On some levels, the bleak Burt Lancaster picture Ulzana’s Raid is what critics used to call a “thinking man’s Western,” since the picture’s screen time is divided between philosophical conversation and open-desert carnage. Starring Lancaster as a McIntosh, a grizzled scout who helps a posse of U.S. Cavalry soldiers hunt for a vicious Apache named Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez), the movie explores a deep ideological rift, because some of the Americans view their quarry as little more than an animal who walks upright. However, the inexperienced lieutenant leading the posse, DeBuin (Bruce Davison), struggles to understand his enemy instead of blindly condemning Ulzana. McIntosh exists somewhere between the worlds of these opponents; as a white man married to an Indian, he realizes how pointless it is for a man like DeBuin to try penetrating the Apache psyche.
Writer Alan Sharp and director Robert Aldrich do a decent job balancing the movie’s highbrow and lowbrow elements. For instance, in the movie’s best scene, a homesteader’s wife and child hurtle through the desert in their wagon, with a band of Ulzana’s braves in hot pursuit on horseback. The woman and child hail a passing Cavalry soldier for help, and, at first, he wisely rides away. Then, when his conscience gets the best of him, he heads toward the endangered whites—and shoots the woman in the forehead, saving her from the degradations these Apaches visit upon their white captives. Attempting to save the boy, the soldier tosses the kid onto his saddle and makes tracks, but one of the braves shoots his horse. Keenly aware he’ll be tortured if captured, the soldier puts his pistol in his mouth and shoots, leaving the boy defenseless. Yet the boy displays such grit defending his mother’s corpse that the Apaches depart without harming the child.
This nearly wordless scene says volumes about the disparity between two worldviews, communicating far more than even the best-written dialogue exchanges in the picture. A greater number of scenes in this vein of pure cinema would have gone a long way, but instead, Ulzana’s Raid gets bogged down in repetitive vignettes of DeBuin angsting, McIntosh scowling, and Ulzana scheming. (That said, sturdy character player Richard Jaeckel enlivens the picture with his performance as a cynical NCO disgusted by his lieutenant’s naïveté.) Lancaster works a smooth groove blending a grubby appearance with lyrical vocal delivery, adding a bit of poetry to the generally hyper-realistic movie, and Davison’s personification of a man struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible is affecting. Ultimately, Ulzana’s Raid attempts more than it can actually accomplish, so it ends up being an action movie with thoughtful nuances, but since it never slips into murkiness or tedium, it comes awfully close to achieving something powerful. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)
Ulzana’s Raid: GROOVY