Shooting was ended early by studio executives, in the interest of controlling costs, before some important scenes were filmed. Charlton Heston offered to return his entire salary if the studio would agree to film the opening scene--the massacre of soldiers and civilians by the Apaches---and some re-shoots. The studio kept Heston's paycheck but never shot the footage he asked for..
After the success of Sam Peckinpah's later The Wild Bunch (1969), Columbia Pictures told him they would allow him to re-shoot parts of this film that had been cut from the released version. Peckinpah, naturally, declined the offer.
Woody Strode was considered for the part that went to Brock Peters. Strode was part Native American and he wrote in his memoirs that he didn't get the part because he was told by Sam Peckinpah that he looked too much "like a half-breed" to play the part.
During filming, Sam Peckinpah was so obnoxious and abusive towards his actors that Charlton Heston actually threatened the director with a saber. Heston later remarked that this was the only time he had ever threatened anybody on a movie set.
Sam Peckinpah had been pitching a movie about Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, because he thought it was fascinating how Custer became a glorious, immortal American hero after being defeated in battle and killed. Nothing ever came of it, but Peckinpah thought the story of "Major Dundee" to be similar enough, and took this job instead.
According to both Paul Seydor's book "Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration" and David Weddle's book "If They Move, Kill 'Em", this film was originally budgeted at $4.5 million and scheduled for 75 days of principal photography, which was appropriate for a road-show release. But only two days before Sam Peckinpah, his cast and crew were to start filming in Mexico, a change in the top brass at Columbia occurred, and the new regime cut the budget down by $1.5 million, and the schedule down by 15 days, making it a standard western release. As could be expected, Peckinpah considered this an act of extreme betrayal.
Despite his quarrel with Sam Peckinpah, producer Jerry Bresler fought very hard with Columbia Picturs to keep the 136-minute cut (the "Extended Edition" now on DVD) despite its poor reception at its preview, but was rebuffed by the studio.
According to Charlton Heston in his book "In The Arena", following his gesture to give up his salary on the film, he was asked by a reporter whether such a gesture would start a trend among his fellow actors; and he replied: "Trend, hell! It won't even start a trend with me!"
According to Paul Seydor, author of "Peckinpah: The Western Films-A Reconsideration", the original treatment written by Harry Julian Fink contained a great deal of violence and profanity, including the uses of "shit" and "fuck", which would have been forbidden in any screenplay for a film made during the mid-'60s.
Tyreen's quote, on finding Dundee in Durango, "Awake for Morning in the bowl of night has cast the stone that puts the stars to flight . . . " is from the "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam", translated by Edward Fitzgerald
Sam Peckinpah originally wanted Lucien Ballard, with whom he had had a good working relationship on Ride the High Country (1962), as the director of photography, but producer Jerry Bresler refused the request, making him work with Sam Leavitt, whose credits included Diamond Head (1962), a previous Bresler production, and Cape Fear (1962). Although Leavitt did get along fairly well with Peckinpah, this was the first sign of tension between the director and the producer.
In a close-up of Senta Berger at the 1:19.34 point in the film, on the right side of the frame in the deep background, two white points, possibly automobiles on a nearby Mexican highway, can be seen passing through.
Charlton Heston joked in his autobiography "In The Arena" that the reason he and Richard Harris didn't get along was that Harris was an Irishman while Heston himself was of Anglo-Scot descent--while still insisting that things weren't as bad as reported.
Richard Harris recalled that Charlton Heston was strict on punctuality. "He used to sit there in the mornings and clock us with a stopwatch like some dreary great headmistress in enormous gangling drawers". As a prank, Harris positioned dozens of alarm clocks outside Heston's makeup trailer and set them all to go off at the same time. Heston was startled when he came out and Harris quipped, "Just clocking in". Heston was not amused.
On the audio commentary track, Garner Simmons, author of the book "Peckinpah: A Portrait In Montage", remarks that the character of Sierra Charriba, the renegade Apache in the movie, is loosely based on the real-life Apache warrior chief Vittorio.
While not exactly a short man--he stood just over six feet tall--Richard Harris did not like it that he was cast opposite taller men such as Charlton Heston, so he jacked up his boots so that he would not be dwarfed by them.
Sam Peckinpah found the script in late 1963. The early draft by Harry Julian Fink focused on Trooper Ryan and presented the film as a typical adventure story. Peckinpah largely discarded this, and began making the movie into a complex character study about Dundee, making him a glory-hungry officer who would do anything to gain fame and recognition.
Columbia constantly meddled with the film, changing the shooting schedule, the budget, the film's final running time, etc, much to Sam Peckinpah's irritation. To accommodate the changes, the script was often rewritten.
The romance with Teresa was added by the studio. Some idea of what Harry Julian Fink and Sam Peckinpah's original script looked like can be gleaned from a novelization published in 1965, which adds several scenes and whole subplots, while changing the fates of several characters. The romance is completely absent.
Charlton Heston and Richard Harris both argued with Sam Peckinpah. Eventually, the director left the set and drove into the hills at night, declaring that he'd rather sleep with the scorpions that with his actors.
One afternoon James Coburn and Richard Harris went to a bullfight. While there, Harris got into a disagreement with a man who knocked over his bag of sweets. He retaliated by punching the man in the face, receiving howls of applause from his fellow spectators.
Richard Harris got out of Red Desert (1964) to be in the this film. However, he missed his flight to L.A, so he jet-hopped there via London, New York and St Louis, desperate to make the rehearsal dates. In London he drank for six straight hours to stay awake. When he arrived in L.A. he was barely conscious and collapsed at the studio. The cause was later revealed to be hyperglycemia. As a result, he had an insurance cover of $4 million and a unit doctor gave him vitamin injections.
The working relationship between Charlton Heston and Richard Harris was said to have been very bad. Harris accused Heston of being too strict, too serious and overbearing, while Heston accused Harris of being unprofessional, lazy and frequently drunk during filming. Heston also did not get along well with director Sam Peckinpah, and never worked with either man again after this film.
Sam Peckinpah did not like the film's score, which he and critics felt did not suit the tone of the film. When the extended version was released in 2005 a new score was composed, but the DVD still features the option of listening to the original soundtrack.
L.Q. Jones recalled an occasion when he, Ben Johnson and Sam Peckinpah went driving through the Mexican town where they were filming, when Peckinpah shouted, "Look, there's a bar" and jumped out of the car. Jones and Johnson found him in a rough, dingy bar. Peckinpah called for a bar, tasted it, then spat it in the bartender's face, saying "Your cow's been pissing the beer again". This started a brawl. "Jones recalled, "Ten minutes later, Ben and I found ourselves in a corner, back to back". We're dodging knives, broken bottles, the works; they're trying to kill us. And we look around and Peckinpah's gone. He's just walked off and left us. Not only did he walk off and leave us, he took the car with him".