Saturday, August 20, 2011

#54 - Ulzana's Raid

BACK-STORY: “Ulzana’s Raid” is a revisionist Western by Robert Aldrich which was released in 1972 toward the end of the Vietnam War. It was filmed on location in Arizona and Nevada. It is not based on a true story.

OPENING: On the San Carlos Indian Reservation sometime in the 1880’s, a group of Chiricahua Apaches led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) steal some horses (considering their need for horses later, maybe they should have taken more than one each) and leave on a raid. A messenger arrives at Fort Lowell and the word spreads that “Ulzana’s gone out!” Grizzled Indian scout MacIntosh (Burt Lancaster) is sent to the agency to gather information.

SUMMARY: The commanding officer at Fort Lowell assigns a green Lt. DeBuin (Bruce Davison) to lead the pursuit with twenty troopers and two scouts – MacIntosh and a Chiricahua named Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke). Ke-Ni-Tay happens to be Ulzana’s brother-in-law. Besides pursuit, there are settler families that need to be warned. One crusty codger sends off his wife and son, but stays to defend his homestead. The woman and boy are ambushed at the same time a trooper arrives on the scene. He shoots the woman and then himself to avoid the inevitable torture. The Indian braves do the next best thing by cutting out his heart and tossing it around. These are not noble savages. Later, DeBuin’s unit finds the husband’s body tortured.

     DeBuin is new to the West and wants to learn about the Apache’s and their culture. He is empathetic at first. After seeing the tortured corpse, he asks Ki-Ni-Tay “Why are your people mean and cruel?” The response is “it’s how they are.” Torturing a man means you acquire his power. Why did Ulzana leave the reservation? "Ulzana is at agency long time. His power is very thin. He had old smell in the nose. The smell of dog, of women, of children. Man with old smell in the nose is old man. Ulzana wants new smell. The smell of bullet. Pony running. For power!"  (We married fathers have Hooters, they had the open plains.) MacIntosh encourages DeBuin to be realistic. “Hating Apaches is like hating the desert for not having water.” He also tries to teach the young LT how to fight the Apaches. “Remember the rules, first to make a mistake gets to bury some of his people.”

MacIntosh and a dead horse
     Ulzana is a classic guerrilla warrior. He tries to get an advantage over his pursuers by dismounting most of his men and having two warriors run the ponies in a loop to exhaust the bigger cavalry horses. This would probably have worked except that not only do the whites have the Yoda of Indian scouts in MacIntosh, but the T1000 of trackers in Ke-Ni-Tay. They see through the Indian ploy and do not fall for it. In fact, MacIntosh heads off the pony string killing one of the braves and depriving Ulzana of his horses. Although he has lost his empathy for the Apaches, DeBuin does stop some troopers from mutilating the Indian corpse.

     At another farm, they find a raped woman who has been left alive by Ulzana so that the cvalry will be forced to split, sending some men with the woman back to the fort. Since MacIntosh sees through this strategy, he and DeBuin come up with a counterplan. MacIntosh and a few men (and the woman) will walk into the inevitable ambush and then DeBuin will swoop in and catch Ulzana with his loin cloth down. The humane DeBuin seems unconcerned with sending this distraught rape victim into an ambush which will be suicidal for at least some of the bait. Considering she is dressed as a soldier, you would think a soldier could have masqueraded as her.

     The plan hinges on Ke-Ni-Tay eliminating the Indian who will be watching the main group. He is so good he is able to follow tracks over bare rock! Due to miscommunication, DeBuin moves prematurely and Ke-Ni-Tay has to catch up to the Indian before he warns Ulzana. Being super-tracker as well as super-warrior, Ke-Ni-Tay kills his prey in time.

Jaekel as the Sarge
     Meanwhile, MacIntosh is ambushed in a canyon with predictable results for the poor bastards that are the bait. Mac, the sergeant (the ever-reliable Richard Jaekel), and the woman are forced to take refuge under a wagon. The sarge is killed and Mac is gravely wounded. Ulzana, who holds all the cards, orders two of his men to charge in the open and they are gunned down by MacIntosh. Wait, aren’t they guerrillas?

     DeBuin arrives with bugle blaring (so much for surprise). Instead of flanking the Indians, he comes charging up the canyon. However, this tactic is sufficient to win the “battle” and rescue the few survivors.

CLOSING: Ke-Ni-Tay tracks Ulzana, but can’t locate him. Just kidding. The two confront each other and it looks like it will be a classic Western duel, except with Indians. Think again. Ke-NI-Tay shows Ulzana his son’s (and Ke-Ni-Tay’s nephew’s) bugle.  This is the Apache way of saying I killed your son.  Opting against vengeance, Ulzana sings his death song and kneels for Ke-Ni-Tay to shoot him in the back of the head. MacIntosh insists DeBuin leave him behind to die.


Acting - 7

Action - 6

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 7

Plot - 5

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Highly unlikely. There are no significant females in the movie and those that appear mostly have very bad things happen to them. This is very much a guys’ movie. It does not have a lot of violence, but some of it is graphic. It is definitely not a feel-good movie. If you took a date to it when it was in the theaters, the dinner better have been outstanding and even then don’t expect much after you leave the cinema.

ACCURACY: The film is not based on a true story which is a crying shame. Why make up Ulzana when there were similar and better actual historical figures like Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, and my choice – Victorio? Any one of their stories would have been more interesting and given Aldrich the opportunity to explore the same themes.

     As far as Apache culture, the movie is fairly accurate although it does not cover anything but warrior culture. The discussions between DeBuin and Ke-Ni-Tay are enlightening as to how the warriors thought and fought. Their guerrilla tactics appear to be realistic, but if they were the great guerrilla warriors respected by historians, some of Ulzana’s decisions seem weak. The Apaches certainly knew the value of horses so the decision to go on the warpath with just one mount per raider is suspect. The ploy of dismounting and leading the pony string around looks like a Hollywood plot invention to me. Ulzana was well ahead of his pursuers and lengthening the distance. Giving up that gap does not strike me as something an intelligent Apache would have done.

     There is little doubt that the Apaches could be hard on prisoners. They certainly tortured and mutilated prisoners, including other Indians. I cannot vouch for the “take their power” explanation. I do know that Indians tortured their foes because they expected the same treatment and saw it as a way to show their bravery. I have never run across reference to cutting the heart out and tossing it around. They did tend to cut off genitalia and stick it in the victim’s mouth, however.  (You're welcome for that fun fact.)

     The Apache did have a tendency to leave the reservations to conduct raids which were hard on white settlers. Geronimo and Victorio were good examples of this.

CRITIQUE: “Ulzana’s Raid” has the feel of a made for TV movie. It looks low budget and the cast (other than Lancaster) is underwhelming. Lancaster is his usual strong force and gives the film gravitas. Davison is surprisingly good as the naïve lieutenant. Jaekel is his reliable self and gets a meaty supporting role. Luke stands out as the stoical Ke-Ni-Tay. The rest of the cast is below average.

     The score is stereotypical Western music. If you only heard the music, you would know immediately you were watching a Western. Some of it borders on ridiculous. The cinematography is fine, but although the terrain is similar you will not mistake this for a John Ford oater. The vistas are impressive.

     The movie has been described as revisionist. This is spot on. Before you give it too much credit on this account, remember this was the seventies when most Westerns were outside the box. By revisionist, I mean it portrays both sides as shades of gray. However, there is no doubt who the bad guys are. The same bad guys as in most previous Westerns – the Indians. The revisionism is in the respect they are shown in their depiction and the less than saintly portrayal of the cavalry. Ulzana’s motives are briefly outlined, but not really debated. The torturing of victims dilutes any sympathy the audience might have for him.

     Davison’s character is supposedly the conscience of the film. He is the opposite of the clichéd Indian hating officer. He wants to understand the Apache. As the film progresses his Christian principles are challenged by what he witnesses. Aldrich does a good job of not predictably going all the way down this path. DeBuin ends up a realist, not a racist. It is telling that at the end, instead of bringing Ulzana’s head back as proof or a trophy, he insists on burying the corpse.

     The most memorable aspect of the movie is the relationship between MacIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay. Their laconic friendship is like that of an old married couple. A nod is enough some of the time. Their mentoring of DeBuin is refreshing. They do not treat him as a rube, but there is some head-shaking. Ke-Ni-Tay is a strong character in his own right. He is loyal to his employer – the U.S. Army. He is super-Indian when it comes to tracking. I can’t help but point out that he is a traitor to his own people and chose the wrong side. He helps track down an Apache leader (and his own nephew) who are fighting for their way of life. And he kills them.

     The film has been described as an allegory on the Vietnam War. I do not know if this is something the critics deduced or was an intention of Aldrich. If he intended the movie to comment on the war, he missed the target. Ulzana does not do a good impression of a Viet Cong. They did torture and mutilate, but I would think that is not the point Aldrich would be trying to make. A liberal, anti-war statement would have portrayed the Indians in a more positive light and the whites as more imperialistic and racist. It seems more likely that Aldrich was more interested in making an iconoclastically realistic Western.

CONCLUSION: I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but… Just as with "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", this movie is a Western first and nothing else second. Perhaps the critics that decided it was an allegory on the Vietnam War insist that it then has to be a war movie. Sadly, regardless of what genre it is placed in, it is not a particularly good movie.


  1. This shouldn't be on the list. I agree they could have told a historical stry. As for your genitalia account, that's quite widespread. The Algerians practiced it on the French as an eye-witness told me (hence the PTSD. Guess you know who I'm talking about).
    It's done all over the world...

  2. the war movie buffAugust 21, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    I have to add that the whites also committed mutilations on Indians during the Indian Wars. One example would be the Sand Creek Massacre (as depicted in "Soldier Blue"). Human males being human males, unfortunately.

  3. I prefer Lancaster's Valdez is Coming to this one which was made only one year later. Similar rough scrabble character though. Lancaster made a number of unconventional westerns, the Scalphunters, Vera Cruz, the Professionals (great movie!). He even played an apache in Apache twenty years earlier. The director? Aldrich. They were both tough guys at heart and I bet they got along well, workwise anyway. Sorta Ford and Wayne type thing. I gotta agree that the only way this made a list of war movies was the analogy to Vietnam. Otherwise...say what? Burt played a surprising amount of indian blooded characters in his time. I wonder if he had any in his background?

  4. the war movie buffAugust 21, 2011 at 10:23 PM

    I agree about Valdez is Coming. A much better movie. I love The Scalphunters (Ossie Davis and Burt - outstanding fun!) and The Professionals (what a cast). Vera Cruz was another Aldrich movie BTW.

  5. Victorio appears in "Hondo" (1953). Cochise appeared in "Fort Apache" (1948), "Broken Arrow" (1950), "Battle at Apache Pass" (1952), and "Taza, Son of Cochise" (1954). Jay Silverheels played Geronimo in "Battle at Apache Pass" and "Walk the Proud Land" (1956). There were two movies entitled "Geronimo" (1939, with Chief Thundercloud, and 1962, with Chuck Connors). Lex Barker played Mangas Coloradas in "War Drums" (1957). Most of those movies are Westerns first and "nothing else second," although, IMHO, "Fort Apache" could be considered a war movie, if you admit cavalry vs. Indians as a subgenre. It actually fits better than several movies on MH's list. Most of these movies, especially "Broken Arrow" and "War Drums," portray the Apaches sympathetically.


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