Robert Aldrich gives the Cavalry Western a rough going-over in this brutal, unforgiving horror-western. Burt Lancaster gets in a fine late-career action turn as well. The pursuit of an Apache raiding party becomes guerrilla war in the desert, the kind of conflict that cements racial hatred forever. Aldrich and Alan Sharp’s answer to the ‘mud & rags’ western of the early 1970s carries on the director’s anarchic streak. This is how the West was won?
KL Studio Classics
1972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date January 21, 2020 / 29.99
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Joaquín Martínez, Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson, Douglass Watson, Dran Hamilton, Gladys Holland, Aimee Eccles, Tony Epper, Nick Cravat, Richard Farnsworth, Dean Smith.
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editor: Michael Luciano
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Written by Alan Sharp
Produced by Carter DeHaven
Directed by Robert Aldrich
After all of the bloodletting in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, several westerns took a dive into truly rotten taste: Soldier Blue all but advertised that it was about Vietnam, and gleefully showed Yankee cavalrymen mutilating Indian women in gory close-up. With the boundaries of screen violence erased, gore became not something to carefully avoid, but a ‘production value.’ Some critics related the carnage to the politics of Vietnam.
Five years before, Robert Aldrich had helped start the trend toward more screen violence with his The Dirty Dozen. Several years later he returned to revisionist action genre pieces with Too Late the Hero, The Grissom Gang and eventually Emperor of the North. Although Aldrich didn’t think so, his best picture of this period is Ulzana’s Raid, a brutal western that dares to call an Apache an Apache, so to speak. Rather than teasing us about savage atrocities, the show’s complex storyline forces us to experience them. When was the last time a western was genuinely scary? When we walked back to our cars after this picture, we didn’t take the dark alley short cut.
Robert Aldrich’s directing career got its first boost through Burt Lancaster. 1954’s Apache filtered the Indian wars through the then-current Civil Rights issue. Ulzana reunited them after an eighteen-year break. The talented, beloved Lancaster was a powerful man who didn’t mind pushing people around to get his way (as is covered in the extras for The Swimmer). Aldrich was no pushover either, as proved through his lion-taming act with Crawford and Davis, ten years before. Because Lancaster held a partial financing stake, Ulzana’s Raid became a production battleground, resolved only in a truce. Two separate versions were finished, and released in different markets. Aldrich’s cut was shown in the United States, and Lancaster’s version in the UK. Lancaster’s cut dropped some scenes, added a few bits, and occasionally uses different takes for performance. The conflict didn’t become a feud, as can be seen by the fact that they worked together again five years later.
Ace screenwriter Alan Sharp (The Last Run, Night Moves, Rob Roy) takes the cruelty of frontier clashes a step beyond Sam Peckinpah’s bloody Major Dundee, where an Indian Scout offers a simple explanation for why Apache ‘renegades’ slaughter innocent settlers wholesale: “Because it’s their land, all of it.” Ulzana is almost a generation removed from Dundee in time. Just nine Apaches have skipped from the reservation but all of Arizona is scared out of its wits, for good reason. Sharp and Aldrich don’t just depict the carnage, they try to explain why the Indians do what they do.
The indigenous tribe may seem like blinking savages, but they’re really just proud men on the losing side of the struggle for possession of The West. As the whites steal legislate away Indian lands and Indian rights, various Apache holdouts periodically express their displeasure, broad and bloody. The Apaches consider themselves part of the land itself, which is by its nature hostile and unforgiving.
Alan Sharp’s great screenplay reveals the Army’s mindset without sarcasm. Nine braves led by the cagey Ulzana (Joaquín Martinez) have split from captivity and are threatening violence against settlers. The stodgy Major Cartwright (Douglass Watson), following the book, is slow to send help. To avoid dangerous duty, the experienced Captain Gates (Lloyd Bochner) nominates the green West Pointer Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison), to lead the patrol. The preacher’s son is accompanied and advised by scout McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), an Indian expert whose common-law wife (Aimee Eccles) is an Apache. Cartwright’s delay means that DeBuin’s patrol is always one step behind Ulzana. A rider sent to warn close-in settlers is killed along with the farm wife he tries to protect. Another settler becomes a victim of play-torture, as are other unlucky farmers left mutilated and/or roasted alive. DeBuin and McIntosh repeatedly arrive too late to do anything, but they do ‘rescue’ a rape victim (Dran Hamilton) purposely left alive to slow them down. The expert tracking of Apache Scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) helps McIntosh overcome Ulzana’s advantage. The patrol will split up, and when Ulzana dares to attack one half, the other will come to its rescue. But that strategy requires the inexperienced Lt. DeBuin to develop his own battlefield smarts, really quickly.
Major Dundee had opened with a full-on massacre, but from a brutality standpoint Ulzana is far more explicit about Apache terror tactics. Alan Sharp details specific tortures mostly by showing the aftermath. This may be the first film to tell the truth behind the old plot chestnut about ‘saving a bullet for the lady’ so she won’t suffer a fate worse than death. Rather than be captured alive, a trooper commits a panicked murder-suicide. Another victimized woman is found tied to a wagon and beaten bloody, and surely gang-raped. The Apaches believe that killing a living man robs him of his Life Power, which is why they ignore corpses but go to town on their living victims. One man has his heart cut out and used for a game of catch. A boy witness to the carnage is left untouched: boys aren’t men, and therefore have no Power to be stolen.
One of Ulzana’s raiders is his own son. At one point the Apache chief uses a wickedly clever ruse to trick a settler (Karl Swenson of Dundee) into thinking that the cavalry has ridden to the rescue. Almost like the submarine-destroyer guesswork battle in The Enemy Below, McIntosh treats the desert like a big chessboard, and tries to out-think his opponent Ulzana. He reckons that the Apache has pulled a clever ’empty horses’ trick to throw the troopers off the track, and responds with a long-shot recon gambit. But even when the patrol successfully turns the tables on the Apaches, a dumb mistake and plain bad luck bring on chaos. The mission achieves its goal, but almost everyone we care about is killed. The show is a Robert Aldrich regulation high-tension ordeal, not a leave ’em laughing experience.
Burt Lancaster may have been on a power trip, but his acting shows no sign of star attitude. As he often did post- The Swimmer, Lancaster sublimates his bigger-than-life personality to play the cavalry scout who tries to teach a thing or two to Bruce Davison’s young Lieutenant. Not far removed from his teenaged rapist character in the grim Last Summer, Davison is excellent as the eager shave-tail in far over his head. After a couple of encounters with mutilated corpses, Lt. DeBuin decides that he hates all Indians and wants them dead. Richard Jaeckel contributes an excellent performance as a seasoned sargent well aware that ordinary troopers will suffer for bad decisions made by the officer in charge. He knows he’s in trouble when DeBuin sends him on an unnecessary, dangerous side mission, for ‘moral’ reasons.
Joaquín Martinez is excellent as Ulzana, who speaks no English and precious little Apache as he commands his nine cohorts with the skill of great General. Mexican actor Jorge Luke is also excellent as Ki-Ni-Tay, whose conversations with DeBuin bring out the thorny, perverse-defeatist Apache philosophy of resistance against the white man. Although made by a committed liberal, Ulzana’s Raid is no screed wailing over racial injustices. It acknowledges the naked racism involved in this unavoidable conflict for possession of the land.
As is the case with most Aldrich movies, Ulzana’s Raid is not visually elegant. The opening establishing shots of Ft. Lowell are a series of ugly pans, but the rocky Nevada and Arizona locations are impressive just the same. Michael Luciano’s editing helps clarify a great deal of complex action, and gives the moments of gore a jumpy, ‘did I just see that?’ quality. On a first viewing the final battle is a little confusing. We don’t always know exactly where the opposing forces are. How the heck DeBuin is supposed to know when to ride to the rescue?
The cultural details are as good as the frequent dialogue zingers in Alan Sharp’s smart script. We see the troops playing baseball but we don’t get a good look at most of them as individuals. The gore and shock scenes up front guarantee that the remaining ninety minutes will be an edge-of-seat experience. The closest Ulzana’s comes to a liberating moment is when McIntosh, all alone, finds that his Sherlock-like guesswork has paid off. He gallops into a pursuit, flipping his rifle in the air as he prepares to fight like a knight of old. But despite what happens in the movies, only a trick shot can hit anything from a galloping horse. The ever- realistic Sharp and Aldrich have McIntosh dismount before opening fire.
A disclaimer made necessary by present trends: I know plenty of people that enjoy grim horror movies but won’t watch a film where an animal is hurt, even via simulation. Horses are constantly being shot in the movie, which is historically accurate — the first goal of real cavalry battles was always to deprive the enemy of his mount. The Burt Lancaster / UK cut of the film didn’t touch the human violence and suffering, but removed all of the movie’s horse falls, playing havoc with the continuity.
The KL Studio Classics’ Blu-ray of Ulzana’s Raid is the same excellent widescreen transfer that I reviewed on a foreign disc three years ago. If you haven’t seen it since its theatrical run, it’s going to be a revelation — previous Universal DVDs of this title were sad affairs. A couple of grainy shots prove to be opticals (connected to dissolves), while the Universal title department provides a really grungy main title sequence.
Nick Pinkerton provides a feature commentary, explaining a lot of the background to the movie — Burt Lancaster’s busy career taking him more into character work, Robert Aldrich ‘getting by’ after the closing of his personal movie studio. Pinkerton sets up the context right away and in close detail — the setting and some of the events are direct from history. And he likes Major Dundee, so he of course can do no wrong. A new interview with Bruce Davison is a real treat. Davison has a candid attitude about his career and is quick to explain how ‘green’ he was going into a western with a big star. He has funny stories about most everything, even his off-time in Vegas while shooting the film.
As a film student at UCLA in 1972, I attended a special presentation by the Universal trailer department. Two young Universal executives showed us a score of attempts at trailers for two ‘problem’ movies, this film and Philip Kaufman’s terrific The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. The studio had rejected all of their trailer cuts (and the final we can see on this disc is okay but no gem). Universal tried to sell Ulzana as an action feature and Raid as a comedy but the trailer cutters had been ordered to avoid western trappings in both because focus group marketers had determined that ‘people didn’t want to see westerns.’
The editors wanted cutting suggestions, but we students were of little help. We instead asked, “So if they didn’t want westerns, why did they make westerns?” I realize now that if I had waylaid one of these guys in the parking lot with a fresh cutting concept, I might have won myself a shot at a studio apprenticeship, instead of having to spend the next 17 years trying to get into the Guild. I did nothing of the sort, but the experience primed me to jump into real trailer-making much later, knowing that I’d at least be as good as the next guy. Trailer cutting was fun. Nobody knew anything for sure and there were no steadfast rules. In the middle ’80s, an editor could push a good cut through just by being confident about his work.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary with Nick Pinkerton, interview with co-star Bruce Davison, Trailers from Hell trailer with Bruce Davison; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, German (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 10, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson
Here’s John Landis on Ulzana’s Raid: