Stagecoach To Somewhere – Western – ‘Ulzana’s Raid’

‘Ain’t no point hating the Apaches,’ says the Army scout McIntosh.  ‘It’d be like hating the desert because there ain’t  no water on it.’

Gifted Scotsman, Alan Sharp, wrote the script of ‘Ulzana’s Raid’.  But the dialogue above defines well

Robert Aldrich

Robert Aldrich

Robert Aldrich, the director of ‘Ulzana’s Raid’.   No liberal humanist had as brutal a view of the world as Aldrich.  And the dialogue quoted is liberal.  At his best, Aldrich was willing to confront human nature but the contradictions in his liberal nihilism could have thick-eared consequences.   Towards the end of his career, Aldrich made the movie, ‘The Longest Yard’.  Presumably, he saw the movie as an attack on hierarchy and a celebration of individual integrity.  Burt Reynolds was no help, of course, but the movie soon lost itself in coarse self-satisfied anarchy.   But that is what happens when you depend on the exceptional hero.  The films of Aldrich have been described as stories that show how the greed of men for land, power and money challenges the individual to somehow survive.  Unfortunately, the individual can sometimes be Burt Reynolds.

Aldrich understood the problem.  He walked away from a huge family fortune to become a filmmaker and was disinherited.   He did not want to be a banker. His films capture heroes caught between glory and self-hatred, much like he must have been.  Action and even violence transcends emotional failure but it does not mean merit.   His noir masterpiece, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, has brutal Mike Hammer searching for the secret in the box simply because others think it important.  Uncomplicated Hammer assumes he will be rewarded.  Created by an atomised society, Hammer is tough but no different from the rest of us, a Marcusian one-dimensional man incapable of understanding those who have shaped his world.  Aldrich did; his family were business associates of the Rothschilds.  He knew exactly how the powerful controlled the lives of others.  Glory threatened by paranoia sums up Mike Hammer quite well but it also applies to Aldrich.

In ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ the Indian scout, Ke-Ni-Tay explains the brutality of the Apaches.

‘To take the power of the man who die.’

The scout makes clear what can be gained from taking from others. The power taken is accumulative and that is why the number of victims and also torture are important.  The violence of the Apache is only a means to end.  It is not explicit but the dialogue suggests that the same will to power exists in Western capitalism.  The powerful only exist because they are willing to take, break lives and inflict economic torture.  This is what makes them strong.

In 1957, the Belgian Club du Luvre nominated Robert Aldrich as the 7th greatest creator in cinema.   Those who are not impressed should see the top 6.  Aldrich was still to reach forty.    But he worked in Hollywood and as a left wing Howard Hawks his output was destined to be uneven.  Neither was he a master of genre like Hawks.  His horror movies are decent but overblown and ‘The Killing Of Sister George’ reveals an American action director out of his depth.  But the catalogue includes greats even if most of them are at the beginning of his career.

Ulzana's raidAldrich made ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ when he was 54 years old.  It is the last of his 3 great Westerns.  The other 2 are ‘Apache’ which offers Geronimo as an individual of integrity and generally decent chap and ‘Vera Cruz’ which anticipated not only the spaghetti Westerns but ‘The Wild Bunch’.   ‘Apache’ is gloomy with a decent hero doomed to die.  Although Gary Cooper triumphs over the amoral Burt Lancaster in ‘Vera Cruz’, we know it is simply because Lancaster is more isolated than Cooper (and slower on the draw).  Virtue and morality do not triumph in the world of Aldrich.

‘Ain’t none of us right,’ says McIntosh in ‘Ulzana’s Raid’.

Personal worth is not denied in the film but it is only relative.  All we can hope for is the capacity to endure and be sensible and avoid committing widespread damage.  McIntosh is not like the tortured hero of the Robert Bresson film, ‘Diary Of A Country Priest’, desperate for salvation.

‘For now, I get by being plenty scared of ‘em,’ says McIntosh.

Young Lieutenant DeBuin is fresh from the military academy.  He leads the search to find Ulzana and his band of renegades.

DeBuin says, ‘I hate to think of those people not protected.’

‘Best not to,’ says McIntosh.

The soldier who kills himself to prevent being tortured earns contempt from an Apache brave but McIntosh reminds us that he was a good man.  McIntosh prefers common sense to heroism.  He understands but is aware that his understanding is partial.

DeBuin is shocked to find a dead farmer mutilated and the tongue of a dog shoved into the mouth of the farmer.

‘Apaches have a sense of humour,’ says McIntosh.  ‘Not one you’d find funny.’

In the circumstances, knowing that is enough.

‘Ulzana’s Raid’ has been described as a revisionist Western because there are no fine liberal sentiments about the Native American.  The Apaches indulge in grotesque killings.  But the movie is not racist just bleak.  The Apache chief Ulzana suffers from the same will to power as the powerful whites.  He is not a hero like Geronimo in the earlier ‘Apache’.  The scout Ke-Ni Tay is different.  He is the double for McIntosh.  Ke-Ni-Tay is not compromised because he fights with the soldiers.  None of the sides have merit so it does not matter which is chosen.  Ke-Ni-tay is merely an individual like McIntosh, trying to survive without doing too much damage.

If the Apaches are cruel, the white men are stupid and greedy.  The film begins with the cavalry troopUlzana playing baseball.  The viewer watches imperialist trespassers with alien habits and is aware of the unthinking faith in entitlement that makes men wander and claim.  Before the film ends, DeBuin is shocked when some of his soldiers defile the body of young brave.  Ulzana is captured and killed but by Ke-Ni-Tay. McIntosh has acquired resilience and common sense but he is no match for the Apache.

What should have made the film controversial, though, is usually missed. The script of Sharp insists on a relationship between religious faiths and oppression.  DeBuin is the son of a pastor.  His father believes that the white man has been guilty of not ‘showing Christian feeling’ to the Apaches.  Later, the brutality weakens the idealism of DeBuin.  He realises the implications for his faith.  The Apaches are not creatures made in the image of the Christian God.  Such a conclusion has unfortunate consequences.  It facilitates genocide of those who do not share the faith.  They are not in the image of God and presumably are not what God intended.  Of course, the conviction that others are not in the image of God only helps those of the chosen faith convince themselves that they are in His image, whatever their sins.  And so it goes, different day, different religion.  The brutality of the Apaches is not simple revisionism.  It is essential for a complex argument.  At the end of the film, DeBuin insists that the dead Apaches are buried.   It shows not only his abiding decency, religious faith also inspires virtue, but also the contempt of DeBuin for the ‘other’.  In contrast, the dying McIntosh is content to be left alone by a broken wagon and smoke a cigarette.   He has long stopped worrying about the image of God and what He expects.  His double, Ke-ni-Tay, survives.  Like McIntosh, he has no loyalty or high faith and because of it he is not racist.   He deserves to endure.  ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ proves Aldrich made the right call when he turned his back on the rich and the powerful.  But we knew that anyway.


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Here’s a clip from ‘Ulzana’s Raid’:




  1. Robert Aldrich seemed to have a fascination with death and redemption as shown by his movie the Dirty Dozen. Its possible his family and maybe the Rothschilds backed his Directing career?

  2. This is a film which I have watched previously but have gained a new insight following Howard’s interesting analysis and thought provoking critique. I have read much about the Native American Indian and his treatment by the marauding whites but again this piece has further informed my overall perceptions.

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