Blog buddy Mike’s Take on the Movies is spending a few days featuring Burt Lancaster films from each decade of his career, so it was the perfect time for me to get to one of my 10 Classics for 2015/Blind Spot movies, Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana Raid (1972). This was a powerful, intelligent film and one of the better westerns I’ve ever seen.
Apache Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his small war party leave their reservation and rampage through the Arizona desert leaving a trail of bodies wherever they go. A young and green Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and some cavalrymen are sent to track Ulzana with the help of an experienced scout McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and his Apache friend Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke). Predictably, much is lost and learned in the course of searching for Ulzana, trying to guess his next move and understanding the terrible things he’s doing to innocent victims.
DeBuin is “recommended” for this mission by a Captain (Lloyd Bochner), and the green, idealistic minister’s son intends to bring religion and reform to the Apaches, with little concept of the brutality he’s about to witness, or the responsibilities and hard decisions he’ll face. He goes from naive to bitter to slowly accepting that his best intentions may be incompatible with the Apaches’ ways, and the differences insurmountable.
Lancaster is excellent as the cynical realist McIntosh, a forthright, undisciplined but indispensable scout. Fully understanding what horrors the Apache are capable of, he tells harsh truths and advises fast learning and abandonment of idealism. “Don’t start if’n,” he warns; once a decision is made there’s no point in wondering where the other path would have led. He tells DeBuin that hating the Apache for what they do and are is like “hating the desert cause there ain’t any water on it.” Face the inevitable, but don’t dwell on it. Understand things to better deal with them and in this case, to fight and survive against a different belief system, but also know when it’s a fool’s game to continue or try to find reasons, explanations and root causes.
On both sides there are real, complex and interesting characters presented without sentiment. The movie doesn’t try to demonize, sanitize, justify, or reduce either race or culture to an extreme or an easy generalization. Ulzana and his war party are merciless killers, looters and rapists who torture and mutilate men, women, children and animals. This particular group just is that way, and according to Ke-Ni-Tay “have always been like that.”
The violence is stark and vivid, whether you actually watch it unfold, see only the state of the bodies found at each homestead, or have it suggested by how quickly settlers and soldiers beg for death or commit suicide rather than face certain brutality. In that darkness there’s also humanity and humour. During one tracking lesson, McIntosh chuckles and points out how the Academy would look upon DeBuin learning to read horse apples. DeBuin is introduced in a lighter scene, acting as umpire during a baseball game and when he’s distracted by an approaching rider, he demonstrates his ability to make confident but totally wrong calls.
Jorge Luke gives an excellent performance as Ke-Ni-Tay, staying so strong, loyal and dutiful through several trying tasks and insults. He’s asked to explain his people’s actions and motives, has to bear the brunt of DeBuin’s anger, will hunt and eliminate Ulzana and lose his friend McIntosh. Richard Jaeckel is great as always as a stern, no-nonsense Sergeant who points out to DeBuin that the most applicable passage in his Bible might be the one about an “eye for an eye.” Jaeckel has a way of delivering a simple “Sir” that reproaches DeBuin after one of his tragic decisions.