Major Dundee (1965) ***

Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.

If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident.  And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.

That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.

There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.

In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.

Senta Berger was the cover girl for “Showtime,” the monthly magazine for the Odeon cinema circuit in the U.K. and there was also feature inside on the film’s star Richard Harris.

Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.

Virtually the entire marketing program for “Major Dundee” was based around the military. The film appeared on the centenary of the ending of the Civil War. The movie most likely to take advantage of that anniversary – Gone with the Wind – was in cold storage, having already taken advantage of the centenary of the start of the war for its umpteenth reissue. So exhibitors were encouraged to put on displays of battle flags sourced from a museum or collector or to arrange a parade with buglers enrolled from youth groups or the church. A horseman dressed in Union colors could ride through the streets to raise awareness and the cinema lobby could be decorated with military equipment and both Union and Confederate flags. Any local person named Dundee might be rounded up. On a different note, Charlton Heston had rustled up his own version of Mexican chili and the recipe was being offered to newspapers. Harry Julian Fink had novelized his screenplay so there was the possibility of bookshop displays and Columbia Records had issued the “Major Dundee March” as a single. Unusually, there was an 8mm film about the film’s stunt men which was intended for sale in cinema lobbies.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

55 Days at Peking (1963) ***

Imperialism is hard to stomach these days but at the start of the twentieth century it was rampant and as shown in this picture not just restricted to the main culprit, the British. China was Imperialism Central, round about a dozen nations including the USA and Russia claiming control of sections of the country or its produce. So they had all set up diplomatic shop in Peking. And the film begins with an early morning roll call of national anthems before this domination by outside interests in shattered by rebellion.

Just as hard to stomach, of course, was the movie mainstream notion in those days that all rebellions must perforce be put down regardless of how put-upon the peasant classes were. Audiences had to rally round people in other circumstances they would naturally hate. So one of the problems of 55 Days at Peking is to cast the rebels (known as Boxers) and the complicit Chinese government in a bad light while ensuring that those under siege are not seen as cast-iron saints. There’s no getting round the fact that the rebels are shown as prone to butchery and slaughter while the Chinese rulers are considered ineffective and traitorous.

Producer Samuel Bronston built his Peking set on a 250-acre site at a ranch 16 miles from Madrid, Spain, near the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains. To ensure authenticity, a canal was enlarged to supply 15,000 gallons of water a day from a specially-prepared reservoir holding half a million gallons. Over 1.3 million feet of tubular steel – all the scaffolding available in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia – was used in the set construction.

So it’s left to the likes of Charlton Heston as the leader of U.S. Marines stationed in the city to bring some balance to proceedings. “Don’t get the idea you’re better than these people because they can’t speak English,” he expounds. David Niven plays the British Consul trying to keep this particular league of nations onside while negotiating with one hand tied behind his back – “we must play this game by Chinese rules” – with the Chinese Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) while knowingly endangering his wife (Scottish actress Elizabeth Sellars, a one-time big British star) and two children. Ava Gardner is an unscrupulous Russian baroness with little loyalty to her home country.

To ensure journalists provided authentic coverage of the siege, press materials included a copy of the detailed map printed in the Saturday October 13, 1900, edition of British daily newspaper “The Times” and its account of the action. Producer Samuel Bronston claimed that some of the costumes worn by Flora Robson in her role as the Dowager Empress were actual ones worn by the empress and purchased from an Italian family who had connections in the Italian embassy during the siege.

The picture is one-part action, one-part politics and one-part domesticity, if you include in the last section Heston’s romance with Gardner, Niven’s guilt when his son is wounded in an attack and Heston’s conflict over a young native girl (Lynne Sue Moon) fathered by one of his own men who is then killed. Two of the best scenes are these men coping with parental obligation, Niven coping with a wounded son, Heston finding it impossible to offer succour to the child.

The action is extremely well-handled. The siege goes on longer than expected when the expected troops fail to arrive, tension rising as casualties mount and supplies fall low. As with the best battle pictures, clever maneuvers save the day. Two sections are outstanding. The first has Heston marshalling artillery to prevent the Chinese gaining the high ground. The second is a daring raid – Niven’s idea, actually – through the city’s sewers on the enemy’s ammunition dump. Personal heroism is limited – Heston volunteers to go 70 miles through enemy territory to get help but has to turn back when his men are wounded or killed.

The film was not released in 70mm roadshow in the United States as originally planned but like “El Cid” went straight into general release in a 35mm version. but it was seen in 70mm in Europe. Among suggested promotional activities were a “guess-the-flag” competition since 11 nations were involved. The tie-ins included a Corgi paperback, the original soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin and four singles – Andy Williams singing the theme song “So Little Time,” The Brothers Four with “55 Days at Peking” (also recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen) and Tommy Riley with “Peking Theme.”

There’s a fair bit of stiff upper lip but while Heston, in familiar chest-baring mode, has Gardner to distract him, Niven is both clever, constantly having to outwit the opposition and hold the other diplomats together, and humane, drawn into desperation at the prospect of his comatose son dying without ever having visited England.  Gardner moves from seducer to sly traitorous devil to angel of mercy, shifting out of her beautiful outfits and glamorous hats to don a nurse’s uniform, at the same time as shifting her outlook from selfish to unselfish. All three stars acquit themselves well as does Flora Robson in a thankless role.

This was the third of maverick producer Samuel Bronston’s big-budget epics after King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) with a script as usual from Philip Yordan and directed by Nicholas Ray.

All in all it is a decent film and does not get bogged down in politics and the characters do come alive but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking this is the wrong mindset, in retrospect, for the basis of a picture.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. This one I noticed is available on YouTube at the point where I was reviewing it. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Greatest Movie Never Made

Forty Days at Musa Dagh was a strong contender by the end of the 1960s for The Greatest Movie Never Made. By then an eye-watering one million bucks had been spent without a foot of film being shot.

I came across it while writing my book about “The Making of The Guns of Navarone.” That  film’s producer Carl Foreman was slated in the early 1960s to write what I soon discovered was a legendary lost project. It was subsequently fated to become the most high-profile casualty of MGM’s financial problems at the end of that decade.

Forty Days of Musa Dagh was based on the debut novel written in German by Prague-born poet Franz Werfel (who later wrote The Song of Bernadette filmed in 1942). It concerned the infamous Armenian genocide carried out by the Turks in World War One.

The novel had such advance buzz that news of its imminent publication in Germany in 1933 quickly crossed the Atlantic. After studio representatives read the book in the original German, MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg bought the rights in 1934, prior to its American publication, for $35,000 (equivalent to $650,000 now).

Thalberg promised “one of the most staggering  production undertakings of all motion picture history.” With Clark Gable and William Powell heading the cast (there would be 63 roles) and director William Wellman (Call of the Wild, 1935) assigned a million-dollar budget, an enormous amount for the time, and with screenwriter Talbot Jennings (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935) on board, Thalberg was intent on delivering a prestige product. In publicity material, MGM boasted: “What a picture it will make.” 

The novel was a huge success with 170,000 copies sold in hardback even though, priced at $3, it was 50 cents or a dollar more expensive than other bestsellers. It was simultaneously snapped up by the Book of the Month Club and the Catholic Book club and only kept off the top of the bestseller lists by James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

However, publication was shrouded in controversy. It was banned in Germany shortly after publication. In America, publisher Viking and the author faced a $200,000 libel lawsuit brought by Harutian Nokhudian and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1936 – where it was dismissed. But that was only the beginning of its troubles.

Thalberg had not counted on opposition from Turkey. Or if such a possibility had been considered, it had been dismissed since that country was not a profitable outlet for Hollywood product. However, Turkey had very strong trading relationships and threatened to instigate a ban on all MGM releases in these European countries as well as the entire Muslim world, an action which if successful would put a huge hole in the studio’s foreign receipts.

For the first time studios “had begun to pay attention to foreign repercussions” after Paramount had been forced to withdraw from Spain and many other markets the final Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration The Devil Is A Woman  (1935) when that movie ruffled the feathers of foreign powers. Unwilling to go ahead with a picture that might cost them heavily at the foreign box office, Thalberg shelved the movie (along with two others).

The idea remained dormant for 15 years until revived by independent producer Walter Wanger (Joan of Arc, 1948) who had originally competed with MGM for the rights and had Paramount waiting in the wings to provide backing should the Thalberg deal fall through. But even a seasoned a producer such as Wanger had no more success in placing it on the launch pad and it struggled along in development hell for another decade until, out of the blue, in 1961 MGM hooked writer-director Carl Foreman.

This was a considerable surprise because Foreman had an exclusive and lucrative deal with Columbia (they split profits on his films down the middle) but as he was coming off that studio’s most successful picture of all time The Guns of Navarone (1961) with a high-octane cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn the studio cut him some slack.

Foreman did not come cheap. In addition to his $27,500 fee for writing the script, Foreman was entitled to 2.5 per cent of the gross after MGM had taken in twice the negative cost. After an arduous four-year slog delivering The Guns of Navarone, Foreman described his new venture as “a bit of a rest” which seemed an odd choice of phrase given that MGM was under pressure to greenlight the picture in 1962. 

It was firmly in MGM’s production sights for most of the 1960s. In 1963 it was seen as one of the studio’s biggest upcoming projects along with Doctor Zhivago, the adaptation of James Michener’s Caravans and musical Say It with Music. By the following year it had been allocated a $7.5 million budget – the same as Zhivago – and was on course to be made in Greece in the spring of that year.

By 1965 it landed in the lap of Oscar-nominated British director Guy Green who had nurtured the $1.2 million A Patch of Blue (1965) starring Sidney Poitier into a substantial hit. Although the budget had by now dropped to $5 million it had attracted Omar Sharif, one of four big stars set. There was a new script by Scottish Oscar-winner Neil Paterson (Room at the Top, 1959) and best of all there was a top-flight producer in Pandro S. Berman (Father of the Bride, 1950)  with over two decades experience at MGM. Filming, however, though still in Greece, had been pushed back to 1966.

Although Guy Green appeared to have the most solid lock on the project, other names associated with the movie included producer Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago, 1965) and directors William Wyler (Ben Hur, 1959),  Henri Verneuil  (The 25th Hour, 1967) and Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, 1954), the last two both born in the former Ottoman Empire now known as Turkey.

It was listed as being on the MGM production schedules for every year till the end of the decade with names like Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston bandied about until it joined a massive bonfire of other expensive projects. By the end of the decade it had racked up over a million dollars in producer and screenwriter fees. According to Variety it was “the most off-again on-again major literary property in the history of American motion picture.”

But it was not alone in being dumped by a studio. Towards the end of the 1960s Hollywood was awash with abandoned projects. The rights to Broadway musical Coco had cost $2.25 million. Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate had a $12 million budget before the plug was pulled. A record $600,000 had been spent on acquiring the rights to William Styron bestseller The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Other high-priced acquisitions lumped in production limbo included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) author John Le Carre’s A Small Town in Germany, Armageddon by Leon Uris of Exodus (1960) fame, Bullet Park by John Cheever who had written The Swimmer (1968), Caravans despite the success of the author’s Hawaii (1966) and The Inheritors by Harold Robbins who had churned out The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Hit plays were no more successful in reaching the starting grid – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall had George Cukor lined up to direct and Faye Dunaway as star and a total of $350,000 had been spent on Tom Stoppard’s  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  

And there, surely, Forty Days of Musa Dagh should have been laid to rest. Of all these expensive projects, only Caravans would eventually see the light of day. But against all odds, interest in Forty Days of Musa Dagh remained high. Fresh from success with Where Eagles Dare (1968) producing team Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin took a stab at the project, setting their sights on a new script and a 1970 start date. But the duo could not turn the idea into reality. And once again it sank to the bottom of the pile.

Armenian businessman and sometime producer John Kurkjian (The Tears of Happiness, 1974) picked up the rights through his vehicle High Investment and wooed MGM. And in 1976 the project was revived by the studio as a co-production with James B. Harris (Paths of Glory, 1957) overseeing production based on a new script by South African playwright Ronald Harwood (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1970). This was viewed as “the last attempt to revive it” and for a time it appeared as if the project would at last see the light of day. But MGM’s optimism barely lasted the year and, concluding the movie was too rich for its blood, dropped out.

Kurkjian continued to try to interest other studios and was confident. With a new script by Clarke Reynolds (Shalako, 1968), he was convinced he could get the movie off the ground with the backing of the Yugoslavian government were the film to shoot there. United Artists announced the movie would be on its release slate for 1977-1978. But that, too, proved a false dawn.

Redemption came from the most unlikely of sources –  American B-picture production outfit Cannon which had been taken over in 1979 for just $500,000 by Israeli writer-director Menahem Golem and his cousin Yoram Globus. Although this pair specialized in low-budget action pictures such as Death Wish sequels and martial arts efforts like Enter the Ninja (1981), they had artistic pretensions, borne out by The Magician of Lublin (1979) directed by Golan and starring Alan Arkin. That same year, a new version of Forty Days of Musa Dagh took shape, part-funded by High Investment and the West Berlin Senate. Charles Bronson was lined up as star. The budget was set at $10 million.

In the end, there was no Bronson and no $10 million budget, but the movie did get made in 1982 for $4 million by Transcontinental Picture Industries with the less stellar cast of Indian star Kabir Bedi (Sandokan mini-series, 1976), American television actress Ronnie Carol and character actor Guy Stockwell  (Beau Geste, 1966). It was directed by Israeli Sarky Mouradian (Tears of Happiness). It did not reach the United States for another five years. And it was no epic, coming in at a trim 94 minutes. Nor was it a huge box office success. And it’s pretty impossible to find on DVD.

Footnote: The Promise (2016) covered the same ground. Directed by Terry George, it starred Chistian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. It was funded by Kirk Kerkorian.

SOURCES: “Double Pan for Reich,” Variety, Feb 27, 1934, 58; “Literati: Best Sellers,” Variety, Jan 1, 1935, 58; “Wellman’s Chore,” Variety, Apr 10, 1935, 2; Advertisement, MGM, Variety, Jun 12, 1935, 25-28; “Foreign Rights Bugaboo,” Variety, Nov 27, 1935, 2; “Thalberg’s Eight; Four at $1,000,000,” Variety, Dec 25, 1935, 4; “H’Wood Foreign Jams,” Variety, Mar 25, 1936, 3; “MGM Scraps Witch of Timbuctoo and Musa Dagh,” Variety Mar 25, 1936, 3; “Film Industry Watching Blockade as B.O. Cue on Provocative Themes,” Variety, Jun 22, 1938, 1; “Carl Foreman to Metro on Loan,” Variety, Feb 1, 1961, 3;  “Columbia Waives Rights to Foreman for 40 Days,” Variety, Feb 8, 1961, 59; “Foreman’s Commitment: Doing 40 Days for MGM, Strength for Columbia,” Variety, Jul 5, 1961, 11; “Positive Side of Negatives,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 5; “Berman, 22-Year Man, Stays on MGM Lot,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 3; “Upcoming MG Slate May Number 30 Pix,” Variety, Jan 1, 1964, 16; “1965-1967 Will Be Roadshow Years” Variety, Sep 16, 1964, 4; “Pictures: Omar Sharif,” Variety, Dec 9, 1964, 21; “Guy Green Next Helms Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 14, 1965, 20; “Musa Dagh Nearer,” Variety, Jul 7, 1965, 9; “MGM Keeps Pledge of 26 Prods,” Variety, Aug 10, 1965, 5; “MGM’s (Hopefully) Final Loan,” Variety, Sep 14, 1966, 3; “3 Ponti Films on Metro O’Seas Slate,” Variety, Apr 19, 1967, 65; “Forty Days (and 34 Years) of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 16, 1969, 19; “Acceptable Script As Invisible Cost Before Production,” Variety, Jul 14, 1971, 3; “Big Investment in Story Values Which Have Not Yet Been Filmed,” Variety, May 9, 1973, 28; “Werfel, After 40 years,” Variety, Jul 28, 1976, 6; “United Artists Looks Ahead; 13 from Metro Inventory,” Variety, Sep 22, 1976, 3; “Shepherd, As MGM Producer, Details Plans, Dropped Films, ” Variety, Dec 15, 1976,3; “Golan-Globus to Film 40 Days of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Feb 14, 1979, 27; “TPI Carves Out Sales Niche,” Variety, Oct 26, 1983, 69; “Film Review,” Variety, Nov 25, 1987, 19; “Cannon Completed Versus Unmade Films,” Variety, Oct 5, 1988, 52.

Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1