In Ulzana's Raid, after an opening shot of the Indian Reservation's signboard, a scant handful of Apaches ("Apache war parties come in all sizes") silently lead a string of horses out of the corral and disappear in the night. Reasons for their going ought to be evident, even without the passing mentions of the inferior food and the emasculating confinement and dullness of Reservation living. However, documenting the Indians' grievances, which would be the most certain appeal to current sentiments, is far from the main interest of this individualistic cavalry-and-Indians tale. The braveness of this Robert Aldrich western - it continually dares indictment for unresponsiveness to current Indian affairs and for tripping horses - is that it doesn't tramp over previously surveyed territory. It doesn't follow the charted roads that travel through the sorrowful history of the whites' incompetence with Indians (although early episodes, inside a cavalry outpost with its rulebook-ish officers, indicate that Aldrich, as in his Dirty Dozen and Too Late the Hero, never tires of mocking martinets' puffed chests and precision salutes). Above all, Ulzana's Raid doesn't stretch beyond the western genre's historical limits to gain a vantage point of enlightened hindsight. It doesn't use a contemporary perspective in order to bludgeon characters living in the last century, the way Soidier Blue or Little Big Man enlist themselves with modem, liberal "right attitudes" by showily scolding the imperialist sins of their crudely caricatured military stooges.
Ulzana's Raid *****
Egghead western, written by the Scottish novelist Alan Sharp, largely devoted to the esoteric military tactics involved in rounding up a small Apache raiding party. You realize how unfamiliar you are with the fine points of Indian fighting when you hear one cavalryman eulogized as "a good man," shortly after you have uncomprehendingly watched him gallop to the aid of a distraught woman and child, shoot the woman squarely in the forehead, stick the pistol into his own mouth and fire, and abandon the child to the mercies of the Apaches. Robert Aldrich's direction is generally in service to the fascinating script and to the cast of archetypes, quietly well played by Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Richard Jaeckel, and above all Jorge Luke; but he always rises to special occasions. An especially beautifully constructed action scene comes to pass when the wise old trail scout finds himself alone on an open plain, bearing down on two Indians who guard the entire string of Indian horses — and as he spurs his own horse to full tilt, and his hatbrim is pinned up by the headwind, and he unsheaths his Winchester with a graceful baton-like twirl, he becomes a figure magically brought to life out of a Charles Russell painting.
Withdrawn deep inside its genre's grayest conventions, Ulzana's Raid revives the disreputable practice of stereotyping. Gathered into a cavalry unit, to pursue the Indian guerrillas, are a young lieutenant, fresh from West Point and still green, plus a dutiful career sergeant, plus a weathered, trail-wise white scout and his domesticated Apache teammate. These characters, emprisoned by genre conventions and swept over by one century of progress, do not enjoy an elevated perspective on their own drama; and the flim-makers do not patronize them by shining on them the light of a modern outlook. The barring of any informed, up-to-date attitudes is essential to the film's tone, for this is, fundamentally, a Dark Ages western. It is penetrated by mystery - the mystery, superstitions and rituals, both Christian and Indian, of two mutually hostile cultures. And by fear - the civilized fear of imminent death and torture at the hands of savages, and the lonely fear of solitude and defenselessness. It catches white-Indian intercourse at a retarded stage where the whites rested in 19th Century Christian missionary righteousness, and the dark-skinned natives could be envisioned as the dark side, the subdued side, of civilization - the conquered inclination toward evil. Ruled by this obscurantist attitude, Ulzana's Raid becomes a horror western. (Which is not a surprising tum for Aldrich, a moviemaker who, in the past, has infused a private-eye format (Kiss Me Deadly), the war film (Attack), and the Hollywood story (Big Knife and Legend of Lylah Clare) with horror effects.) When Ulzana's the Apaches steal away from the Reservation, it is like the plague, or demons, being loosed. The whites, families and individuals, are isolated, without a stable sense of security or belonging in the wilderness. And the morbid imagining of what these "savages" do to you when they get you is largely what gives the movie its terrific grip, its undertow of crisis and urgency. Probably never has the drama in a western been so totally distraught. What stands out most clearly is the anticipatory panic and later revulsion of the whites in the face or the aftermath of Indian attacks. Their automatic, uncontrollable, chilling reactions comprise suicide and attempted suicide, shrieked appeals to the Apache attackers ("Spare me please") and appeals to the companions ("Soldier, soldier, don't leave me"), prayers to God and a crazed prayer to the young lieutenant ("If they come back, promise me you won't let them take me, promise me"), and incredulous exclamations on the Indians' mutilations ("Oh my God" and "Sweet Jesus" and "That used to be a white man"). For sure, the makeup effects On the torture victims are amply gruesome and convincing to rationalize the whites' terror of the Indians. But it is the eyes of the characters, aghast at the sight of these killings or scanning the rocks for signs of the Indians or turned up resignedly to God, that best transmit the tenor to the moviegoer.
Between the two incompatible cultures, the cavalry unit's one white scout and one Indian scout — the white who lives with an Indian woman and the Indian who lives and works among whites - float in a kind of noman's-land. Their privileged acquaintance with Apache manners and motives is regarded by the other characters as mystifying, esoteric knowledge. In baffled ignorance, the young lieutenant turns to one scout or the other and asks for insight into the Apaches' actions. The lieutenant asks them questions in the way he would talk to a clairvoyant or seer. What are the Apaches' "intentions"? Why are they so "cruel''? Why did they do this - or that? What will they do next? And the old white scout and the youthful Indian scout patiently explain, though they are not fully understood, nor trusted. They are treated with a certain awe, however, because they are in touch with another world. The only fellowship the scouts experience on this trek across taxing country is in the knowing looks they pass between each other. The others in the party may be admired as good soldiers, but, after all, they are shallow, they are hateful and unseeing.
As the white scout, speaking softly and pensively, Burt Lancaster seems tremendously comfortable. Over the last ten or so years, beginning perhaps with Birdman of Alcatraz and continuing through Seven Days in May and The Swimmer and Gypsy Moths and Lawman, Lancaster has been drifting into a sort of spiritual snob personality. He dallies through dialogue, hesitating as if the other characters are not worthy of his attention; they probably wouldn't grasp what he has to say, and their remarks could not possibly intrigue him. The tilt of his head, the slowness of his gaze, the profundity of his sighs suggest that his mind is away somewhere, listening to a private drummer. Jorge Luke's Indian scout is a similar, fresher characterization. With early Brando-ish intense concentration and sullenness. he speaks onJy grudgingly, as though his few words were pieces of his soul, very precious, and he resents giving them away. His dark, alive eyes show that the principal part of his life goes on inside, that this job as an Army scout is just motions. Alone always, friendless and distrusted by his superior officers, Luke's wary. tense manner is a continual statement of an Indian's discomfort in whites' society.
Each of these two special, conceited characters corners a moment of individual heroics, which provide the movie with its action high points. Lancaster, gambling on a prediction of one of the Apaches' sly maneuvers, finds himself alone on the open plains with a chance to cut off the Indians from their horses. In a race after two Indians who guard the Apache horses, galloping full tilt, his hat brim pinned up, unsheathing his rifle with a dazzling baton-like twirl, Lancaster becomes a figure out of Charles M. Russell's high-velocity drawings of western action postures. Luke has an equivalent moment of private pursuit, but on foot, when he is sent into the hills to tferret out the Indians' unseen,lone lookout.
Aldrich meets the action scenes with a sure skill at melodrama which shows, by contrast, how unimaginative the exposition scenes are managed. For the most part. his direction forgets the exaggerated, baroque compositions which infused constant pressure into his earlier, brasher. work. Here he appears content to play a subordinate to his scriptwriter Alan Sharp, a Scot novelist. The script probably permits too much time to be spent around the cavalry's campfire and among the clump of soldiers on the Indians' trail. But it is fascinating nonetheless for its speculations into primitive behavior, as well as for its meticulous diagramming of the subtle move-and-counter strategy that goes into a roundup of guerrillas in difficult mountain terrain ("Remember, the first one to make a mistake gets to burying some people").