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Film Review:Ulzana's Raid,
Robert Aldrich, 1972

"Don't you hate the Apaches, Mr. McIntosh?" Lt. DeBuin
"Be like hatin' the desert because there ain't no water." McIntosh


Ulzana's Raid,Robert Aldrich, 1972
Burt Lancaster as Mcintosh, the seasoned scout who married an Apache



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Film Review:Ulzana's Raid,
Robert Aldrich, 1972

Regarded by many as Aldrich's best film, this is my favourite western. It is one of the films which I would take to the mythical Desert Island, should such a programme ever be commissioned.

Set in Arizona in 1886 the film's interest centres on its exploration of the two very different cultures and the lack of understanding of 'whites' for 'indians'. The young, nave Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) is pitted against Ulzana, (Joaquin Martinez), an Apache who leads a breakout from the reservation in a desperate attempt to regenerate his 'power', which he has lost there. He needs to restore his power by violently taking it from his victims. In between the cultures is the experienced army scout, married to an Apache woman, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), who attempts to advise the Lieutenant on the best course of action. Lieutenant DeBuin wishes to sympathize with the Apache and see their human worth, but he is sickened by the violence and his mind is in turmoil as reality does not match up to his idealistic expectations. He feels hostility towards McIntosh's long standing partner, Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), although the film is very much an odyssey for him where he learns about himself through the experience of pursuing his quarry, Ulzana. Above all, he learns that human actions and interrelationships are highly complex and seldom match up to stereotypical preconceptions. The other characters help the young Lieutenant, who offers hope for the future, an opportunity to come of age. Despite its violence this gives the film a strong hint of optimism.

As the film opens the men at Fort Lowell are playing baseball, a scene of such incongruity that one is left in no doubt that these are interlopers who do not really fit in with the territory. It is this that draws a direct comparison to events in Vietnam where the Americans were similarly out of kilter with the environment in which they were fighting and the culture of the people they were fighting against. The contrast of values and the misconceptions are cleverly explored in this fine film, which, while exploring the human condition, never patronises or becomes laboured. Far from it.

The script by Alan Sharp is excellent, the story unfolds in a clear and gripping manner, and the acting brings it to life. The tension is brilliantly built up by Aldrich. Davison's central character really does seem to develop with the film, and the supporting cast fulfil their roles well, especially Martinez, Luke and Richard Jaeckel as the Sergeant. Burt Lancaster has a similar line about the Apache and their mounts to that of John Wayne's Ethan about the Comanche in the Searchers which, incidentally, I quote at the head of my review of that film. However, while both are delivered expertly with the assurance of a knowledgeable frontiersman, McIntosh, by avoiding the issue of whether or not to sympathize with them, achieves a thoughtful empathy with the native Americans. This contrasts sharply to Ethan's antipathy towards them. On an historical level this could be explained because The Searchers seems to be set in a much earlier time period, or by the two men's very different backgrounds, McIntosh is married to an Apache while Ethan's niece has been abducted by Comanche raiders. There is also a strong case that both films very much reflect the preoccupations of the societies in which they were made. Perhaps this is why I am drawn so much towards the character of McIntosh and how he is portrayed, which together with the exploration of the culture clash, lies at the root of my admiration for the film. Has Burt Lancaster ever made a bad film? Probably, but I can't remember it.



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Chris Smallbone February 2009

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