Renegade Apache Ulzana breaks off the reservation and goes on a murder raid, pursued by a party of cavalrymen led by inexperienced young officer DeBuin with advice from a grizzled scout McIntosh.
One of the best Westerns of the 1970s, directed with grim efficiency and honesty by action man Robert Aldrich, from a peppery, complex script by unsung hero Alan Sharp (of Night Moves and The Hired Hand), it has great struggle-in-the-wilderness sequences as the barely-seen Apache warriors harry a US Cavalry troop in a hostile, mountain landscape.
Unlike many hippie-era Westerns, which reacted against the old cliché by presenting ridiculously pacifist and noble Indians, it doesn’t flinch from the still-shocking business of the ‘murder raid’ (a trooper is commended for shooting a settler woman and himself rather than being taken captive by the torture-happy Ulzana) but the Apache are accorded a great deal of respect and understanding, and depicted as complex, interesting characters. In a classic exchange, Burt Lancaster’s wise old scout says there’s no point in hating Apaches for their cruelty because it would be ‘like hating the desert because there’s no water in it’ and, when the newly-embittered Bruce Davison says that he does hate Apaches, observes ‘it might not make you happy, but it sure won’t make you lonesome’. Jorge Luke is especially strong as the cavalry’s Indian scout, a relative of Ulzana, who is mistrusted by his white comrades but is literally incapably of going back on his word (‘I sign paper’) and emerges as the real hero of the film.
As in many 1970s Westerns, there’s a Vietnam parallel floating about in the ‘lost patrol’ storyline, but Ulzana’s vision of well-intentioned but ignorant American military engagement with a violent culture in an alien landscape remains unsettlingly relevant.
Grim but thrilling, with sterling performances.