Our brutal morality play begins in the desert of southwest Arizona circa the late 1880s, where, after having his fill of mistreatment by crooked government agents, a Chiricahua warrior named Ulzana (Martinez) steals some horses and goes off the reservation with nine other braves. And following in the footsteps of the great Geronimo, Cochise, and Victorio, his intentions are to raise all kinds of hell in a series of retaliatory strikes on white settlements.
When word of this breakout reaches Ft. Lowell, the response by Major Cartwright (Watson) is perhaps a little too cautious and measured as he only sends out two riders to warn the area settlers that an Apache war party is on the move.
As further evidence, one of these messengers is attacked at a watering hole, who screams for his captors to just kill him when he’s taken alive, well aware of what the Apache are capable of in the ritualistic torture department (-- which we’ll be seeing first-hand as the film progresses), meaning he is destined for a very painful and very protracted death.
Thus, this readily explains why the second rider, while escorting the wife and son of an immigrant farmer who refused to leave his home to be ransacked by “a bunch of drunks,” first abandons his charges when Ulzana attacks them on the trail back to the fort, but turns back to help -- this help being a bullet in the head for the woman (-- thus saving her from the Apaches), and then makes an attempt to get away with the boy.
when his horse is shot out from underneath him, the trooper immediately jams his
own gun into his mouth and pulls the trigger, leaving the boy to the whim
of the Indians -- after they’re done playing keep-away with the dead
soldier’s extracted liver that is.
When the riders don’t return, Cartwright decides to speed up the departure of a planned patrol charged with bringing Ulzana in, dead or alive. Again, the response seems rather tepid under the circumstances as the Major only allows a small patrol to pursue the war party, which will be under the command of an inexperienced officer, Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Davison). This is all noted by Cartwright's grizzled civilian scout, McIntosh (Lancaster), a veteran of many Indian campaigns, who makes no bones over the near impossible task at hand, made that much harder by the army’s apparent indifference.
Guided by McIntosh and his friend and fellow scout, Ke-Ni-Tay (Luke), an Apache who personally knows Ulzana, the patrol soon finds the bodies of the rider and the woman he killed. A son of a preacher, who feels a lack of Christian understanding toward the natives is the root cause of the mutual animosity, DeBuin is horrified by the scene, and is even more horrified when McIntosh explains what happened, complementing the dead soldier on his valiant service for saving the woman from a fate worse than death.
But what McIntosh can’t explain is why the Apaches left the boy behind alive and unharmed, which forces DeBuin to whittle down his small force even more so several troopers can escort the lone survivor back to the fort.
Meantime, that farmer (Swenson), who refused to abandon his homestead, is Ulzana’s next target. And after killing his dog, the Apaches lay siege on his cabin, which the farmer has buttoned up pretty good. And after trying and failing to burn him out, the Apaches seemingly abandon the attack. The reason? A distant bugle blowing a charge, meaning the cavalry has arrived in the nick of time.
Here, the grateful farmer gives thanks to the Almighty for deliverance as he abandons his fortified refuge, not realizing his thanks were a tad premature as this was all just a ruse to draw him out, where his final fate is definitely out of Divine hands...
When folks try to find the roots of the Revisionist Western, they usually point to the anti-heroes and protracted violence in the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s; but I think it can be traced back further than that, and the source is definitely domestic.
After World War II, with the proliferation of television, film studios began cutting their B-Units to offset the loss of tickets sales. And with that, the Western kinda dried up, leaving the genre a parched tumbleweed of its former self on the big screen. However, in an ironic twist, the Western absolutely flourished on TV, becoming a dominant ratings winner.
So, long before Sergio Leone really blew things up in the 1960s, American Westerns were already deconstructing and re-envisioning themselves with the efforts of Andre de Toth, Jack Arnold (-- who was known mostly for his creature features in the 1950s but made some excellent westerns with Audie Murphy, too), and especially Budd Boetticher, working with a revitalized Randolph Scott for a string of fantastic features, and Anthony Mann, who teamed up with Jimmy Stewart for a series of dark, psychological and highly nihilistic tales of the old west.
I think 1950 was a watershed year for Westerns and they really came of age with the release of Henry King’s The Gunfighter and Mann’s Winchester ‘73. For his part, Mann brought a stark and brutal film noir flavor to the genre and sucked all the romanticism out of the stock characters, situations and landscapes.
Now, the heroes were flawed, the villains charismatic but irredeemably vile, and the heroines were a different kind of damaged goods. This paved the way for Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), and The Tall T (1957), which is one of the penultimate deconstructions of the genre and served as inspiration for Leone.
As the 1960s progressed, the Western kept evolving, becoming an effective template for thinly disguised allegories for racial tensions and the current conflict in southeast Asia, holding a mirror up to the audience and forcing them to watch man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man based solely on culture, color and Creed, with director Ralph Nelson making the most hay out of this with the excellent Duel at Diablo (1966) and Soldier Blue (1970). And as we moved into the 1970s, audiences were asked to reevaluate as to who was really the bad guy when it came to confrontation between Cowboys and Indians, epitomized best by Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).
And yet there are just too many tales of murder and torture and cannibalism as the Native Americans fought with each other long before any European settlers arrived that would make your skin crawl. And this aspect, too, started to show up in westerns in the late 1950s, making them kind of a primitive version of torture porn in the likes of Chuka (1967), Shalako (1968) and Cry Blood, Apache (1970).
Which brings us to Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972), which proves an excellent and timeless treatise on American foreign policy, whether we’re talking about Vietnam or the current prolonged engagement in the Middle East, where there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the dubious circumstances that bred an Apache war party than that which created ISIS. And those whose policies caused this then send in forces that are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to fight an elusive and almost undefinable enemy in an awful and just as dangerous hostile environment, making them nothing but hopeless and hapless crusaders with no real hope of victory, just players in an endless circle of self-perpetuating punitive action, retaliation, violence, and mass casualties.
General Philip Sheridan once said if he owned Hell and the deserts of the southwest, he’d rent out the desert and live in Hell. And in thess environs, at least in the beginning, DeBuin listens and adheres to the advice offered by his grizzled Sergeant (Jaeckel) and McIntosh; not pushing the horses to exhaustion, and to stop thinking like a soldier and start thinking like an Apache, no easy task, if he wants any chance of the mission succeeding. But as the mission drags on, DeBuin finds one atrocity after another committed by Ulzana and his anger starts to get the better of him, and then he stops listening altogether when they reach the homestead of the duped farmer and find his body tied to a tree where he was slowly roasted to death over an open fire. And when Ke-Ni-Tay tries to explain the motivations of the enemy and why they are so cruel, saying they do it to gain the victim’s power, and more suffering equals more power, this does not compute at all with DeBuin’s Christian conscience.
And so, as his agitation grows, DeBuin starts making mistakes, which almost gets them all killed when Ulzana manages to send his horses ahead and outflanks the patrol on foot, managing to get behind them. Luckily, McIntosh sniffs this ploy out and manages to derail these efforts by capturing the enemy horses when they tried to circle back around them, killing two of Ulzana’s men, including his son (-- who had a captured bugle in his possession), in the process. And when his men try to mutilate the corpses in retaliation, DeBuin stops them and orders them buried.
Knowing Ulzana will need more horses now, they head for the nearest source but, again, get their too late and find a homesteader hung upside down on a fence and burned alive. They then find his wife tied to a wagon, alive but extremely brutalized. And since the Apache would normally rape a captive to death, McIntosh feels this is Ulzana scheming again, figuring DeBuin would send her and an escort back to Ft. Lowell so he can ambush them for their horses. Managing to convince DeBuin of this, they decide to lay their own trap with McIntosh leading a small party back toward the fort to draw Ulzana out while DeBuin hangs behind, waiting for signs of battle to swoop in (hopefully) in time. All of this hinges on Ke-Ni-Tay finding and taking out the probable look-out Ulzana has spying on them and DeBuin not jumping the gun once (and if) Ulzana takes the bait.
With Ulzana’s Raid director Aldrich kinda comes full circle. One of his first features, where he also happened to team up with Burt Lancaster, was Apache (1954). From there he was probably most famous for the brilliant neo-noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and the hagsploitation classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). In between there were a lot of westerns and war pictures, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), where the director employed a strange concoction of blunt violence and nihilism with a cynical edge where manly men did manly things with women merely a means to an end.
The screenplay was written by Alan Sharp, which was based on an actual Apache uprising in 1885 that lasted for two months and resulted in the deaths of 38 people in Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, all the while pursued fruitlessly by the U.S. Cavalry. Inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Sharp hoped to “express the malevolence of the world and the terror mortals feel in the face of it … The Ulzana of Ulzana's Raid is not the Chiricahua Apache of history, whose raid was more protracted and ruthless and daring than the one I had written about. He is the expression of my idea of the Apache as the spirit of the land, the manifestation of its hostility and harshness."
And the execution of this “winner-takes-nothing parable” where “noble motives lead to disastrous actions” is striking. Davison is quite brilliant as DeBuin, whose angst and moral breakdown as he’s told to “stop hating and start thinking” are palpable as his earnest but ultimately foolhardy sentiments are stripped bare. Lancaster, who was instrumental in getting the picture produced, is equally excellent as the too old for this and seen too much McIntosh. He understands the Apache by admitting he knows nothing at all. (“Never argue with an Apache over horseshit.”) He knows what Ulzana might do, and that’s it. And while his guesses have played out well enough so far, sticking with the theme, the film ends in a massacre for both sides, with Ulzana taking the bait and attacking McIntosh’s party in a canyon. And as both sides are whittled down to nothing, DeBuin blunders to the rescue too late, bugle blaring, alerting and allowing Ulzana to escape for the moment, leaving it to Ke-Ni-Tay to pull all their hash out of the fire.
If Ulzana’s Raid has one minor flaw it’s that it never really addresses Ke-Ni-Tay’s allegiances. He is McIntosh’s friend, they trust each other implicitly, and that’s as far as it goes. And with McIntosh mortally wounded and DeBuin ineffective, it falls to Ke-Ni-Tay to finish Ulzana’s raid once and for all, bringing his reign of terror to an end. But is it really the end? Or is that circle I mentioned earlier just completing another circuit, now poised and ready to go around again once the next batch of natives escape from the reservation and this starts all over again and again. That is what the audience is left with at the end of this movie. A brutal, relentlessly bleak, and so maddeningly pointless in its moral ambiguity, with an ever escalating body count, if that doesn’t make this a horror movie, then I don’t know what it is.
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Ulzana's Raid (1972) The Associates and Aldrich Company :: De Haven Productions :: Universal Pictures / P: Carter DeHaven, Harold Hecht, Burt Lancaster / AP: Alan Sharp / D: Robert Aldrich / W: Alan Sharp / C: Joseph F. Biroc / E: Michael Luciano / M: Frank De Vol / S: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Richard Jaeckel, Joaquín Martínez, Karl Swenson, Douglass Watson