Review by Trylon regular John Bloomfield.
A pickup baseball game played by soldiers on the barren ochre land outside Fort Lowell is interrupted when a rider appears yelling, “Ulzana’s on a raid”. Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) and a small group of Apaches have broken out of the San Carlos Reservation. When the Fort’s officers say they won’t know how large a force to deploy until they have determined both how many Apaches have broken out and what Ulzana’s probable intention is, the experienced Army scout McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) responds, “Their probable intention is to burn, maim, torture, rape, and murder.” Two messengers are dispatched to warn homesteaders. Both are ambushed, one of them while he is escorting a woman and her son, and the stunning violence that occurs (some of which is self-inflicted) indicates the accuracy of McIntosh’s assessment.
McIntosh and Indian scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) go with the cavalry troop that is sent to hunt Ulzana. The troop is led by a greenhorn, Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davidson), who is just six months out of the Army Academy. As they attempt to out-maneuver Ulzana, this pursuit Western becomes a contest in which, as McIntosh says, “The first one to make a mistake gets to burying some people”.
The characters are sharply drawn. The naive DeBuin tries to be both a Christian and a soldier, following the edicts of his pastor father, but finds it increasingly difficult to understand Ulzana and his cruelty. McIntosh, who lives with an Indian woman, says he does not hate the Apache because it would “be like hatin’ the desert cause there ain’t no water in it. I can get by just bein’ plenty scared of them”. And Ke-Ni-Tay, who is Ulzana’s brother-in law—their wives are sisters—explains that Ulzana kills the way he does because “Each man that die, the man that kill him take the power”.
Ulzana’s Raid is based on a brilliant script by Alan Sharp (Night Moves), and Aldrich elicits fine performances by Davidson, Luke, Martinez, and Richard Jaeckel as a veteran sergeant, as well as by Lancaster. The action scenes are meticulously filmed and shockingly violent. In 1972, when this savage movie was made, it clearly referenced the Vietnam War—with DeBuin’s cavalry troop dealing with an implacable enemy that they do not understand. Ulzana’s Raid still has relevance today.
John Bloomfield wrote the column New York on Film for The New York Resident from 2002 to 2005. More recently he contributed a chapter on the films of Guy Maddin to the anthology Cinema Inferno (Scarecrow Press, 2010), and presented a paper on the Mexican films of Luis Buñuel at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association Conference in 2012.