Ulzana’s Raid (1972): Aldrich’s Western, Starring Burt Lancaster

“Ulzana’s Raid,” one of the best Westerns of the 1970s, is also one of the most underestimated pictures of vet director Robert Aldrich, better known for his sci-fi and horror flicks, such as “Kiss Me Deadly” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.”

Teaming for the third time with star Burt Lancaster, this feature followed their 1950s Westerns, “Apache” and “Vera Cruz” (with Gary Cooper), and preceded “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” their last collaboration.

Historians see “Ulzana’s Raid” as a bleak statement about the relationship of the white men and Native Americans, and also as a fitting if damning allegory about the American involvement in of Vietnam, which was at its height when the film was released. The film illuminates the history, social issues and psychological causes of interracial racial warfare.

Benefiting from a sharp screenplay by Alan Sharp, this fatalistic Western, set in Arizona in the late 1880s, juxtaposes McIntosh (Lancaster), a vet, hard-riding scout, who accompanies an idealistic young lieutenant, Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) in his pursuit of a bunch of renegade Apaches led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez).

At first, the two men appear as types: An aging Indian fighter and a tenderfoot officer who lead a platoon, setting out to counter a murderous Apache attack. The inexperienced idealist sees the Indian as a noble victim or inhuman enemy. When he asks the experienced scout if he hates the Indians, McIntosh replies that hating the Apache would be like hatin the desert cause there aint no water on it.

They hold radically different views of Martinez’s actions. The scout is cold and cynical, while the young’s Christian morality is incensed by the Apache atrocities, but Ulzanas savagery, brutal killings and tortures are a cultural manifestation, no worse than the spiritual pretense of the white men.

“Ulzana’s Raid” presents a detailed account of a platoon’s hunt for a group of Apaches who have escaped their reservation and committed acts of rape, murder, and mutilation. As the scholar John Lenihan pointed out, alternatives of peace seem relevant as both Indian savagery and equally destructive American cavalry clash in a frontier world of violent predispositions. The military defeat of the Indian reflects a superiority of brute force rather than serving justice or higher good. It’s a fatalistic conflict, in which no one wins, and needless death is caused by bureaucrats who operate by the book.

As the saga progresses, “Ulzana’s Raid” poses complex questions about the nature of heroism, racism, and American imperialism. The movie is harsh in depicting the inevitability of bloodshed between two totally disparate cultures. The tragically violent nature of the American handling of the Indian problem is manifest at the end, when Ulzana and his white counterpart McIntosh both die.

Aldrich’s stark, intelligent, and factual treatment of the subject prevents it from sliding into the preachy moralism of the similarly themed “Soldier Blue,” or “Little Big Men.” Indeed, the movie never strays into the pitfall of portraying the Indians either as noble savages or as evil barbarians.

A challenging film, it was much abused by its studio, and there are several different versions; a European cut is a bit longer and contains a slightly different opening sequence. Though Aldrich was dissatisfied with the way his Western turned out, it’s still one of his finest works.

The weary army scout McIntosh serves as the mouthpiece for unusually honest perceptions about both the Indians and the whites who have simply failed to comprehend them. Burt Lancaster excels as he weary scout helping the violent cavalry track down a rogue Apache in a movie that uses austere terrain and loyalty as interactive metaphors. Brutally but never excessively violent, the film is defined by images of death and destruction, magnificently rendered by cinematographer Joseph Biroc.


McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) Sergeant (Richard Jaeckel) Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) Captain Gates (Lloyd Bochner) Rukeyser (Karl Swensen) Major Cartwright (Douglas Watson) Mrs. Riordan (Dram Hamilton) Corporal (John Pearce)


Produced by Carter DeHaven Directed by Robert Aldrich Screenplay: Alan Sharp Cinematography: Joseph Biroc Editing: Michael Luciano Music: Frank DeVol Art Direction: James Vance

Running time: 103 Minutes