mood, tension and a few scares… alas, The Village in the Woods doesn’t even have that, even though one could argue its all mood and nothing else.

A young couple, Jason (Robert Vernon)and Rebecca (Beth Park) are driving through deserted back-roads in a remote landscape at night, their destination the village of Cooper’s Cross and its pub that they want to sell and profit from (Rebecca having inherited it, or something, its not at all clear and in any case its all a set-up). The film throws in the usual horror tropes with immediate abandon: the car breaks down, having run out of petrol (no clear method of escape, then) and when Jason tries to call for assistance there is no mobile phone signal (cut off from rescue then). After spending a night in the car, amongst spooky foggy woods lit up like there’s an alien mothership over the hill, the two walk down the road and reach the village. Here’s where the non-existent budget proves most evident: the village consists, as far as we can tell, of three buildings and five people (two middle-aged couples and a crazy old man). That’s it. For some unfathomable reason the couple don’t ask the villagers if they have a phone they can use to get help or call a taxi. They don’t question how three buildings constitutes a village, or walk around it or ask where the other villagers are, or wonder what worth a pub has when it has fallen largely to ruin and is located in the middle of nowhere with no likely customers.  

These locals are not normal- kooks and weirdoes and clearly shady with an ulterior motive. Maddy (Therese Bradley) has hair so frazzled its like a living thing and Charles (Richard Hope) has trademarked the Creepy Stare, indeed all of them have mad smiles better suited to a padded cell. Especially the guy who Claire recognised from a recent episode of Doctors. But Jason and Rebecca don’t seem too concerned, not even when it turns out there’s a crazy old man squatting in the flat above the pub whose warnings of danger etc (“They’re going to do something terrible! And you walked straight into it!”) are simply ignored. It really is that stupid. The whole place is something of a madhouse, and any sane or reasoning individual would be straight out of there, car or no car. If I had to sum the film up it’d be Emmerdale meets The Wicker Man, (albeit without Emmerdale‘s production values or acting talent) so no doubt you can intuit from that what is going on and what happens. There’s a core idea buried deep within containing some Lovecraftian elements from which a decent film might be made, but this really isn’t it.

To be fair to the cast and crew, it was probably made over a few days with a budget just this side of non-existent, so getting something made at all was possibly an accomplishment in itself. But even this is frustrating; having no money is no reason something has to be so bad, it just requires a bit more ingenuity in the script. The basic premise is fine and it could actually have become a very disturbing and effective horror. I gather the film was intended by its director/writer/composer Raine McCormack to be a love-letter to 1970s British horror, but I think he missed the point that those films were often gaudy and fun, not just foggy and boring. To be brutally honest, I’ve noticed that McCormack had no formal training (no nonsense like film school for instance) and I think this film sums up the current situation wherein everybody thinks they can make a movie if they’ve watched enough DVDs. One only has to look at the standard of screenwriting in Hollywood as evidence of how low standards are slipping just about everywhere, accentuated by how thin the talent pool is being spread over the traditional old studios and all the independents satiating the relentless hunger of streaming platforms for content. Maybe when a few of these streamers go bump and/or amalgamate the average quality of content will curve upwards. Maybe I should cut McCormack some slack, but I’ve seen far too many terrible horror films of late: even The Devil’s Men was more enjoyable than this (well, prettier at any rate). 

The Village in the Woods is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (my excuse, it was October/Halloween etc) and is also available on DVD and (more ignominy piled upon The Abyss) Blu-Ray.

The Contract (2006)

contractpicOne of the rare pleasures of something like Netflix, because of its ceaseless attempts to grab public attention with something ‘new’ is managing to find the older films on the platform worth watching. Well, I say ‘old’, but in the case of The Contract, which I stumbled upon by chance/vagaries of the Netflix algorithms, I have to wonder what qualifies as old: is 2006 as ancient as current-centric platforms like Netflix might suggest, and where does that leave all the films of the 1970s and (especially) the 1980s that I grew up with? Bad enough working with colleagues who weren’t even born when I was a lad in the Odeon Cinema watching Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As for films of the 1940s or 1950s… 

Anyway, maybe I’m just too forgiving but The Contract proved something of a surprise. Not just that it was actually better than I’d expected (you know, set your sights low enough and anything can surprise), but also that it was a film I’d never heard of, despite featuring both Morgan Freeman and John Cusack (particularly the latter, as he’s one of my wife Claire’s favourite actors). It was directed by Bruce Beresford, and seeing his name got my attention as I remembered his Driving Miss Daisy (another Morgan Freeman vehicle (sic)) which was a big success at the time, albeit possibly quite forgotten today, as films tend to be, attention-spans such as they are. Mind, I’d actually mistakenly thought Beresford had directed Harry and the Hendersons but it turns out I was wrong on that score, proving that my memory is getting fuzzy. 

The Contract was hardly going to set the cinematic world afire back when it came out in 2006, and indeed it was actually a straight to video release in most markets, but its a reasonably solid effort, predictable in places but none the worse for that- there is something rather comforting watching something like this, a fairly low-key drama/thriller depicting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Well, maybe not all that ordinary, but this is Hollywood. I guess this is the kind of mundane film that oddly ages quite well considering the over-the-top, noisy extravaganzas we tend to get these days. 

Cusack plays Ray, a widower who has a fractious relationship with his teenage son, Chris (Jamie Anderson) and takes him on a hiking trip out in the woods to try fix their issues. Meanwhile, following a chance car accident assassin Frank Carden (Freeman) has been caught by the FBI whilst recovering in hospital and is being transported to headquarters when Frank’s hitmen associates try to free him. The attempt goes astray, the car Frank is being driven in plunges off the road into a river sweeping him downstream to where Ray and Chris are hiking. The FBI agent handcuffed to Frank dies, but fortunately not before telling Ray who he and Frank are and the need to get Frank to the authorities. Frank’s team, of course, are soon on the chase. 

The narrative is spoiled by a few of the usual tropes- Ray is a small-town teacher now but he used to be a cop, so is better qualified than might be expected to protect his son, mind Frank’s attempts to abscond and thwart the mercenaries on their trail, and the film can’t avoid providing a young romantic interest for Ray when they stumble upon a young couple and the annoying boyfriend catches a bullet to remind us that Frank’s team aren’t completely useless. A welcome treat is Alice Krige, who plays a duplicitous Intelligence chief with an agenda that requires Frank to be killed rather than possibly reveal agency plots about a contract on a reclusive billionaire- its all very daft but kind of fun. Its one of those films in which nobody’s wardrobe ever seems to get dirty or creased despite days spent in the wilds (Frank’s tailored outfit is practically the stuff of sorcery). Freeman, of course is quite brilliant, effortlessly playing this cold assassin with a moral compass; his natural charisma assures us he’ll do the right thing eventually (especially when he realises his boss has turned on him and he’s now a target).  Its almost bewildering how Frank’s team of mercenaries are oddly inept rather than the coldly ruthless killers they purport to be, but that’s part of the fun of the film. Its very much a Sunday afternoon film, really, and possibly none the worst for that- but yeah, maybe I’m too forgiving. I’ve seen much worse.

The 2021 List: October

Here’s my belated summary of what I watched during October, and the first thing that’s clear to me is that it was a very good month for movies. Mostly it was older movies that impressed, discovering such ‘new’ favourites as Pushover, Kiss of Death and Strangers When We Meet, but of course October also presented a genuinely new film in the shape of Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited Dune: Part One. I’m still a little on the fence regards the film but I’m pretty certain that when it comes out on home video early next year (its rumoured for late January) after a few viewings it’ll win me over- particularly as we now know that Dune: Part Two has been announced for October 2023. Curiously, at the end of the month I finally caught up with another Part One/Part Two movie, with It: Chapter Two, which I found pretty underwhelming and which left me musing the benefits and weaknesses of these films spreading narratives over two instalments.

Not that October was a slam-dunk for movies, as I saw what must surely be Peter Cushing’s nadir in film- the abysmal The Devil’s Men. Definitely not his finest hour- not so much regards his performance, as Cushing always turned out and made an effort whatever he was in, a professional to the end, but frankly the film was terrible and didn’t deserve him. His next film gave him an all-new generation of fans, when he appeared in Star Wars, but its a sad reflection of the film industry of the 1970s that it didn’t treat talent of his calibre with more reverence. Obviously that’s more me as a film-lover appreciative of the artform and its ‘stars’ with whom we strike an empathy and admiration for, than the cold eye of what’s essentially just a business: the history of film is scattered with under-appreciated talent thrown to the winds of fate, and no matter how much Hollywood marketing eulogises its own history and stars of old, the reality is rather different and far more dispassionate. Look at someone like Hitchcock (and hey, I finally caught up with Dial M For Murder!), who could hardly get a gig later in his career when he found himself lost in the shadow of  the new wunderkinds like Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas. Film history may paint a nobler summation of his worth to the industry, but Hitch always knew that you’re only as good as your last movie (or its box-office, anyway).

Television

119) The North Water

Films

117) The Asphyx (1972)

118) Lucky (2017)

120) Pushover (1954)

121) Chicago Syndicate (1955)

Unbreakable (2000) (4K UHD)

122) Glass

123) A Bullet is Waiting (1954)

124) Guilty (2021)

125) No One Gets Out Alive (2021)

126) Kiss of Death (1947)

127) Strangers When We Meet (1960)

128) Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

129) The Devil’s Men (1976)

Pitch Black (2000) (4K UHD)

130) The Forgotten Battle (2021)

131) Dial M For Murder (1954)

132) Dune (2021)

133) Army of Thieves (2021)

134) It: Chapter Two (2019)