Acid Westerns: Ulzana's Raid (1972)


Before I address "Ulzana's Raid" as an Acid Western, I have to address the fact that it is a film about an Apache war party. The film is loosely drawn from an actual historical event, a series of raids from 1885 in which a Chiricahua Apache named Ulzana managed to travel back and forth across the American and Mexican border, covering extraordinary distances (perhaps 1,200 miles), battling the U.S. cavalry, capturing 250 horses, and killing 38 people, including a number of Apaches from other tribes.

The film version, scripted by Alan Sharp (who was also responsible for "The Hired Hand"), fictionalizes the story and compresses the timeline. It provides very little context for the Apache raids of the era and highlights — and likely exaggerates — the cruelty of them.

It's impossible for me to address this properly, as I am neither a Western historian nor a Native American. So, whenever a film deals with Native American subject matter, I research both the historical record and look for Native authors who have written about the subject, but, with Western films, it is hard to locate the latter.

This is understandable. The Western takes place in a space cleared by a genocidal war against this country's indigenous inhabitants, and these movies are largely the myths that white people tell themselves about this story. It's a bit much to ask Native Americans to vet our self-serving myths.

I don't think it is possible to tell an unproblematic story of the Indian experience in the West without significant Indian participation. I don't think it is possible even to unproblematically criticize the Western's treatment of Indians without significant Indian participation. So my comments here will necessarily be limited and insufficient.

I will say this: The representation of Apache violence in this film is extremely troubling: it doesn't merely buy into myths of Indian savagery, but makes them a centerpiece of the film. It's hard to get a bead on the actual story of Apache raids, because the history has largely been told by White people who did not experience them, and also largely reproduced for propagandist purposes.

Undeniably, small groups of Apache warriors conducted series of raids against the U.S. military and settlers, and undeniably they killed settlers. This film insists that these raids were unspeakably cruel, with the Apaches consistently torturing settlers to death, and, worse still, murderously gang-raping female settlers. This is such an unquestioned presumption that, early in the film, when a Cavalry soldier escorting a woman to safety is attacked by Apaches, he pulls out his gun, shoots her, and then commits suicide to save them both from brutal mistreatment; other soldiers who discover this respond approvingly.

Stories of Apache cruelty are so common as to seem that there is a historic consensus on the subject, except, I should note, in Eve Ball's ethnography of the Apache, "Indeh: An Apache Odyssey." In it, the interviewed Apaches say stories of torture were vastly overstated and generally based on bodies that were mutilated after death. And as to rape? Historian Ed Sweeney, author of "From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886," wrote in True West Magazine that in all his research he had never encounter one account of the Apaches raping female captive.

So this film not only highlights a historically uncertain story of Apache cruelty and a nonexistent history of Apache rape, but it presents them almost entirely without historical context, failing to note that the Apaches had previously been at war with European settlers in Mexico dating back to the 17th century, having suffered brutality and privation at the hands of the Mexican government, and that the sorts of raids shown in "Ulzana's Rais" were generally by small groups of warriors who weren't part of any centralized Apache authority. All of this is useful context, all absent.

"Ulzana's Raid" was made by director Robert Aldrich, a very interesting director with a taste for brutality and surprisingly arch sensibilities: If there is a version of camp favored by swaggering, theatrically macho straight men, "Kiss Me Deadly " and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" are examples of it. He was a terrific filmmaker for certain sorts of film — one day I will write about "Emperor of the North Pole," the film he made after "Ulzana's Raid," which tells a near-tall tale of the hobo experience, and is terrific.

However, his taste for brutality and showy masculinity was probably not the best match for this material. The film occasionally gestures as sensitivity toward the Indian experience, such as a scene in which an older Army scout (played with subdued, weary authority by Burt Lancaster) lectures an Indian agent about mistreating the Natives in his charge.

But, great God, the focus of the film is on spectacular violence. It follows a small cavalry column led by a very inexperienced Lieutenant, played by the terrific Bruce Davidson, who looked about 16. The film seems to delight in throwing the brutality of the West in the face of the Lieutenant and watch him scramble to understand it, and to preserve himself as a decent and honorable man in the face of it. He fails, because in Aldrich's pessimistic vision of the West, decency and honor are impossible one you cross the frontier.

The script has some virtues, and one of them is a suspenseful cat and mouse game played by the Apaches and the Calvary. This is where the film gets its reputation as an Acid Western, as this is widely seen as a commentary on the Vietnam war, in which inexperienced American soldiers were thrust into a battle with a near-invisible native force that understood the terrain and would not shy away from guerilla tactics.

The cynicism of "Ulzana's Raid" seems to reflect the era's cynicism regarding its war in Vietnam. The film's American soldiers never manage to save anyone, are easily outmaneuvered, and the climax of the film has Ulzana bested by another Apache scout, suggesting that American military might is rather beside the point, and that this is an internecine fight that will resolve itself without American involvement.

It's a limited parallel, as the film's Apaches are poor proxies for the Viet Cong, and because the Apache Wars had little in common with the Vietnam War. But it was parallel enough that the film captures its era's exhaustion and disgust with war, and with how war cannot be virtuous. This is not an accidental parallel either — Aldrich reportedly reworked the script to highlight the parallels, and in interviews Aldrich has said that he and the screenwriter were very deliberate about these parallels, so much so that the film's producers worried it would hurt the film's box office.

The producer might have been right. The film did disappointing box office, and its Vietnam allegory was so evident that critic Douglas Pye classified it as an example of what he called a "Vietnam Western." That seems to me a better description of "Ulzana's Raid" than Acid Western, but a film can belong to more than one subgenre invented by critics years after they were made.

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