Ulzana’s Raid (1972) (103 minutes)
Directed by Robert Aldrich.
aka Wild Apache
Written by Alan Sharp.
Starring Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison and Jorge Luke.
The Western is the most American film genre of them all, encompassing a variety of themes and time periods. The 1970s were a fertile period for films that questioned traditional beliefs about our country’s march towards the Pacific, the interests of big business versus individual rights, its treatment of the indigenous peoples and notions of heroism.
The decade gave us McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Jeremiah Johnson, all films of distinction that were often allegorical to current political and social events. [Robert] Aldrich had an impressive resume including the classic film noir thriller Kiss Me Deadly, in addition to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and The Dirty Dozen.
Given his past works, Ulzana’s Raid can be viewed as a horror movie that takes place in the West or a Western with all the trappings of a horror film. In place of a haunted house, a vast ocean, or the infinite reaches of outer space, Aldrich places his characters in the brutal, barren wastelands of the Arizona desert. His protagonists have to battle a seemingly invincible foe and the unforgiving terrain, where they are isolated from their fellow soldiers.
The movie is based on a true life incident from 1885 when a Chiricahua Apache named Ulzana escaped from the reservation, devastating settlements and homesteads in Arizona. The Apache band kept the US army at bay for months before they were captured, but not after a spree of looting, raping and the murder of a hundred men, women and children.
The film opens in the San Carlos Indian Reservation, where the corruption of the Indian agents and mistreatment of the Apaches is vividly illustrated. Ulzana, as it is explained later in the story, fears he is losing his manhood. He then flees with a few warriors and soon begins a series of raids against the white and Mexican settlers. The local army commandant sends riders out to warn the isolated ranches and farms but it doesn’t go well. In a masterful scene of terror, suspense and horror, the riders are ambushed. One is dragged away to be tortured to death. The other soldier shoots the woman he is escorting to the fort, and then kills himself, saving both from horrible fates. We then see the Apaches playing catch with the dead man’s heart.
In this one scene we see the desperation and horror of the army’s situation. The sight of the soldier scrambling away to give himself time to commit suicide is memorable as is the expression of terror on his face.
The army sends veteran scout MacIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and platoon of soldiers led by the inexperienced and naive Lt. Garrett LeBuin (Bruce Davidson). Along for support is the Sergeant (Richard Jaeckel) and an Apache scout, who is related to Ulzana by marriage. Lancaster adds just the right touch as a man who has seen too much evil in his lifetime and is now cynical and world weary. Jaeckel, always great in a supporting role, is the perfect foil for LeBuin’s weak personality and by the book mentality. LeBuin is also a devout Christian, which brings into question how fit a leader he is, in the face of a resourceful and remorseless enemy. Of the group, only MacIntosh, Jaeckel and the Apache scout know the true nature of the menace they face.
The two sides hunt each other, engaging in a brutal cat and mouse game, a guerilla war in the Southwest desert. At one juncture, Ulzana’s men attack a settler home, burning the man alive and raping his wife, leaving her barely alive, tied to a wagon. MacIntosh correctly figures out the woman, instead of being murdered following her rape, has been left alive but injured so that the cavalry will be forced to send her to the fort with an escort. By splitting the soldiers into two groups, Ulzana hopes to successfully attack the weakened detachment.
The ending is bleak and pessimistic as one might expect. This is not a western where everyone rides off happily into the sunset. The film is brutal with an “in your face” visceral impact that only a few in its genre exhibited.
When viewed through the prism of the year it was made, it’s easy to say this was the director’s comment on the War in Vietnam. A colonial power seeking to conquer an indigenous people, are confronted by a clever and cruel enemy. In the movie, the Apache know every inch of the unforgiving terrain, drawing on this innate advantage to confound their enemy.
The movie was filmed by cinematographer Joseph Biroc, a favorite of Aldrich’s and a veteran of some of Hollywood’s biggest movies. The movie is perfectly paced with Aldrich alternating the action and dialogue in complete harmony. He made a wise decision to film on location in Valley of Fire State Park.
The only weakness is Davidson as Lt. DeBuin. He really does come across as weak and incompetent as his character, but seriously, a little spine and self-confidence would be more believable.
The dialogue is superb and Lancaster delivers one of the best performances of his career. The music is a bit uneven. The orchestration varies from a typical Western bravado score, in some scenes, that seem inappropriate for the seriousness of the subject. Then it veers towards an ominous and foreboding theme during the intense action sequences.
The editing is superb and the entire production is completely professional in every aspect. The film was highly praised by critics, with many of them including it in their top ten films of the year.