"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ulzana's Raid (Universal, 1972)


A first class cavalry and Apache Western.

Robert Aldrich was involved in quite a few Westerns, one way and another.
The Frisco Kid (1979) [Director]
Ulzana's Raid (1972) [Director]
4 for Texas (1963) [Director] [Producer] [Writer]
The Last Sunset (1961) [Director]
Hotel de Paree [Director]
Sundance Returns (1959) TV episode [Director]
The Ride Back (1957) [Producer]
Vera Cruz (1954) [Director]
Apache (1954) [Director]
New Mexico (1951) [assistant director]
The Red Pony (1949) [assistant director]
A Lady Takes a Chance (1943) [second assistant director]
Some were bad and some were dreadful. One was good (The Ride Back) and one was acceptable (The Last Sunset). Ulzana's Raid was far and away the best of them.
A first class cavalry and Apache Western, it was shot by Joseph Biroc (as so often with Aldrich). It is very, very fine.
.The landscape is like the Apache people who lived in it, spare, harsh, unforgiving, yet it is beautiful. Filmed in Arizona and Nevada, the movie shines in a pink light.
Burt Lancaster was in quite a lot of bad Westerns, such as Lawman or Vera Cruz (another Aldrich picture but pretty poor really) or the dreadful John Sturges picture The Hallelujah Trail, but when he wanted to and when he had a good script, he was a master and in this picture he comes across superbly as the grizzled Al Sieberish Indian scout. He had done something similar in the excellent Valdez Is Coming the previous year.
He is complemented by the powerful, understated Jorge Luke as the Apache army scout who rides with him (the mutual respect is subtly but convincingly suggested), and who says little but is positively eloquent in his broken English when required to speak. That of course is also due to the very good script and full marks to Brit Alan Sharp. The story has an Elmore Leonard feel to it; it’s that authentic and gripping. It’s that good.
There isn’t a bad actor in the picture. Bruce Davison is excellent as the callow lieutenant who looks as though he doesn’t shave yet. He reminds me of the lieutenant in Hondo of whom Ward Bond and John Wayne say that these West Point boys may be green but you always saw the bullet holes in the front of them. Richard Jaeckel, veteran of countless (well, 37) film and TV Westerns, is also well cast as the veteran sergeant. The Apaches too are convincing.
The music (Frank de Vol) is outstanding. I love the little ironic cavalry tune on the harmonica as they turn up late. The score is dark, sparse and just right.
The film is violent but that was the point. It was supposed to be grim and gruesome. It treats serious themes of courage, racism and freedom, even if it is a bit Hamlet-like at the end, with dead bodies littered over the set.
A fine movie that should be on any fan’s list.

           Bullet holes in the front of him

1 comment:

  1. This is a superb western, one of the greatest ever made, and only really known to buffs. I have a friend, a well-read and intelligent non-western fan, who was open-mouthed when he saw this, on my recommendation. The fact that there are no comments on this thread is amazing. People rave about The Searchers, and it IS a fine movie, but there's plenty wrong with it.

    The comedy interludes with Ken Curtis make your toes curl. Many of the costumes are wrong for late 1860s Texas, according to Tommy Lee Jones, and he should know. Natalie Wood's make-up would embarrass an amateur repertory company. The Edwards' shack is made of wood that doesn't exist in Monument Valley and the superlatively photogenic Valley is nowhere near Texas anyhow. The guns - even the goddamn GUNS! - are wrong for the period (1868) and there's a massive blooper when Ward Bond's 1873 Colt Peacemaker goes off as he brings it up to fire. Wayne's Winchester switches from a carbine to a rifle in the same shot. When you come down to it, The Searchers is a tad overrated. There's even a pick-up truck in one shot. Seriously. Wayne, however, is magnificent, and so is Ward Bond.

    To my mind, Ulzana's Raid is up in the all-time western top ten. I'd put it above Ford's film. It's much closer to the real west, the nasty, horrific west of Apache who ate their horses and cut the genitals off their victims and burned people alive. The Comanche, who feature in The Searchers, did the same. (I realise, of course, that Ford could not show anything like the reality back in '56). The hoof prints left by Indian ponies on the Comanche Moon raids - to kill whites - are still visible in the Big Bend area. Ulzana takes the western as close to this historical accuracy as it's possible to come. It's simply a work of art, but there's no place left for films like this in a world obsessed with Star Bores and cartoon heroes; apart from blogs like this and the hearts of ageing movie addicts like this, that is.

    I've visited Monument Valley three times and still remember my first live glimpse of those incredible rock formations. Last year (2015) the graduate daughter of one of my best friends went there and was photographed at several locations. She showed me the picture with great excitement. I mentioned that one shot was taken at John Ford Point. She looked blank. I said he'd directed several classic John Wayne films there. She asked, seriously, who John Wayne is.