Friday, 27 November 2009

Ulzan's Raid (1972): A Re-Revisionist Western



Starring: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke
Music: Frank DeVol
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Alan Sharp
Director of Photgraphy: Joseph Biroc

In 1954, Robert Aldrich directed and Burt Lancaster starred in ‘Apache’, a re-consideration of the negative role accorded Native Americans in the western film. Just under twenty years later, they re-united for another examination of the same subject, but the revisionism this time was as much a response to the kind of film made possible by the likes of ‘Apache’, as it was to the old myths of whooping villains (a la ‘Stagecoach’). Attention is paid to creating an almost deadpan examination of the minutiae of life in the west, with a literate script depicting the complex moral dilemmas that were faced in a time of rough-and-ready law-and-order and rampant racism. Not only the settings but the characters are more believable than was the norm for the western at the time (and, given such recent efforts as the re-make of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, is the norm today as well). Thus, we have such closely thought-through detail as the army scout shooting himself and the settler he’s escorting back to the fort, to save them from being tortured by the Apaches, and the tactical manoeuvres centring on how long horses can last during a lengthy pursuit. In addition, the scout played by Lancaster isn’t (as he probably would be today) the ‘cynical’, ‘world-weary’ character who must redeem himself by some heroic action; rather, he’s a competent professional, a man who lives with an Apache wife but who doesn’t buy the ‘Little Big Man’ myths of the peace-loving noble savage– a hippie era antidote to the racism of ‘classic’ westerns that actually presented a view just as distorted as theirs. ‘Ulzana’ is far from a one-man film, though, and it’s the relations between Lancaster and other characters that make it such an interesting picture. Most notably, there’s the idealistic young officer (Bruce Davison) who leads the expedition to chase Ulzana, the Apache who’s fled his reservation in frustration and is leading a war party to rape and murder local homesteaders. The son of a clergyman, the young man believes that it’s “an absence of Christian feeling” that’s led to the situation of mutual enmity between white men and Native Americans; however, when he sees the aftermath of Ulzana’s raids (for instance, a mutilated settler has a dog’s tail placed in his mouth; as Lancaster wryly observes, Apaches have a strange sense of humour), he quickly swings to the opposite view, and wonders how Lancaster can have dealt with the Apache for so long without hating them. The fact that men could be so cruel offends his notion that man is essentially good (“made in God’s image”) – particularly so when members of his own cavalry troupe start to mutilate the corpse of Ulzana’s teenage son. Lancaster, though, sees through the bullshit, implicitly pointing out that such a ‘humane’ viewpoint over-simplifies the questions of culture clash caused by the white man’s invasion of Native American territory. It would be easy to characterise the tribes as mistreated innocents suffering at the hands of bloodthirsty colonialists (the hippie view), or, as the young officer does, to believe that a little talking and good-faith would sort things out, and that both sets of men could exist together in peace, motivated by similar feelings of love and brotherhood, following ‘good moral principles’ in harmony. What that ignores, though, is the brutality present in the tribal culture (at least, in that of the Apaches, who were feared by other tribes as well as by the white men); commenting on the rape of white settlers, several characters note that “they don’t treat their own women much better.” A culture that is based around rites of manhood (as documented in ‘A Man Called Horse’) and the feats of male warriors is not all that dissimilar to that of bloodthirsty white men masquerading behind Christianity, ‘the American way’, or simple lust for land. Yet just as one is not going to be able to ‘understand’ the Apache by caricaturing them as evil, heathen savages, one is also not going to be able to understand them by trying to view them as surrogate white liberals: there is a difference, an otherness which should neither be romanticised nor ignored. Appropriately enough, all of Ulzana’s dialogue is presented, unsubtitled, in his native tongue: no cushy Kevin Costner characterisations here. Overall, then, one might characterise the film’s nuanced approach as re-revisionism: a corrective both to the old Hollywood myths which everyone by now knew to be untrue, and to the new hippie myths which were perhaps more ‘worthy’ but were also riskily naïve.

NB. Ward Churchill's 'Fantasies of the Master Race' might help to point up some of the errors in the above post. At least, it might teach me to do some more research, rather than just taking on trust what I've seen in a film (which is, after all, fictional).

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