Director Aldrich Expands Upon Western Cavalry Picture To Portray Endless Warfare



The fiercely independent career of uncompromising director-auteur­ Robert Aldrich reached both an artistic high and box office low with his 1972 revisionist Western Ulzana’s Raid. Continuing a trend of ambitious and complex genre exercises past the director’s all-time smash The Dirty Dozen (1967) — which include the transgressive soap opera drama The Killing of Sister George (1968) and the brutal anti-gangster actioner The Grissom Gang (1971) — the Frontier Cavalry picture receives a similar re-drafting to previous screen depictions of post-Civil War conflicts between U.S. Military forces and Native American tribes. Star Burt Lancaster as aging scout McIntosh rides between the mutual atrocities of raiding guerrilla bands and their genocidal government oppressors in a stark, inhospitable environment that is forbidding and terrifying despite (or perhaps because of) its unearthly beauty. Like the desert sands, rocky cliffs, and stone monuments of the American Southwest, showing clear visual evidence of a landscape that will be neither tamed nor subdued, the conflicts rising endlessly through them reveal the ultimate futility of meaningless descriptors like pacification and containment. Ulzana’s Raid rages through the unsettled land with a pitiless intensity equal to and as unstoppable as a desert storm.

Apache warlord Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) gathers a small band of braves as the film opens, escaping the reservation and wreaking a havoc of rape, torture, murder, and pillage along the freshly cut trail of white-settled ranges, farms, and homesteads. Dispatched by the frontier military post, a young, Eastern-raised cavalry lieutenant (Bruce Davison) pits his inexperience and religious beliefs against the rampaging marauders, failing repeatedly to stem the blood-reddening tide despite the sound advice of his chief scout McIntosh (Lancaster) and the decisive actions of turncoat Apache tracker Ke-ni-tay (Jorge Luke). Riding further into tactical error and military folly, the U.S. Cavalry troop’s numbers are severely diminished by the smaller-numbered but greater-resolved Apache warriors, and any victory wrested from the echoing canyons will be equally short-lived on either side.

Not so much an anti-war film as a feature-length anti-stupidity treatise, Ulzana’s Raid disguises itself as a thunder-and-guts knucklebuster that plays as brutally true during its 103-minute running time as the screen-held final image of fatally-wounded McIntosh lighting his last cigar. The U.S. Military might have ultimately “pacified” the untamable West, but the evidence past its subsequent century of failure to properly estimate or understand the capacities and mindset of its enemies — especially after the second world war — had become tellingly clear by the film’s premiere in 1972. Taken as unequivocal Vietnam allegory upon its release, Ulzana’s Raid plays past its then-topical resonance with a tragic timelessness that gains unfortunate relevance with every subsequent viewing.

While Lancaster is commanding as always in his leading role, a viewer may be more drawn to his loyal Apache tracker Ke-ni-tay, as played by the undercredited Hispanic actor Jorge Luke. Like the title role, as played by Joaquín Martínez, the racial angle may appear dubious from a latterday perspective, but history’s judgment may vindicate writer Alan Sharp and director Robert Aldrich’s gut-level depiction of the battle between betrayed and betrayer, tracker and marauder, murderer and executioner; with both enacting either and all roles at various points in the deepening drama. One kneeling to meet his end as the other puts a bullet through his head, the report of gunfire echoing through canyon passages for the film’s last time, the characters’ mutual, stoic “end” is as devoid of judgment as it is fused with the thudding ring of finality, if not resolution.

Critic Nick Pinkerton comes fully armed with an audio ammunition’s worth of research and analysis on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, broaching topics as diverse as the Cavalry picture and the past depiction of Apaches onscreen, while film co-star Bruce Davison reflects on his involvement with the project and his memories of director Robert Aldrich in a recently filmed interview. Also included is a segment from Trailers From Hell featuring John Landis riffing entertainingly along to Ulzana’s Raid’s original theatrical trailer. (And yes, hitherto unmentioned Richard Jaeckel, as a typically stalwart sergeant, is underrated.) As strong a visual presentation as one is likely to find of this important 1970’s revisionist Western, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a must-own.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver, some of which (but not all) are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray copy for review.