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The Weekend Western: Ulzana’s Raid April 12, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , trackback

When Ulzana leads a band of renegade Apaches off the reservation, Lieutenant DeBuin is assigned to capture or kill him. Along with his cavalry detachment DeBuin is assigned two scouts, McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay. McIntosh is a veteran who respects the Apache while Ke-Ni-Tay is an Apache who is bound by his word to serve or as he puts it “Ke-Ni-Tay sign paper. Ke-Ni-Tay soldier.” The film deals with DeBuin’s hunt for Ulzana and the atrocities they find in the Apache’s wake.

Robert Aldrich’s film doesn’t go in for the panoramic vistas of John Ford, he’s not interested in showing us the beauty of the west, focusing instead on the brutality of the people who inhabit it. Made at a time when the trend was to show Native Americans in a sympathetic light, with films like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, Ulzana’s Raid instead shows them as savage killers. It’s not that Aldrich paints them as the villain, more that their idea of morality is so alien to men like DeBuin that they may as well be form another planet. Even McIntosh, who appreciates their single-minded simplicity doesn’t understand them, seeing them as almost a force of nature – a hard people for a hard land.

The central performances are all first rate. Burt Lancaster was an actor who seemed to get better with age, becoming less a movie star and more a character actor. In the early ‘70s he gave us a trio of ageing western heroes, in Lawman, Valdez is Coming and Ulzana’s Raid, and all three have a world-weary quality to them. McIntosh is as much teacher as scout, he readily admits that Ke-Ni-Tay is a better tracker, and he attempts to impart what wisdom he can to the young Lieutenant DeBuin in the hope it will keep both of them alive.

Bruce Davison is perfect as DeBuin, a fresh faced enthusiastic actor to portray a fresh faced enthusiastic officer. DeBuin matures as the film progresses, going from an idealist with hopes of reforming the Indians to a soldier who wants to punish them. He learns from McIntosh and, while he still makes mistakes, he’s a better leader by the films end.

DeBuin’s conversations with Ke-Ni-Tay are some of the films more interesting moments, as the young Lieutenant tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to understand his enemy. Ke-Ni-Tay is perhaps the films most complex character, as ruthless as Ulzana yet also a man of his word and Jorge Luke does an excellent job of bringing that complexity to the screen. He’s a riddle that it’s left to the audience to sort out for themselves.

That the actors are so good is in no small part due to the script by Alan Sharp, which keeps the viewer hooked while saving the bulk of the action for the last fifteen minutes. How a Scottish shipyard workers son developed such an ear for authentic western dialogue is anyone guess but with this and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand he produced two classic western scripts.

Aldrich’s film is both an exciting western adventure and an allegory for the Viet Nam War, with the Apache’s guerrilla tactics and brutality representing the Viet Cong, while the US soldiers become equally savage, desecrating the Apache dead. Yet the film never seems preachy, it leaves the audience to think for itself and get as much out of the film as they want.


1. Livius - April 12, 2008

Great piece on a great movie Ian.
I’d say ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ is probably about the best of the revisionist westerns of the 70s. I agree it doesn’t make judgements, it asks us to make up our own minds. It treats the viewer as an adult and that lifts it far above the likes of ‘Soldier Blue’ & ‘Little Big Man’. It also helps that Aldrich had a much more intuitive feel for the western than either Penn or Nelson.
And yes, Lancaster was on form in this one - he matured nicely into these kinds of roles.

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