Ulzana’s Raid: Burt Lancaster and Director Robert Aldrich reunited after 18 years to create this gritty, revisionist Vietnam-era western

Director Robert Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster reunited after 18 years to make the gritty, revisionist 1972 Western, Ulzana’s Raid , which plays out as an allegory of United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

Ulzana’s Raid is the third film that Burt Lancaster and Robert Aldrich made together. The first two films, Apache and Vera Cruz , were both made in 1954, when Lancaster was a lean, muscular and athletic Adonis racing to the top of movie stardom. By the time they teamed up for this film in 1972, Lancaster was pushing 60 and had lost a lot of his box office clout, as well as his drop dead good looks.  He was graying and had put on a lot of weight. His flamboyant, grinning former self was replaced with an aura of melancholy and mortality. As an actor, he had changed, perhaps for the better, from an exaggerated physical performer to a poetically subtle, intense actor. And these attributes, as a person and actor, would make him perfect for the films- including Ulzana’s Raid- that he did in the last lap of his career.

The plot of Ulzana’s Raid evolves thus: It’s Arizona of the 1880s. Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) has assembled a war party and left the reservation. When the news reaches the United States Army, they order a fresh, west point lieutenant, Harry Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison), to track down Ulzana. In DeBuin’s troops are veteran tracker McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke). The idealistic DeBuin is the son of a priest and he believes that dealing with the Apaches in the ‘Christian‘ way would bring peace to the west. McIntosh, on the other hand, is a cynical veteran who neither hates or sympathizes with Apaches; as he says “It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em.“. He knows enough about the native tribes and the army to understand that a peaceful solution between them is impossible; nonetheless, he soldiers on. His assessment is that Ulzana is undoubtedly hostile and might be heading for Mexico and it is  certain that he is going to murder, rape and pillage on his way. In view of this, the army sends out riders to evacuate the homesteaders in Ulzana’s path and bring them back to the safety of the fort. Next: we see a lone cavalryman escorting a women and child from their homestead to the fort. The woman’s husband did not accompany them, as he stayed back to defend their farm. On their way, they are attacked by Ulzana and his men. The scared soldier makes a run for his life, as the woman screams for help, begging the soldier not to leave her to the Apaches. The soldier rides back to the visibly relieved woman, and then, the shocking thing happens: he takes out his gun and shoots the woman dead. He then grabs the child on to his horse and makes a run for it. But the Apaches shoot down the horse. Not wanting to be captured by the Apaches, the soldier puts the gun to his mouth and blows his brains out. The Apaches are disappointed and spits on his corpse. They take out their knives, cut open his body, takes his guts out and start playing with it as if it is a ball.

This terrifying  early scene, realized in all its gory detail, sets up the the world of the film in no uncertain terms. It is brutal and  bleak: where conventional ideas of morality, courage or chivalry has no place. Human beings are shot, mutilated and burnt. Blood flows like water and both men and horses  are bled dry. The bloodbath is very real, very brutal and a little detached; as opposed to the in-your-face, stylized violence of Sam Peckinpah. But one thing that it has in common with that Peckinpah masterpiece is that this is a typical Vietnam-war era western. The story of American soldiers in a hostile, alien land in pursuit of an enemy (a violent, native tribe), whose strength and motivation they are unclear of, is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Vietnam War- which was at its peak at the time. And in this world, lieutenant DeBuin’s nobility proves meaningless and even counterproductive. As the cavalry’s pursuit of  Ulzana and his men goes on, their mission seems increasingly futile. It becomes clear that the military leaders have no practical solution to the Apache problem, or rather, they don’t even understand the problem. Once DeBuin begins to encounter the horrors of the murder trail left behind by the Apaches; one more  violent than the another, he turns to blindly hating the Apaches and start suspecting his own scout Ke-Ni-Tay.

The script of the film is written by Allan Sharp, who took his inspiration from John Ford’s western The Searchers . We find the biggest influence of that Ford classic in another spine-chilling scene in the film, where the homestead of the women – who was shot and killed earlier – is attacked by the Apaches. Earlier, we saw the husband staying back to protect his farm, and now he is under attack. The Apaches lay siege to his farm, then smoke him out, torture him and then burn him alive. The staging of the scene is very similar to the scene in The Searchers, where the Comanche attack the homestead of John Wayne’s family. But since this is 1970s and the censorship laws were much more lenient, Director Aldrich is able to portray the terror and violence more explicitly, though Aldrich does not show the actual  torturing and killing of the man.  We see only the aftermath of their actions, when the cavalry arrives at the farm. Witnessing the burnt remains of the homesteader makes  DeBuin sick to his stomach . He cannot believe that human beings, even the ones whom he considers savages, could resort to this kind of barbaric act. He struggles to understand what is it that drives men to indulge in this sort of death-sport.

The conversation that ensues between DeBuin and Ke-Ni-Tay about the incident, and in which Ke-Ni-Tay  explains to him about the  ‘Apache way‘ is the heart and soul of this film. The scene presents logically and impartially the root cause of the violent conflicts that occurred between white settlers and the Native tribes in the settling of the west. It goes like this:

Lt. DeBuin: Would you kill a man like that?

Ke-Ni-Tay: Yes.

Lt. DeBuin: Why?

Ke-Ni-Tay: To take the power. Each man that die, the man who kill him take his power. Man give up his power when he die. Like fire with heat. Fire that burn long time. Many can have heat.

Lt.  DeBuin: You mean you’d torture a man for hours? And you can get power from watching some poor creature suffering? What kind of power is that?

Ke-Ni-Tay: Here in this land man must have power.

This conversation manages to place the earlier incidents of brutal violence in the right context. For the Apaches, torturing and killing the enemy is  very much a spiritual and religious exercise. It is very similar to DeBuin’s ‘Christian‘ obsession  of burying the dead. It is DeBuin’s naivety and hidden prejudice that stops him from comprehending this analogy.  All throughout the film, DeBuin is seen insisting that the dead bodies of the whites and the Apaches must be buried. He refuse to let his soldiers mutilate the bodies of the Apaches as they have mutilated the white men. The above conversation also proves why peace between the native tribes and their white invaders was virtually impossible. Their culture and belief systems  are totally opposite to each other. In the Westerns that was made in first half of the 19th century, the red men were portrayed as bloody savages and the white men as  the moral saviors. But then, starting with the fifties, the films started placing the  burden of guilt for the violence that occurred during America’s westward expansion solely on the white men. Ulzana’s Raid is that rare film ,which at least partially, exonerates the white men for the violence that was perpetuated. Aldrich presents the native/European conflict in terms of mutual incomprehension and hostility. Apaches are treated in the film as  neither fully black or white, but as real human beings with their own weaknesses and strengths. The Apaches kill, torture and pillage the settlers  in response to the invasion on their lands and The American Military’s sole response to the problem is to kill as many Natives as possible, which triggers a seemingly endless cycle of violence. The film reiterates the fact that there never can be an  absolute victory in any ethnic conflict- something that was very relevant during the time of  the Vietnam war

The parallels with the Vietnam war are most evident in the final stretch of the film. DeBuin, on McIntosh’s counsel, devises a plan to entrap Ulzana and his men. He  breaks up his platoon to send a splinter group, lead by McIntosh , back to camp with a woman they’ve rescued, thus leaving them vulnerable to attack by Ulzana. And as Ulzana attacks, DeBuin plans to ride in with the rest of the men and capture the Apaches in a surprise attack. But the plan falters in execution, as DeBuin and the  soldiers are too late to ride in to the rescue. The final showdown between McIntosh’s group and Ulzana and his men leaves everyone dead, with the exception of  Ulzana and McIntosh – who is fatally wounded. Ulzana flees on foot, but  Ke-Ni-Tay confronts him and shows him the Army bugle taken from the body of his son. Ulzana puts down his weapons and sings his death song before Ke-Ni-Tay executes him. The movie concludes with the tragic and totally unnecessary death of Lancaster’s McIntosh , the only character in the film who is a bridge between the Natives and the army and was capable of negotiating a truce between the two groups. Thus, the army manages to defeat Ulzana, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory, with heavy losses to both sides; pretty similar to what would happen in Vietnam. And it is interesting to note that the renegade Apache Ulzana is not killed by any of the regular soldiers, but by  the ‘civilized‘ Native Apache scout. It points to another aspect of the Native culture: Ke-Ni-Tay,  by his own admission, signed the papers and became a soldier, and he steadfastly stays loyal to the cause he had signed on to, even it means killing his own people. Thus, in its own way, the Apache culture is possessed with attributes like integrity and moral codes.

In his third collaboration with Lancaster, Robert Aldrich has made a film that’s devoid of any melodrama or sentimentality. This film could l be considered one of his best efforts. The violence portrayed here is chaotic and ugly, displaying none of the excitement or adrenaline rush of his other Western\action films like Vera Cruz or The Dirty Dozen. The film works more as a revisionist version of Apache(1954), his first film with Lancaster, in which Lancaster played a renegade Apache warrior who is chased down by the Army. Here, the roles are reversed, with Lancaster playing the scout tracking down the renegade Apaches. Burt Lancaster gives a masterful performance as McIntosh; it’s on par with his performance as Prince of Salina in The Leopard. His graying, wrinkled face and his subdued dialogue delivery conveys the essence of the character perfectly. As mentioned in the beginning, his appearance in the film is a far cry from the drop-dead gorgeousness of his fifties films with Aldrich.  But it works perfectly for this world-weary scout;  who has seen it all and just wants to survive in the midst of this madness and live to fight another day. This film, along with Valdez Is Coming and  Lawman that released between 1971 to 1972, was a  conscious movie on his part to use  the genre of the Western to shape his image to a contemporary audience and  purpose.  They form a trilogy united by his now mature, weather-beaten persona and the themes of law & order and Vietnam War, which were the hot button topics of the day.

Jorge Luke as Ke-Ni-Tay proves to be the scene-stealer in the film. He gives a performance of great depth and strength, that holds  the picture together. He also showcases his skills as a great action hero, and features in one of the most thrilling and suspenseful foot chases in the climax – where he tracks down and kills one of Ulzana’s men hiding in the mountains. Aldrich  and Lancaster would go on to make one more film, 1977’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a geopolitical thriller in which Lancaster played a renegade soldier threatening to launch a nuclear weapon unless the American public is made aware of the real reasons for the country’s intervention in Vietnam. The film continued Lancaster-Aldrich duo’s commitment for tackling serious issues of the day through their films. Ulzana’s Raid was a box office flop on its release, as the  film was just too truthful and hence, unpalatable for a mass audience. Aldrich, who struggling from a series of flops after the super success of The Dirty Dozen, was hoping that this film would turn out to be a much needed box office hit for him. One of the reasons why he reteamed with Lancaster was to score a major hit; otherwise he would have made this film with Jorge Luke and Bruce Davison characters as the lead protagonists of the film. But the film remained a personal favorite of Lancaster’s. Asked some years later as to which of his roles came closest to himself, Lancaster would say that McIntosh “was a man who reflected my own feelings about life.”

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