Lancaster is the McIntosh Man
Robert Aldrich's "Ulzana's Raid" shows that you can take an ordinary story, in this case a familiar western plot, and make it feel more through having the right actors and a fearless approach to directing. So whilst the story of an Apache and a small group of men escaping the reservation and being tracked down by the Cavalry and a scout is familiar, the fact we have characters with emotions and a level of brutality when it comes to the action makes it feel more. There is also the allegory side of "Ulzana's Raid" with it being made in the early 70s and reportedly a statement of the brutality of the Vietnam war although trust me it works even if you don't pick up on this.
After Apache leader Ulzana (JoaquÃn MartÃnez - Joe Kidd) and a small group of men leave the reservation the US Cavalry assign naive young officer Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison - X2) to lead a small group of men to bring Ulzana back. Assisting DeBuin is the experience scout McIntosh (Burt Lancaster - Airport) and assisting him is his old friend and Indian scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke). As they follow Ulzana's trail they find a path of destruction and murder, shocking DeBuin who struggles to understand how anyone can be so brutal and vicious but also forcing him to tackle his weaknesses and hidden prejudices in order to catch Ulzana.
So as already mentioned the basic storyline to "Ulzana's Raid" is a familiar one with Apache's leaving the reservation and the Cavalry trying to hunt them down. It's a storyline which has been used in countless other westerns but what is different here is rather than just using it Robert Aldrich explores it. And what I mean by that is he explores the differences between the Apaches and the Cavalry Men, looking at their fears, emotions and their way of life. So whilst we go through the storyline as Lt. Garnett DeBuin and McIntosh hunt down Ulzana and his men it is the depth it brings with it which is brilliant.
That depth reveals itself early on as we watch a couple of Cavalry men trying to bring homesteaders to Fort Lowell for safety following Ulzana's escape. In one scene we watch as the Apache's attack a woman, child and Cavalry man and in a moment which shocks, the cavalry man not only shoots the woman but turns the gun on himself. It is brutal and Aldrich doesn't pull his punches as he shocks leaving you wondering why, we learns why later on as we discover the not only would the Apache's have repeatedly raped the woman but slowly tortured the Cavalry man to death. And that is one of the movies strengths as whilst it may seem harsh that we are seeing Apache's represented as savages it digs beneath the surface to show how the brutality put fear in the white man's heart.
Now I said that the Apache's were shown as being savage and there is a lot of brutality on show throughout "Ulzana's Raid" or at least perceived brutality because we see the before and the after, rarely the actual violence happening. And trust me seeing the outcome of one of Ulzana's attacks is enough to make you shudder. But whilst Aldrich shows Ulzana and his men as savage like he also shows that they were clever, laying traps to draw out their victims. And that is where the movie also works because it becomes a game of cat n mouse between the Cavalry men and Ulzana.
There is more to "Ulzana's Raid" than just this and we have the interesting angle of young Lt. Garnett DeBuin trying to make sense of why the Apache's act the way they do. He seems to be constantly looking for answers to understand why they would rape a woman or slaughter a horse struggling to comprehend that it is just they way they are. At the same time it also brings out an almost racial element as frustration brings out a nasty streak in him as he treats their Indian scout Ke-Ni-Tay with disrespect. All of which works as does the allegory part of the movie, reportedly representing the Vietnam War but whilst those who grew up in the 70s may pick up on this it's not immediately obvious and certainly doesn't spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you don't.
Not only does Robert Aldrich allow the depth of the story to show itself as we witness misunderstanding, emotions and fear he is also fearless in showing the violence. As already mentioned the violence is more perceived than actual but what we see as the outcome is shocking and purposefully so. Seeing a victim of an Apache attack bound to a tree having been brutalized is disturbing but not in the sense of being gore porn, it makes a statement about the viciousness of the Apache way of life. And because it is fearless it also makes "Ulzana's Raid" seem more action packed that it is, in fact there is very little action but what there is is just brilliant.
What also helps make "Ulzana's Raid" be more than just another take on angry Apache's are the performances. From Richard Jaeckel who plays a Sergeant in the Cavalry through to Jorge Luke who plays Indian Scout Ke-Ni-Tay they all breathe life into their characters to make them human rather than 2 dimensional cliches. But it is Bruce Davison and Burt Lancaster who are central to it all with Lancaster putting in another great characterization, making McIntosh that sort of old, unshaven and dirty character seen in countless westerns but here he has different layers of emotion. And with Bruce Davidson playing the naive and wet behind the ears DeBuin as being inquisitive and shocked you have 2 characters who are fascinating because of the different layers to their character.
What this all boils down to is that for a western I had heard nothing about "Ulzana's Raid" impressed me. Director Robert Aldrich shows that you can take a familiar storyline and make it much more by exploring the characters whilst also being fearless when it comes to showing the brutality of fighting. Add to that actors who don't just perform but get under the skin of their characters and you have a western which draws you in to what is happening and shocks you over and again.