Renegade Apaches on the rampage
In a long and varied acting career that spanned 45 years, 1946 to 1991, Burt Lancaster only did 14 Westerns, not a great number considering those years contained the glorious late 40s and 1950s, the high water mark of the genre.
And some of the 14 were distinctly iffy, such as the overblown farrago Vera Cruz (1954), the trashy and exploitative Lawman (1971) and the perfectly dreadful non-comedy The Hallelujah Trail (1965). So Lancaster did not gleam that brightly as a Western star.Yet he could also be superb in a Western. I am thinking in particular of his splendid Owen Daybright in Vengeance Valley (1951), his steely Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1959), and his towering Ben Zachary in The Unforgiven (1960). He was directed in Westerns by the likes of John Huston, John Sturges and Robert Altman (as well as by himself) and three of the 14 were helmed by Robert Aldrich: Apache and Vera Cruz in 1954, and, towards the end of his Western career, Ulzana’s Raid in 1972.Robert Aldrich was certainly not one of my favorite Western movie directors. When you have examples of the genre as bad as 4 for Texas and The Frisco Kid to your name, you are not likely to be lauded for your Western prowess. Those two were among the worst Westerns ever made. Apache was unconvincing, to say the least, with Irish-American Burt as a blue-eyed Chiricahua, and Vera Cruz, despite pairing Lancaster with the great Gary Cooper, was, though commercially successful, pretty bad. No, it’s not a great record.
However, The Last Sunset in 1961 with Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson was OK, I guess, at least alright, and Aldrich was a producer on an underrated but superb ‘small’ 1957 Western The Ride Back. Above all, he directed Ulzana’s Raid, a film so good that we can forgive (almost) all his Western failings.And, curiously, perhaps, Burt Lancaster was rarely better than when he was playing an aging, wily Westerner. Two of his later oaters, Valdez is Coming in 1971 and Ulzana’s Raid in 1972, which have more than a little in common, were among the best things he ever did.
Aldrich set up a company to make films which had artistic merit but which may not be huge commercial hits, as his The Dirty Dozen had been, pictures which had been rejected by the big studios. Unfortunately, these new movies lost money. By 1972 he was short of cash and he shot Ulzana’s Raid in four weeks for a total budget of $1.2m. To do that, he had to bring Lancaster into the project, as a producer, and that gave Burt more input that a hired actor would have had. Aldrich may have regretted it.The story is one of the break-out from the San Carlos reservation of a small Apache band led by Ulzana (played by an almost entirely silent Joaquín Martínez, who directs his men with hand signals), the depredations they carry out on local homesteads, and how a grizzled old scout, McIntosh (Lancaster) guides a green young lieutenant (Bruce Davison) and his men on the trail of the Indians.
It’s not a new story but it’s extremely well handled. Much of the credit for this goes to the writer, who was also an associate producer, Alan Sharp. Though a Brit, Sharp understood the American West profoundly, and his writing is so good that if I hadn’t known, I would have said that it was by Elmore Leonard. Sharp also wrote The Hired Hand and Billy Two Hats, flawed Westerns both, perhaps, but not because of the screenplay. Not at all.
Sharp said he was inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers because he regarded it as “the best film I have ever seen”. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Sharp said, “Apart from being my sincere homage to Ford [Ulzana’s Raid is] an attempt to express allegorically the malevolence of the world and the terror mortals feel in the face of it. We all have our own notions of what constitutes the ultimate in fear, from personal phobias to periods in history. Three historical landscapes that I shudder most to consider are the Third Reich, Turkey during the First World War, and the American Southwest during the years 1860-86. In Ulzana’s Raid I am not intent on presenting a reasoned analysis of the relationship between the aborigine and the colonizer. The events described in the film are accurate in the sense they have factual equivalents, but the final consideration was to present an allegory in whose enlarged features we might perceive the lineaments of our own drama, caricatured, but not falsified. The Ulzana of the 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.”
So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Lancastertold British film critic Derek Malcolm in 1972 that in his entire career the only “first screenplays” that he really liked were Birdman of Alcatraz and Ulzana’s Raid.
As for Aldrich, he too had his ten cents’ worth. “From the time we started to the time we finished the picture, I’d say fifty, sixty percent of [the script] was changed. Alan Sharp, the writer, was very amenable and terribly helpful. And terribly prolific. He can write twenty-five pages a day. He couldn’t agree more with my political viewpoint—so that was no problem. And fortunately, Lancaster and I felt pretty much the same about the picture. It was good that I had support from Sharp and Lancaster, because I don’t have the highest regard for Carter DeHaven, the producer.”
The script of Ulzana’s Raid attempts, with considerable success, to examine why men should be so appallingly cruel to each other. At one point the young lieutenant, a clergyman’s son who has (at the start) vaguely liberal views, asks the old scout: – Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh? – No. – Well, I do. – Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do. – Why don’t you feel that way? And McIntosh replies:- 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. The part of the young officer is crucial to the story and is, by the way, wonderfully well handled by Davison. He was 26 but looked younger, as if he didn’t even shave yet, and his fair, smooth complexion contrasts vividly with that of the sunburned and wrinkled old scout. Davison had starred the year before in the cult horror flick Willard but wasn’t that big a name at all. Yet he is perfect as the naïve young man who gradually hardens in the cruel Arizona terrain, and, step by step, reverses his pro-Indian attitude until he becomes a hard-bitten soldier like his tough, experienced Indian-fighter sergeant. He reminds me of the lieutenant in Hondo of whom Ward Bond and John Wayne say that these West Point boys may be green but you always saw the bullet holes in the front of them. The young officer’s ‘journey’ is symbolized by his dress, which starts at the fort with a new stiff collar, which is then undone, then jettisoned, then the jacket unbuttoned, and in the end he is even showing a few signs of stubble. He is no longer the fresh-faced West Pointer with the bible his pa gave him. He is a seasoned soldier on the pitiless frontier.
This ‘conversion’ and the graphic depiction of atrocities committed by the Apaches led many at the time to consider Ulzana’s Raid as a reactionary, pro-Army film. Certainly it is very far removed from the sentimental Apache Lancaster played for Aldrich in 1954. It takes some time to appreciate that it is nothing of the kind. Much has been made of its Vietnam credentials – as was often (too often?) the case with 70s Westerns. Green young soldiers being disillusioned in the cruel theater of war, a war where they often could not even see their enemy, and sometimes reacting with equal barbarity, were no new thing to the GIs in south-east Asia. And the American anti-war movement which asked what the US was even doing there in the first place could sympathize with a film that asked the same question of the US Army in Apache lands in 1880s Arizona.Of course it’s a revisionist Western under full sail. As we have seen recently on this blog, through the 1950s, pictures like Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow, or indeed Aldrich and Lancaster’s own Apache, began to question the old trope of the gallant US Cavalry riding to the rescue of poor innocent settlers and wagon trainers, saving them from the redskin savages, and suggest that actually, the Indians may have had a point. By the time of Vietnam, movies such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) had turned the US Cavalry into the out-and-out villains, riding down on villages and savagely massacring innocent Indian women and children. My Lai (1968) was transposed to the American West. Now, in the early 70s, the Indians were the goodies who could do no wrong. The pendulum had swung the other way. Ulzana’s Raid, though, thanks to Aldrich, Sharp and the cast, has a subtler, more intelligent – if even darker – take on that. The Apaches are brutal and merciless, and the whites hunting them are correspondingly ruthless. You have difficulty sympathizing with either side. There are no simple white hats and black hats.At one point troopers mutilate an Apache corpse, out of frustrated hatred. The lieutenant tells the grizzled scout, – Well, killing I expect, Mr. McIntosh, but mutilation and torture? I cannot accept that as readily as you seem to be able to. – What bothers you, Lieutenant, is you don’t like to think of white men behaving like Indians. It kind of confuses the issue, don’t it?
It is indeed a violent picture. There are no holds barred on how the Apaches treated their victims, or in the scene where a trooper (Dean Smith) kills a farmer’s wife (Gladys Holland) rather than let her fall into the hands of the renegades and then puts his pistol in his mouth and shoots himself. The Apaches play with the dead man’s guts. They spare the young son of the farmers because they think he will suffer more by living. It’s tough stuff.
Ulzana and McIntosh did, by the way, really exist.
Ulzana, or Ulzanna, was a younger brother of Chihuahua, chief of the Chokonen local group of the Tsokanende Band of Chiricahua Apache, and according to James L Haley in his 1981 book Apaches, he carried out a vicious raid in New Mexico starting in early November 1885, similar to those of Nana and Chatto earlier. Ulzana had with him fewer than a dozen men but already in a couple of days they had killed a scout, two citizens, a White Mountain Apache and two Navajos. At the end of November they launched an attack on the reservation Indians at Fort Apache, killing twenty, including fifteen women and children, and stealing Chief Bonito’s horse herd to give them greater mobility. The US military offered $25 for every hostile Chiricahua’s head brought in, an amazingly grim thought. The renegades later stole more horses and killed two civilian members of a posse in pursuit of them. On December 9, Lt Sam Fountain, 8th Cavalry, ambushed Ulzana’s party. He killed none but captured all their camp goods and horses. The day after, Ulzana killed two more ranchers. Fountain pursued for several days but found no trace. On the nineteenth five soldiers were killed and two wounded in an ambush and then the renegades melted away once more, and were soon stealing more horses.On about December 28, Ulzana’s band crossed into Mexico, having killed 37 people in two months against a loss to the chief of one dead and one wounded, abandoned, and having covered close to two thousand miles. General Crook was beside himself with frustration. Eventually, Ulzana would surrender with other Apaches at Fort Bowie and be sent by train to Florida, but his raid left an indelible impression on the minds of South-western settlers and soldiers which would last for many years. Ulzana later had two wives and, it was reported “drinks too much.” He died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. (The film has a different ending).
As for Archie McIntosh, he was the son of a Canadian-Scottish father and full-blood Chipewya mother, born at Fort William, Ontario in 1834. Sadly, I can’t find a photograph of him but he was described by an acquaintance as tall and slender, “a good drinking man and a hell of a talker.” According to Dan Thrapp, author of the best book on Al Sieber, writing in the Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, McIntosh served with the Oregon Cavalry in 1864, and came to the notice of Crook, who used him in his expedition against the Pit River Indians in 1866 – 67. He was chief of scouts under Crook in California and Crook thought so highly of him that when the general was appointed to the department of Arizona in December 1871 he took McIntosh with him. Archie was the guide for troops in the Salt River Cave fight in 1872. He established a ranch at Black Mesquite Springs and lived with a half-breed Apache woman, Dominga. They had a son, Douglas, named for Archie’s brother, who had fallen with Custer. Reader JA Golding tells me, “Years ago I read an old post on a genealogy website by an Apache asking about his great-great-grandfather Archie McIntosh, mentioning that Archie had a son and grandson both named Donald McIntosh. I wanted to reply to say that he had – surprise – a cavalry officer in the family tree, but it was a dead link.” Archie McIntosh was instrumental in securing the surrender of Juh and Geronimo and their hundred followers in 1880 and in the spring of 1883 he was a member of Crook’s expedition to the Sierra Madre, as assistant to chief-of-scouts Al Sieber. He was then assigned to San Carlos under the command of Capt Emmet Crawford. But McIntosh did not in fact guide the Army to capture Ulzana in 1885 because in 1884 he was accused of diverting rations from the Indians for resale on his own ranch; he admitted the charge and was dismissed from government service. He died apparently from cancer in 1902 and was buried at San Carlos, though the exact whereabouts of his grave are not known.
Burt Lancaster’s McIntosh is not explicitly identified as this Archie, and Burt’s McIntosh does not die of cancer in 1902, but there are enough references to make the real McIntosh at least the model for the character in Aldrich’s movie. Actually, Aldrich said he also wanted the scout to be named John McIntosh (he’s just McIntosh in the film) to reference John McIntire, who had played Al Sieber in Apache, as a kind of in-joke, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.Visually, Ulzana’s Raid is very fine. This is because it was shot by the great Joseph F Biroc, an Aldrich favorite, in splendid locations, particularly the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, as well as in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The landscape is like the Apache people who lived in it, spare, harsh and unforgiving, yet it is beautiful. There was only one cinematographic slip, when Biroc went for those stupid binocular screens in which the glasses magically zoom in on the distant object.
There’s very good music, by Frank de Vol, often discordant and glaring and sinister. I love the little ironic cavalry tune on the harmonica as the troopers turn up late. The score is dark, sparse and just right.Richard Jaeckel , about whom we were discoursing yesterday, fourth-billed as the sergeant, was almost more experienced as a Western actor than the soldier he plays was as an Indian fighter. And he was always excellent. He is superb in the part of a man who has learned to expunge all pity and softness from his heart where the Apaches are concerned. I love the way he clenches his teeth when given a stupid and dangerous order by the young lieutenant, and then just gets on with it.
He is complemented by the powerful, understated Jorge Luke as the Apache army scout Ke-Ni-Tay who rides with the patrol, and who says little but is positively eloquent in his broken English when required to speak. The officer questions him:- Why are these people so cruel?- It’s how they are. They’ve always been like that.- Are you like that?- Yes.When the officer asks why they spared the farmer’s son, Ke-Ni-Tay says, “Man cannot take power from boy. Only man.” And you get the distinct impression that the scout is referring to the callow lieutenant himself: he isn’t worth killing. Later, though, as the lieutenant toughens up, Ke-Ti-Nay tells the officer baldly that “He [Ulzana] doesn’t mean to fight you. He means to kill you.”
The fellowship and trust between Ke-Ti-Nay and McIntosh is subtly but clearly underlined when the officer asks if the Apache can be trusted and McIntosh answers stoutly, “I trust him.” That’s enough. And also when the lieutenant tells McIntosh to take Ke-Ti-Nay’s horse (his own having being killed by the renegades), because natives are more used to walking, McIntosh does so: he says to the scout, “I’ve got your horse”. But in return he offers his Winchester to the Apache. It’s mutual respect.
Like some other clever directors and writers of Westerns, Aldrich and Sharp make the Indians all the more sinister and threatening by rarely showing them. They are a dangerous presence somewhere out there, a foe that could strike at any moment. The BFI Companion to the Western says, “By focusing on the ‘mystery’ of the frequently invisible Ulzana, this grim and even gothic narrative makes a paranoid contribution to the genre in its post-liberal, ‘Vietnam’ death throes.”The ending is a bit like the last act of Hamlet, with bodies scattered all over the stage – or in this case the canyon floor.There are different versions. Mine, on a rather old DVD, is a slightly cut one, with some clumsy editing in the part where McIntosh alone comes up to the Apaches and a gun battle ensues. Apparently Lancaster wanted one version and Aldrich another. There was a longer ‘European edit’ and there’s now a remastered print on a new DVD. Reader John K says that there’s an “Explosive, Germany Blu Ray and it’s a wonderful presentation of this very fine film.” That would probably be a better buy these days.JAW reader Wild Bill wrote, “This is a superb western, one of the greatest ever made, and only really known to buffs. I have a friend, a well-read and intelligent non-western fan, who was open-mouthed when he saw this, on my recommendation.” And he adds, “It’s much closer to the real west, the nasty, horrific west of Apache who ate their horses and cut the genitals off their victims and burned people alive.” A comment from a certain Tony Pipolo on another site said, “One of the most striking things about Ulzana’s Raid, Aldrich’s best western and arguably his last great movie, is its astonishingly understated atmosphere and three-dimensional characterizations… Each time I’ve seen this film, I am struck by its nearly stoic economy, the absolute necessity of virtually every shot—a quality rare in outdoor action films.”Aldrich himself said he was “very proud” of the film. Brian Garfield, in his ever-perceptive guide Western Films, wrote, “The movie is spare, grim, gruesome, dreary and depressing.” I would agree with all of that except for the dreary. Garfield added that “It’s extremely well plotted and the deliberate pacing suits the story.” I suppose he means that’s it’s slow but in a good way. Garfield thought it was “too arty” and “it’s an interesting picture, well made, but it leaves a sour taste.” Me, I wouldn’t say a sour taste, more that it leaves you pensive and grim-faced. Not entertained so much as impacted.And indeed not everyone liked it. Variety said, “Ulzana’s Raid is the sort of pretentious US Army-vs-Indians period potboiler that invites derision from its own dialog and situations. However, suffice it to say that the production is merely ponderous in its formula action-sociology-violence, routine in its acting and direction, and often confusing in its hokey storytelling.” In my view, that’s tosh.
It didn’t do too well at the box office. Western ticket sales that year went to Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Cowboys and Joe Kidd. In my view Ulzana’s Raid was better than any of those, but the movie-going public evidently didn’t agree.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times, however, named it in his list of the ten best films of 1972. And later critics have also understood its quality. Emanuel Levy in 2008 called the picture one of the best Westerns of the 1970s, saying it “is also one of the most underestimated pictures of vet director Robert Aldrich, better known for his sci-fi and horror flicks, such as Kiss Me Deadly and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.” Quentin Tarantino in 2019 called it “hands down Aldrich’s best film of the seventies, as well as being one of the greatest westerns of the seventies. One of the things that makes the movie so remarkable is it isn’t just a western; it combines the two genres that Aldrich was most known for, westerns and war films.”
If you haven’t seen Ulzana’s Raid, I recommend it to your attention.