Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Minor Dundee

After rewatching Major Dundee recently because I had never seen the restoration on it (TCM aired the so-called producer’s cut in November 2019), I’m not convinced that the restored scenes help clarify many of the plot loopholes people used to complain about. Sam Peckinpah still loses control of the material about halfway through, despite the undeniable power of individual scenes and set pieces, although the full cut makes the movie seem less like a studio hatchet job than it used to seem. Peckinpah was inebriated most of the time during the shooting, according to Charlton Heston, so it isn’t surprising that he was unable to exert a hang-together coherence over his script (the well-made play format was never his strength as a director, anyway). Written largely on the fly after production began, it’s brilliant in patches but also meandering and overreaching.
Man with a mission. Charlton Heston

When you watch Dundee from 1965, you see the burn in Peckinpah’s molten vision 
— the deconstruction of Old West fables — but you also feel the bleary result onscreen of Peckinpah’s confusion with the Melvillean morality play of obsession. It seems as if the whole sordid path of Peckinpah’s infamously self-destructive career is bottled up in this movie.

Some of the actors pull through with career-defining performances: Charlton Heston, James Coburn, and Warren Oates (in his big capture scene, his crafty deserter demands his life rather than pleads for it). One shot of the troops crossing a river in the fog rivals Kurosawa for kinetic majesty, but other scenes — especially of festive, cavorting peasants (their dancing and eating are framed in atrociously noble terms) or of speechless young lovers — are stultifying. How drunk do you have to be to copy so little of Kurosawa’s best and so much of John Ford’s worst?

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