Few directors have embodied the ethos of their own films quite so fully as Robert Aldrich; fiercely independent, constantly navigating the fickle vicissitudes of a waning studio system in between repeated attempts at self-funding, suspicious of authority, and enamored of swarthy masculinity, Aldrich’s films, in turn, celebrated rough men of action who tended to be outsiders, rugged individualists, possessors of a certain rakish charm. Dave Kehr has observed that “many of Aldrich’s films are built around [the] opposition between a corrupt, amoral system — war, the underworld, Hollywood — and a single man from within the system who rides up against it.” This could include criminals, ex-cons, military men, smart-asses, and perpetual underdogs. Aldrich valued professionalism, in real life and in his protagonists, and understood that many of the institutions at the very heart of the American project were built on violence and subjugation. Through a series of Westerns, WWII actioners, noirs, and even a sideline in female-centric melodramas (more indulgent of a certain sexual neurosis but no less fascinated by a certain outsider status), Aldrich rummaged through genre to find the dark heart of otherwise benign Hollywood entertainments. To watch an Aldrich film is to be put through the wringer — they hurt.
Aldrich is probably best known for his atomic-age noir Kiss Me Deadly, a mean-spirited journey through a pitch-black underworld replete with fascinating but unpleasant characters that remains something of a stylistic outlier in his oeuvre. It’s garish and angular; the series of four films he made with Burt Lancaster are more indicative of his formal concerns, the “invisible” style of many Hollywood-trained craftsmen that Aldrich would tweak with well-placed closeups, an emphasis on grizzled textures, and more graphic violence. Lancaster is a fascinating presence, a lithe acrobat by training with a glint in his eye and a shark’s smile, his peculiar charms bookending Aldrich’s career — he’s in two of the director’s earliest features, Apache and Vera Cruz, both 1954, and then two of last, Ulzana’s Raid and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1972 and ’77, respectively). Lancaster transforms from a lean, hungry, young(ish) man into a grizzled old-timer over the course of these four films, as if the intervening two decades between the first and last had worn him down.
Under consideration here is Ulzana’s Raid, in which Lancaster plays McIntosh, an old Army scout who’s seen firsthand the long, bloody war America has waged against Indigenous peoples. When Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) and a small Apache war party leave the reservation, the local Army outpost sends its own posse out after them. Their mission is to track down the war party and return them to the reservation, and Aldo to protect white settlers where possible. The small band of soldiers is under the command of the impossibly young and naïve Lt. DeBuin, a sort of well-meaning liberal type who believes that the Apache and white settlers would be kinder to each other if they simply understood and practiced Christian charity. McIntosh is too jaded to believe such nonsense, although he has a begrudging respect for Ulzana. McIntosh is married to an Apache woman, and his brother-in-law, Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), even joins the group along with him (reluctantly — Ke-Ni-Tay wants the Apache to return to the reservation unharmed and is willing to help the whites to ensure it). But it would be a mistake to call Ulzana’s Raid a “progressive” film, at least by today’s standards; Luke and Martinez are both Mexican-born actors playing Native Americans (common for the era), and Ulanza and his war party are given very little dialogue (although Aldrich’s camera gives them a certain dignity). The film’s power comes not from elevating the Native characters, but from recognizing the hypocrisy and bloodlust of the white characters.
Much of the film charts DeBuin’s disillusionment as he realizes his soldiers are as brutal as the Apache, and that his notions of Christianity fall apart when faced with the reality of frontier conflict. Aldrich refuses to blink in the face of rape, torture, and murder; the film’s most infamous sequence finds a homesteader family set upon by the war party. An army scout flees with a woman and her young son, while the husband stays behind to defend their home. He will be summarily tortured with fire, a dog tail shoved into his mouth, while the scout kills the woman and then himself to avoid capture by the Apache. The violence is quick, death instantaneous, a bullet hole appearing on a forehead and smoke billowing out of an exit wound. It’s here that Aldrich’s formal chops reveal themselves, even if subtly. Much of the film emphasizes the wide, open spaces of the frontier, flat landscapes that men on horses populate like little dots. When conflict appears, the film becomes more confined — the landscape gives way to a crowded camp fire, the interior of cabins, or the protruding embankments of rock formations. Aldrich is constantly negotiating who to put in the frame, conveying isolation but also alliances. When McIntosh and DeBuin finally have a real conversation and begin to understand each other a bit better, Alrich no longer cuts between them, but instead sits them in the frame together. But any alliances here are short-lived, as the constant threat of bodily harm hangs over each person at all times.
As McIntosh and DeBuin’s commanding officer puts it, moments after sending the men on their destined-to-fail mission, “If I owned Hell and Arizona, I’d live in Hell and rent out Arizona.” Aldrich has mostly contempt for military brass that sends warriors into unwinnable scenarios, and nothing but respect for the men who approach their ultimate fate with clear eyes (see also Attack!, The Dirty Dozen, Too Late the Hero). Ulzana’s Raid is generally read as a Western that’s actually “about” the Vietnam War, with the Apache acting as stand-ins for the Vietcong. Of course, certain anti-establishment and anti-war sentiments were all the rage in the ’60s and ’70s; Ulzana screenwriter Alan Sharp would also pen Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, both films frequently cited as “revisionist” genre pieces. But Aldrich isn’t so fussily self-aware, and one of Ulzana’s strengths is how well it works as a straightforward, classic Western — simply with the cruelty dialed up. In other words, Vietnam didn’t invent guerrilla warfare, and pretending the past was bloodless doesn’t suit Aldrich’s curdled sensibilities. Patrick Preziosi has written, “Aldrich [was] always attuned to the variances of victory — a pyrrhic win, a compromised achievement, a devastating near-loss.” Death comes for us all, Aldrich seems to be saying, so how are you going to deal with it? In this, at least, McIntosh and Ulanza become equals.
Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
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