Robert Aldrich’s unapologetic western Ulzana’s Raid came along at a time when screenwriters and filmmakers were distancing themselves from the old Cowboys and Indians plot narratives and moving to more personal stories within the western genre. Films such as Little Big Man (1970), A Man in the Wilderness (1971), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) centered around anti-heroes who were struggling with their identities and how to make their way in the west. This sea change was more sympathetic to how Native American Indians had been previously portrayed in Hollywood and spoke to a younger generation that was coming to terms with the Vietnam war. This was an audience more interested in characters who were searching for themselves, instead of John Wayne searching for Natalie Wood.
Ulzana’s Raid was the third of four films Adrich and Lancaster would do together, rejecting the early 1970’s shift in storytelling, choosing instead to show the ugliness of boots on the ground warfare and the consequences of decisions made by men who give soldiers their marching orders in battle. Raid isn’t interested in a hippy-dippy sojourn in the Arizona desert, it’s an Aldrich film after all, so it’s anchored by a tough guy (Burt Lancaster) that knows the answers he seeks will be caked in blood. Inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers, screenwriter Alan Sharp based Raid on the true story of Apache warrior “Ulzana,” who killed settlers during a murderous spree in 1885. Sharp has said he wanted the Apache to represent the “spirit of the land,” along with its hostility and harshness. Aldrich and Lancaster achieve this, while casting a dark shadow over the race relations of the period.
In the midst of his own business survival story, Aldrich had taken the money from the success of The Dirty Dozen and invested in his own studio – only to achieve financial failure with four consecutive films: The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), The Killing of Sister George (1968), Too Late the Hero (1970) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Lancaster, who was experiencing a career ebb of his own, also needed a hit to right his film trajectory, but these two men were craftsmen, artists that were going to film their vision without pandering to what they thought would sell – despite Raid being out of step with the counter culture films of the period. It’s a film that would’ve fared better financially had it been released about four years earlier, and been faster on the cinematic draw than Peckinpah’s genre-altering The Wild Bunch (1969).
Led by their savvy and ruthless war chief Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez), a small band of Apache warriors sneak out of the San Carlos Indian Reservation under the cover of night on horseback, to escape from, and ostensibly avenge, their mistreatment. The men in charge of the nearby Cavalry installation send for McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), a veteran Cavalry scout and tracker whose experience in dealing with the Apache have forged his knowledge. When he asks the two arrogant military men in charge pertinent questions about the escaped warriors, he is given by-the-book answers. McIntosh understands the dire situation the settlers who will encounter Ulzana and his warriors are in, however, he maintains his sage like demeanor, until he is told the number of Cavalry troopers will be determined when they can figure out what the Apache’s “probable intention is.” Unable to suffer the fools any longer, McIntosh explains “Their probable intention is to burn, maim, torture rape and murder…” a concept that it seems only he and the Army Apache scout Ke-Ni-Yay (Jorge Luke) initially grasp.
The soldiers who are dispatched with orders to capture or kill Ulzana are under the command of greenhorn Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison), a fresh faced and eager son of an Eastern man of the cloth. DeBuin espouses that his father believes it’s possible to be “both Christian and a soldier,” with a lack of Christian feeling towards the Indians that’s at the root of the problem – a belief that brings with it the baggage of underestimating a hostile enemy. It’s a naïve optimism that can only be corrected on the field of battle and Bruce Davison captures a man who experiences a rude awakening.
DeBuin is told by his commander that it would be “wise” to listen to McIntosh on matters of tracking Ulzana, but to remember that he, and he alone, is in charge of the mission. It’s this advice, mixed with DeBuin’s inexperience, that makes for an almost worthless strategy, and therein lies the paradox: you cannot get experience in battle, without first experiencing battle. Aldrich patiently unfolds the inevitable conflict as both sides devolve into a race to the bottom. It’s a winner loses less proposition, where the victor gets more PTSD than spoils, that will surely be repeated in the future by both parties – to be passed on to the next generation embroiled in conflict.
Lancaster’s McIntosh is compelling as a man who’s resigned to the carnage that the men he’s serving with will encounter, and it’s his task to get Lt. DeBuin up to speed on the savagery the Apache will unleash. The wise and world weary McIntosh never cuts to the quick with an “I told you so,” to undermine the in-over-his-head Lt. DeBuin, despite his recommendations being continually overruled by the young leader. As foretold by McIntosh, there is torture, rape and murder at the hands of the Apache, and in this anti-war construct, it’s not a judgement of the Indians but a necessity to cast them as the Cavalry’s enemy – in order to play out the guerilla war fare that made up this Vietnam war allegory. Ulzana and his men are as intelligent as they are fierce, communicating with hand signals, separating at key junctures with rider-less horses, and possessing a local knowledge of the terrain that puts DeBuin and his command at a severe disadvantage.
Despite McIntosh’s efforts to prepare him, DeBuin is overwhelmed by the brutality of the violence they find in the Apache’s wake, prompting him to ask the Cavalry’s Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay why Ulzana and his men behave in the way they do towards the white man. Ke-Ni-Tay explains that Ulzana believes man has a “power” that leaves the body when he is killed. The Apache want to capture that power – “like fire and heat.” There’s nothing rational about the killing from either side in Raid, other than kill or be killed, and Aldrich finds sure footing in the honest brutality of the film. It’s an honesty built on the fear of the cultural, ethnic and religious chasm that exists between one race of people versus another.
When the dust settles at the end of Ulzana’s Raid, and the casualties are spread out across the screen, the film seems to ask: if the Cavalry can lose their best asset with such confident incompetence, what hope do they have in future conflicts? How far will this chain of violence extend? The film reminds us a soldier’s job is to not ask why, that they are sent into battle with their fate tied largely to leaders who have the experience, or lack thereof, to know what’s waiting for them over the rise. Aldrich would go on to find commercial success one last time with The Longest Yard (1974) but in his storied directing career, it’s Ulzana’s Raid that still holds relevance with the masters of war in today’s headlines.