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Major Dundee ****

Bear with me. War of the Worlds, or WOW for short, gives you exactly what you expect, and Me and You and Everyone We Know, opening Friday at Landmark's Hillcrest, gives you what you don't expect. Both are enjoyable in different ways and degrees, and I'll elaborate as soon as I'm able. For me, however, the event of the summer so far, and as far ahead as I can see, is the "extended version" of Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee, buried in the back half of the week at the Ken Cinema, Monday through Thursday only. You can have your Star Wars the Sixth, your Batman the Fifth, your Mr. and Mrs. Smith, your Howl's Moving Castle. I'm with Sam.

The Ken has been a welcoming place for Peckinpah over the years, having shown within memory his name-making Ride the High Country as well as restorations of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I didn't like in its shorter form and couldn't sit through in its longer, and of course The Wild Bunch. In all honesty, I would have considered Dundee, falling between Ride and Wild in the Peckinpah filmography, to have been the event of the summer even in an unextended version. I always thought the purported butchery of it by the studio -- Columbia -- gave the critics permission to underrate it, while at the same time to exalt its martyred director. I'll go further: I put it after Ride and before Wild in quality besides chronology. A preference for the later film is a preference for self-indulgence (and for one of the prime symptoms thereof, slow-motion action scenes). Which is not to say that Peckinpah did not butt heads with the studio -- Warners -- over that one, too. Thus the need for a restoration.

I myself soon grew weary of Peckinpah's behind-the-scenes battles, unconvinced as I was that his limited talent entitled him to unlimited rope. To rein him in a little ought not to ruin him. It did not -- his own opinion to the contrary -- ruin Dundee, a Civil War-period Western of knotty complexity, to do with a mixed-nuts posse of Union regulars, Confederate POWs, a handful of custodial "coloreds," Indians, and ragtag civilian volunteers in pursuit of an Apache raiding party south of the border, and pursued in turn by a platoon of the French occupation army. It sounds almost farcical in so brief a summary. It plays remarkably well.

The original studio cut, running just over two hours, boasted many indelible scenes: the pre-credits tableau of a massacred cavalry troop, with the Apache chief, Sierra Charriba, gloating over the flayed commander hanging by his heels, "Who you send against me now?" and the answer coming in the whomping red letters of the title; the arrival of that character at the site of the massacre, the incantatory issuance of his standard order to his men, "If I signal you to come, you come; if I signal you to charge, you charge; and if I signal you to run, you follow me and run like hell," and then the symmetrical sectioning of the screen by his deployed forces, left, right, and center; his night-time address to a mass of Rebel prisoners picketed on all sides by torches, appealing to them in vain for volunteers to hunt the Indians, then muscling his way fearlessly into their midst, plowing through them like a human cowcatcher; the recruiting parade of renegades and reprobates that passes through HQ; the quick-stroke delineation of the green lieutenant who will be the Major's last choice for his second in command, and who doesn't know enough to bite off the end of a cigar before drawing smoke; the moment of decision at the border when the Rebel leader must choose whether to keep his "word" (priceless currency in The Wild Bunch, too, you'll recall) or to peel off and join a pack of fast-closing Confederates; the internal tensions in the night camp that almost, if not for the intervention of a two-fisted Bible-thumper, erupt into a race riot. But such a list must trail off into a too-many-to-mention. Suffice it to say that the chance to watch Peckinpah's geometrical management of the wide screen in its intended dimensions -- to watch him carve up the giant rectangle with lines, columns, rings, blocks of men and horses -- is a chance to be jumped at.

My memory of the blood bath off screen, whatever I once knew of it, has naturally faded, and the only potential reference work within arm's reach is my autographed copy of Charlton Heston's The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976 (autographed inside the back cover, upside down). Beyond some broad allusions to an inexperienced director on his first big-budget production, running behind schedule and over budget, this source provides a first-hand record of the star's rhetorical offer to return his salary in an effort to save the director's job (the bosses didn't take it as rhetorical, they took Heston's salary), and also of the kinds of ambitions that run amok in pre-production: "Tony Quinn's unavailable for Tyreen, so they're now submitting Major Dundee to Steve McQueen... . Lee Marvin will be Potts, I think, and maybe Omar Sharif for Gomez." In the end they settled for Richard Harris, James Coburn, and Mario Adorf, respectively. And they settled for two hours instead of two and a half.

The new "extended version," not to be confused with a "director's cut," puts back about twelve minutes of footage, or roughly half of what would fill out Peckinpah's first edit. As in the restoration of The Wild Bunch, the put-backs are mostly minor and largely debatable. The movie at two hours was already a bit short on action and long on character, and you don't have to be a bean counter to sympathize with the studio for digging in against further disproportion. (Critics of the day, while lamenting that it was taken out of Peckinpah's hands, were also prone to complain it was overlong.) At least one addition, however, qualifies unequivocally as major, and it comes at the one spot that always stood out glaringly as choppy and abrupt: Dundee's dive into debauchery and the bottle during his recuperation from a wound. This has now been nicely smoothed out, at a cost of not more than five extra minutes. It would have been a battle worth winning.

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