9/20/05 Edition

A Restoration Of MAJOR proportions

Sony Releases The Expanded MAJOR DUNDEE
Plus: NED AND STACEY, FOUR FRIENDS, Sherman Bros. and More!

In 1964, Sam Peckinpah -- fresh off the success of his Randolph Scott western “Ride the High Country”-- was hired by producer Jerry Bresler to shoot his first big-budget studio picture.

“Major Dundee” starred Charlton Heston as a tough, uncompromising Union officer guarding a jail full of Confederate soldiers and other deviants in New Mexico. After a renegade Apache warrior ransacks a ranch -- killing nearly everyone in its path, from Union soldiers to young children -- Heston takes charge of tracking him down by any means necessary, including the recruitment of Confederate prisoners to join the cavalry. Among the latter is Richard Harris as one of Heston’s former rivals, who joins The Major, scout James Coburn, and bugler Michael Anderson, Jr. (who also narrates Dundee’s tale) as the troops venture into Mexico to dispatch the Apaches, avoiding French interference along the way.

Originally intended to be a full-blown, three-hour Columbia epic -- a la “Lawrence of Arabia” -- Peckinpah, Heston and Bresler watched helplessly during production as the studio cut the budget back on the movie. The director and producer sparred over all kinds of problems, and according to Heston, Peckinpah’s off-set vices resulted in the star taking over the direction of the film for a time.

In the editing room “Major Dundee” became even more of a jumbled mess. Bresler and the distributor each removed sections of Peckinpah’s original cut, but according to most experts (notably “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson, who authors the new DVD’s liner notes), the movie was never satisfactorily completed or even fully formed on the printed page to begin with. Adding insult to injury was the addition of an inane musical score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, utilizing a Colonel Bogey-esque theme song by Mitch Miller & His Sing-Along-Gang that couldn’t have been more out of place.

Over the years “Major Dundee” has gained a sizable cult reputation (mainly among Peckinpah aficionados), with fans long hoping for a restoration that would finally bring all elements of Peckinpah’s “lost masterpiece” together for the first time.

Though billed by Sony as “an authentic American classic, at last presented as its legendary director intended!,” the new, Extended Edition of MAJOR DUNDEE (***, 136 mins., PG-13; Sony) is still -- in spite of considerable restoration efforts -- a flawed film with only intermittent flashes of brilliance.

Far from a classic, even of its genre, the movie nevertheless offers some spectacular moments and superb widescreen imagery, along with strong performances from an excellent cast -- most of whom are poorly utilized in a script that never seems sure where it’s going or what precisely it’s trying to say. Is it a profile of American’s adventurous spirit in the dwindling days of the Civil War? A commentary on the futility of warfare in general? Even the “experts” seem divided on what the movie’s point is. Meanwhile, though some of the supporting characters have more of a place here (one of the chief criticisms of Columbia’s original theatrical cut), several still appear and then disappear with no rhyme or reason (and what exactly is the deal with Senta Berger’s love interest?).

Still, “Dundee” devotees will find much to rejoice about in the extended cut: mainly, a brand new score by Christopher Caliendo that easily tops Amfitheatrof’s often inane original soundtrack. Caliendo’s music is appropriately dense and bombastic enough that it doesn’t sound out of place for a mid ‘60s film, whilst retaining a modern sensibility that makes it far more satisfying than Amfitheatrof’s work, which is marred by the Mitch Miller march and a laughably bad synthesizer “stab” whenever the Apaches appear on-screen. Still, purists can find comfort that Amfitheatrof’s music is offered as well, though the 5.1 stereo track (with Caliendo’s soundtrack) is unquestionably more satisfying than the comparatively pinched original mono mix.

The movie looks superb in Sony’s restoration as well. The 2.35, 16:9-enhanced transfer is exceptional, particularly when you consider the myriad quality of elements Sony had to work with for the restored sequences.

For supplements, Sony has compiled a wealth of extra features that have made this DVD a must-have, regardless of your opinion of the movie.

Several Peckinpah experts join moderator Nick Redman on a commentary track that, according to Glenn Erickson, was recorded alongside an as-of-yet unreleased Peckinpah Warner western box-set (hence the references to other commentaries, and the lack of mention of Caliendo’s new music). The group discusses the genesis of the film and how it fits in the Peckinpah canon, and surprisingly are highly critical of the finished work (most are even dismissive of the new introduction of Richard Harris’ character).

Some additional deleted footage can be found in surviving footage from “Knife Fight” and an extended sequence between “Major Dundee and Teresa,” silent outtakes and a vintage featurette (“Riding For a Fall”) that profiles one of the film’s numerous stunts being shot, along with a glimpse at the still-lost opening Apache attack sequence. There’s also a lengthy excerpt from a Peckinpah documentary, offering interviews with L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Senta Berger and James Coburn; trailer artwork, poster stills, an exhibitor promo reel excerpt, and both the original trailer and one for last year’s limited theatrical re-release.

“Major Dundee: The Extended Cut” isn’t quite what its packaging promises, since Peckinpah’s original Director’s Cut -- by all accounts -- wasn’t ever finished. Although not all of the movie’s lost footage could be located, it’s highly likely that -- even WITH those scenes restored -- “Major Dundee” would still be an “incomplete” film.

That said, the 136-minute Extended Version is nevertheless an important, ambitious attempt at restoring “Major Dundee” as best as can be. The DVD is chock full of supplements and the movie, in spite of its shortcomings, is certainly worth a viewing for its brisk action scenes and excellent performances from Heston and Harris.

For additional, recommended reading, check out Glenn Erickson’s DVD Savant analysis of the movie here.

Also New From Sony

TOM SAWYER (***½, 1973). 99 mins., G, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: Full-screen transfer, 2.0 Dolby Digital surround.
HUCKLEBERRY FINN (**½, 1974). 114 mins., G, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: Full-screen transfer, 2.0 Dolby Digital surround.

Hugely disappointing DVD presentations of Arthur P. Jacobs’ two Sherman Brothers musicals, here presented in cropped pan-and-scan versions. Subsequently, instead of seeing the wide Panavision frame of both “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” we get virtually half of the original image, which takes away a great deal of each film’s impact.

On their own terms, the two movies are highly entertaining, especially the 1973 “Tom Sawyer.” Starring “Family Affair”’s Johnny Whittaker as Tom, Jodie Foster as Becky, future Clark Kent Jeff East as Huck Finn, and veterans Celeste Holm and Warren Oates, director Don Taylor’s movie benefits from a spirited Sherman Brothers score -- marvelously adapted by John Williams -- and exceptional scope cinematography.

“Huckleberry Finn” was filmed the subsequent year, and it’s a somewhat disjointed, inferior follow-up, with East reprising Huck Finn and Paul Winfield co-starring as Jim, the runaway slave our hero befriends and attempts to help. Director J. Lee Thompson proved to be a less-than-satisfactory replacement for Taylor, and what’s worse, Fred Werner proved to be a less than stellar replacement for Williams, who by 1974 was well on his way to major scoring assignments like “The Towering Inferno.” The movie, though, isn’t a total loss, though shorn of its Panavision dimensions, both movies appear more plastic and “‘70s”-ish than they ought to be.

Fans of the movies are urged to track down Image/MGM’s 1994 laserdisc releases, which not only include Widescreen Letterbox transfers but numerous supplements on “Tom Sawyer,” including rehearsal footage of Williams with the Shermans, plus a commentary track with the Shermans and Don Taylor -- none of which, sadly, have been carried over to the new DVDs.

NED AND STACEY: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (1995-96, 535 mins., Sony): Before Debra Messing became a big hit on “Will and Grace” and Thomas Haden Church earned kudos in “Sideways,” the duo starred in this appealing, under-rated Fox sitcom.

The set-up is, admittedly, a bit forced: Ned (Haden Church) is an arrogant, acerbic businessman who marries would-be journalist Stacey (Messing) to curry favor with his bosses and gain a promotion in the process. Despite the fact that the duo hardly know each other, Stacey agrees, mainly because she needs a place to live. From there, the would-be couple engage in a battle of the sexes, hang out with pals Greg Germann and Nadia Dajani, and spar over pretty much everything.

Though some view the show as merely a warm-up for Messing’s subsequent success with “Will and Grace,” “Ned and Stacey” is, for the most part, a funny, well-written sitcom with an edge. The series only lasted two seasons and never did the expected by pairing the two romantically (something that could well have been developed if the show wasn’t cancelled prematurely), and as a result focuses strictly on the comedic interplay between its cast. Haden Church and Messing work great together here, and Germann and Dajani are frequently hilarious as their equally bickering friends.

Sony’s three-disc set offers solid full-screen transfers with unedited broadcast-length shows. Not only that, but the studio has thrown in extras to compliment the package: a 20-minute retrospective offers new interviews with the stars, while creator Michael J. Weithorn offers a commentary on the pilot episode. Like Messing, Weithorn’s next show (“The King of Queens”) would become a full-blown success, but “Ned and Stacey” still offers plenty for its cast and creators to be proud of. This piece of fluff is highly appealing on its own terms and worthy of a second look by those who might have missed it the first time around.

FOUR FRIENDS (***, 1981, 115 mins., R; MGM/Sony): Oscar-winning writer Steve Tesich attempted to follow the success of “Breaking Away” with this ambitious but flawed film from director Arthur Penn. Spanning several decades, “Four Friends” tells the story of a Yugoslav immigrant (the under-rated Craig Wasson from “Ghost Story”) who experiences the turbulent ‘60s with the company of three best friends: Jim Metzler, Michael Huddleston, and free-spirited Jodi Thelen. Some insightful passages and powerful moments are contrasted by almost absurdly melodramatic moments that don’t work, along with some equally over-the-top acting from Thelen. Still, “Four Friends” -- in its best moments -- is an evocative, heartfelt piece, with the expected political and social commentary thankfully dialed down in favor of strong character development. MGM/Sony’s DVD offers an excellent 16:9 transfer of the 1981 film, along with a clear mono soundtrack and the film’s pretentious original trailer.

INSERTS (**, 1975, 115 mins., NC-17; MGM/Sony): Now here’s an obscure offering perfect for curious cinephiles. Shortly after appearing in “Jaws,” Richard Dreyfuss starred in this pretentious, sleazy, but somehow still compelling film as “Boy Wonder,” a downtrodden filmmaker in the 1930s who couldn’t make the transition from silents to talkies. Now saddled with making one of the cinema’s earliest excursions into erotica, “Boy Wonder” has to juggle an icy leading lady (Veronica Cartwright), a gangster (Bob Hoskins) and his moll (Jessica Harper), and “Rex the Wonder Dog” (Stephen Davies) in order to crank his production out. Originally X-rated (and still NC-17 by today’s standards), “Inserts” looks and feels like a filmed play, even though writer-director John Byrum’s script was penned for the screen. The movie is fun and shocking for a while, but eventually sinks under Byrum’s pretentiousness and the plastic, ‘70s dialogue and mannerisms that date the picture badly. Still, “Inserts” is a film that’s been out of circulation for years, and Dreyfuss aficionados may find MGM/Sony’s DVD of interest: the full-length 115 minute international cut is included here (the U.S. apparently received a shortened R-rated version), along with a theatrical trailer. The 16:9 transfer and mono sound are both satisfactory for a movie that’s been on the studio shelf for many, many years.

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