It’s not a gunfighter, a cowboy, a sheriff or even the homesteader, but the group itself is one of the most iconic, memorable aspects of the western genre. That group? The U.S. cavalry. Immortalized in countless movies, I don’t know if there’s a more straightforward, brutally honest portrayal of the cavalry than the 1972 western Ulzana’s Raid.
It’s 1885 at the lonely desert outpost Fort Lowell when news arrives that an Apache chief, Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez), has left the reservation with eight warriors. No one has spotted them to know where they’re going, but their intent to burn, maim, rape and kill is evident. A small patrol commanded by an inexperienced lieutenant, DeBuin (Bruce Davison), is ordered to pursue Ulzana and his war party to either kill them, capture them or chase them to the U.S./Mexico border. Along for the patrol is a veteran scout, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), who will provide some guidance for the recent West Point graduate. Can the patrol catch up with Ulzana? What damage can the Apache war party do in the meantime?
Revisionist westerns are so often heavy-handed and overdone for the sake of doing so. It doesn’t serve a purpose other than cynicism and meanness. This western from director Robert Aldrich (and a screenplay from Alan Sharp, based on a true story) is one of the best revisionist entries ever. Violent, brutal, uncomfortable and realistic, ‘Raid’ is an underrated gem. This is the wild west as it truly was, not as movies so often glamorized it. You’re alive one second and dead the next without warning. ‘Raid’ tackles the subject as effectively as any other western I can think of.
Where I give credit in the casting are the archetypal characters. We’ve seen the veteran scout, the inexperienced officer and more in countless westerns. Here though, nothing is cut and dry. There are edges and angles to all the characters. The Apaches do awful things, but the soldiers do equally horrific things at times. Aldrich wisely doesn’t paint anyone as simply a good guy or bad guy. The Apaches aren’t overtly vilified either. Instead, we see them as what they were, a brutal tribe that survived thousands of years because of their brutality and will to live.
Lancaster is known for his bigger-than-life characters, but what appeals to me about MacIntosh is the exact opposite. It’s one of Lancaster’s most underrated and understated roles. The cavalry scout is a frontiersman, well-respected and liked who simply knows the land, the people and how to survive. He’s firm and states his case but never overdoes it. The dynamic between him and Davison’s lieutenant holds it all together. Things get a touch slow at times with some longer dialogue scenes, but those scenes crackled for me. Very timely for when it was released – 1972 – as so many questioned what was going on in the world.
The strongest feature of ‘Raid’ though is Jorge Luke as Ke-Ni-Tay, an Apache scout and friend of MacIntosh’s. He’s a human being, a window into the Apache life, and a fascinating character, especially in his scenes with Davison’s Lt. DeBuin. It’s probably the most well-developed Indian character I can think of in a western. A highly memorable part. The same for Richard Jaeckel as an unnamed sergeant, a cavalry veteran and capable soldier trying to get himself and the patrol through things relatively unscathed. Also look for Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson and Richard Bull in key supporting parts.
An added element of ‘Raid’ is its realism. We don’t see cavalry horses sprinting across the desert. Instead, we hear Lancaster’s MacIntosh discuss the importance of the horses and not wanting to wear them down too soon. It may bore some viewers, but this is a script about tactics and the science of a looming battle. Horses, water, rest and the ever-hanging cloud of death in the air hovers around our story at all times.
Filmed in Arizona, this is a bleak, uncomfortable film to watch. The soundtrack is a little overdone and out of place at times. The guts of the nasty story is its realism. We see a cavalry trooper shoot a woman in the head rather than let her be captured, raped and tortured. He then turns the gun on himself because he knows the horrors that await him. I love the John Ford cavalry trilogy, but it ain’t the most realistic depiction of the American west. Know what you’re getting into, but a revisionist western that hits the right notes for a change. Look for a longer version too – about 104 minutes – because there are cut versions out there.
Ulzana’s Raid (1972): ***/****