Ulzana’s Raid is one of the rare movies that has a particularly strong theme—violence: what does it mean, and how is it used?
To perfectly illustrate this theme, Ulzana, an Apache warrior, and six other braves, escape from the “agency.” A cavalry unit is sent in pursuit, led by a young, inexperienced, idealistic lieutenant, who also happens to be a minister’s son, played by a young and extremely good Bruce Davison, coming right off his big hit film debut, Willard. He is exactly the right character to encounter intense brutality for the first time in his life and have no clue how to react to it. The cavalry’s two Indian scouts are an old, weary, though exceptionally knowledgeable McIntosh, wonderfully played by Burt Lancaster, and the Apache Ki-na-tay, played by Jorge Luke, who gives an astoundingly intense performance.
Meanwhile, Ulzana and his band of renegades kill every single white settler in their path. Their torturous ways include hanging one man upside down, cutting open his belly so his guts drop out and then starting a fire beneath him. The appalled lieutenant asks Ki-na-tay to explain the Apaches’ brutal behavior, and Ki-na-tay tells him: we kill to take another person’s power. This is my favorite scene in the movie, and Luke is brilliant. The first time I saw this film, at 14, I was seriously moved. Possibly for its unequivocal directness, the scene haunts me. It’s chilling and a great piece of acting, directing and screenwriting.
Directed by the no-nonsense, highly-prolific Robert Aldrich, Ulzana’s Raid falls between The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard. Aldrich even used Richard Jaeckel as the tough sergeant, reprising his role from The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich made several other good Westerns: Apache, Vera Cruz (both with Burt Lancaster) and The Last Sunset.
I met Aldrich once, but I didn’t ask him about Ulzana’s Raid. I should have, though, because it’s one of his best movies, it had a big impact on me, and I believe it is undeservedly forgotten (it’s not even available on American DVD). Not to mention, it’s got Lancaster in a late, great role. What else do you want?