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Review: Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Aldrich’s underrated, challenging, and brutally violent 1972 western has been outfitted with a superb audio commentary.

3.5

Ulzana’s Raid

American westerns are often critically defined by how they complement our politics, by whether they rue or celebrate the imperialism at the heart of the country’s formation. Broadly speaking, conservative westerns celebrate manifest destiny, while liberal westerns are concerned with atrocities that serve as an American original sin that would continue with other manifestations of slavery and warmongering. With Ulzana’s Raid, director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Alan Sharp took a different and highly disturbing tack, concentrating less on speechifying than on the nuts-and-bolts particulars of a battle between white and Apache war parties. This is a film concerned with moral relativism, with the essential alien divide between two cultures. Mr. McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), a white tracker who’s married to an Apache woman (Aimee Ecclés) and who has a history with her people, understands that divide, while young Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) does not, as he shoehorns everything he experiences into the framework of his Christianity.

Set in 1880s Arizona, Aldrich’s 1972 film opens at night in the San Carlos Indian Reservation, where an Apache warrior named Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has escaped with a war party. This news travels to Fort Lowell, where the U.S. military understands Ulzana to be a threat who will rape and kill his away across the land, targeting white homesteaders. DeBuin is ordered to track Ulzana down, and it’s a task that he greets with enthusiasm, though his superior memorably informs him that he hasn’t been handed a present. Aided by Mr. McIntosh and an Apache named Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and accompanied by a group of soldiers who inevitably resent the lieutenant’s inexperience, DeBuin sets course across the punishing Arizona desert to find Ulzana’s party. DeBuin is ripe, of course, for lessons in the reality of the theater of war, particularly of the will and power of men he doesn’t fathom.

These characters are types that are familiar to various genres, especially the western, adventure, and action film—all of which are closely linked anyway, sometimes only distinguished from one another by setting. McIntosh and DeBuin settle into a master-and-student routine, though Aldrich and Sharp are more interested in the tactile details of battle than fortune-cookie sentiments. Much of Ulzana’s Raid suggests an elaborate game of ultraviolent chess, with discussions and executions of schemes involving the use of horses, doubling back, and strategically separating parties to baffle and misdirect the enemy—actions which Aldrich stages with masterful swiftness and clarity.

Debuin and McIntosh emerge as real human beings among these complications, and Ulzana isn’t rendered a stereotype for the sake of landing either right- or left-wing talking points. The Apache is clearly a brilliant leader, who outsmarts DeBuin at every turn and occasionally even bests McIntosh. Ulzana and his men are also merciless, as Aldrich lingers uncomfortably on their brutal treatment of homesteaders, especially when a few of the Apache cut the heart out of a white man and toss it around joyously like a hot potato. Later, Ulzana leaves a raped and beaten white woman, Mrs. Riordan (Dran Hamilton), alive for DeBuin and his soldiers to discover, so as to force them to reroute their party, which leads to a wrenching massacre.

The film’s moral compass resides in its refusal to offer one, and the narrative routinely confounds audience expectation. DeBuin is incredulous at the Apaches’ viciousness, which stems from his obviousness to his complicity in the European invasion and theft of Ulzana’s land. Ulzana responds in turn, and DeBuin’s failure to understand this fact reduces him to a fool. He tries to attach Christian pageantry to events that stem from the madness of war—attempts at gallantry that feel almost as obscene in this context as Ulzana’s violence.

When Ulzana is eventually killed, tellingly by Ke-Ni-Tay, DeBuin insists on a Christian burial. As a way of diluting this inadvertent violation of his own culture, Ke-Ni-Tay buries Ulzana himself. McIntosh, dying as a result of DeBuin’s incompetency, also refutes him by refusing a white man’s burial, preferring to expire as a man of the land he currently inhabits—the Apaches’ land. These plot turns, especially the casual acceptance of Ulzana as an astonishing and pragmatic tactician, still feel radically matter of fact. For a more conservative western, Ulzana might be a savage and DeBuin might prove himself in battle; in a more liberal variation on these themes, Ulzana might be a simpler object of pity and DeBuin a cardboard monster.

The film’s weary, empathetic, discreetly heartbroken worldview is embodied by Lancaster in one of his greatest performances. In Ulzana’s Raid and many other films, including several others for Aldrich, Lancaster offered the best of both worlds: machismo laced with sensitivity. McIntosh isn’t quite a traditional stud sage, but a man of pronounced sadness who’s come to know the savagery of humankind, a species whose capacity for monstrousness cannot be laundered by pretenses of religion, or by the faux-decency of message movies. Lancaster invests McIntosh with a haunting thoughtfulness, an authority of movement, a guarded stride, that’s achieved from the humbling terror of atrocity.

Image/Sound

This image could use a remastering. Blacks lack definition, most notably during nighttime sequences, and landscapes lack clarity, particularly in the backgrounds and even occasionally in the foregrounds. Close-ups are well-rendered, however, especially in terms of facial details. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix is far sturdier, offering an immersive soundstage that particularly stands out during the prolonged massacre that serves as the film’s climax. Gunshots are truly rattling here, as are the stomping of the horses and the collapse of expiring bodies. In other words, this presentation is a mixed bag, watchable but far from definitive.

Extras

The audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton offers a deep dive into the careers of all the principle people who worked on Ulzana’s Raid, including director Robert Aldrich, screenwriter Alan Sharp, actors Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, and much of the rest of the cast. Pinkerton is especially evocative when discussing Aldrich’s still somewhat underrated career, and while examining the under-acknowledged ambiguity of the American western, which is too often vilified as simply imperialist. There are also discussions of John Ford and of Lancaster and Aldrich’s tempestuous partnership, which included Lancaster’s reediting of Ulzana’s Raid for European audiences. This commentary, a must-listen for fans of the film and for cinephiles in general, is the highlight of the supplements package, which also includes an interview with Davison and an archive “Trailers from Hell” segment featuring John Landis.

Overall

Robert Aldrich’s underrated, challenging, and brutally violent 1972 western has been outfitted by Kino with an imperfect transfer and a superb audio commentary.

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Richard Jaeckel, Joaquin Martinez, Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson, Douglass Watson, Dran Hamilton, Aimee Ecclés Director: Robert Aldrich Screenwriter: Alan Sharp Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 1972 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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