We are in the middle of the Arizona desert, sometime near the end of the 19th century. A cavalry patrol is heading out to capture—and if necessary, kill—an Apache tribe that’s left the reservation and launched a raid on white settlements, stealing horses, murdering men, and raping women. Heading the patrol is an idealistic young lieutenant (Bruce Davison), the son of an east-coast pastor, who believes “it’s a lack of Christian feeling towards the Indians that’s the cause of our problems with them.” Riding beside him is a veteran Indian scout (Burt Lancaster), who’s grown cynical from years on the job. The lieutenant wants to surge forward and catch up with the Apaches before they attack anyone else. The scout tells him this is foolish, as the Apaches can outrun any patrol; it would be best for the men to save their energy until the Indians circle back to them. “I just don’t like to think of people unprotected,” the lieutenant says. “Yes,” says the scout, before pausing to let a world-weary chill pass over him. “Well, it’s best not to.”
This early scene of the 1972 western Ulzana’s Raid, which the Northwest Chicago Film Society screens this Monday at the Patio Theater, points to the movie’s core ethical concerns. Is there room for humane action when fighting a merciless guerrilla army? Is there any way an imperial power can be humane when its mission is to contain a native population, suppressing their traditional way of life? And does talking about these problems serve any constructive purpose? The conversation between lieutenant and scout is followed by a terrifying scene of Apache violence, which the filmmakers realize in gory detail. The abrupt shift from cerebral talk to brutal action registers like a dare, as though Ulzana’s Raid were asking us, How would you respond to those questions now?
That contentious gesture is characteristic of the films of director Robert Aldrich (1918-’83), one of the most complicated of major American filmmakers. Born into a wealthy, conservative milieu (John D. Rockefeller was one of his uncles), Aldrich scandalized his family when he dropped out of college and went to work in the vulgar medium of movies. In Hollywood he developed radical political sympathies, and during his long apprenticeship in the 1940s and early ’50s, he assisted such left-leaning directors as Charles Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, and Joseph Losey. In his own directorial efforts, he aimed to subvert popular genres with critiques of McCarthyism, militarism, mass media, and chauvinism. Ironically, many audiences accepted at face value the brutality of movies like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Dirty Dozen (1967)—which, along with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), remain his best known—and assumed that he was a macho right-winger.
In his 2004 critical study Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich, Tony Williams proposes that the director’s blunt, provocative movies continued a mission first launched in the 1930s by the plays of Clifford Odets and the New York-based Group Theatre: to make dramatic art in a popular idiom and grounded in progressive politics. The thesis isn’t difficult to support. Aldrich adapted an Odets play, The Big Knife, in 1955, and worked with communist screenwriters before, during, and after the McCarthy-era blacklist. Crucially, Aldrich spent three of his apprentice years at the Enterprise Studios, whose main creative forces—among them Polonsky, Rossen, and actors John Garfield and Art Smith—were “all products of the proletarian avant-garde modernism that characterized the Cultural Front.”
The influence of that movement can be felt in some degree in all of Aldrich’s movies, Ulzana’s Raid being no exception. After taking on the film at Lancaster’s request, Aldrich reshaped the story with screenwriter Alan Sharp to flesh out its antiwar message. The director envisioned the film as an allegory about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which he’d been outspokenly against since the mid-60s. (He claimed that a climactic image of The Dirty Dozen, where a soldier sets off grenades in ventilation systems he’s doused with gasoline, was meant to evoke the U.S. military’s use of napalm against the Vietnamese.) As Raid unfolds, the cavalry’s mission seems increasingly futile. It becomes clear that the military leaders have no practical solution to the Apache problem other than killing as many of them as possible—and that their course of action has triggered a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
Good intentions, as represented by Davison’s lieutenant, prove virtually meaningless in this context. When the lieutenant breaks up his platoon to send a splinter group back to camp with a woman they’ve rescued, he places all his men in danger. Vulnerable to attack, the smaller group is, predictably, set on by Apaches. The other soldiers catch up with them too late, and the showdown leaves many people dead, soldiers and Apaches alike. The movie concludes with the pathetic death of Lancaster’s scout, the only character capable of negotiating a truce between the two groups. It’s pure anticlimax—the violence is chaotic and ugly, displaying none of the excitement of Dirty Dozen or Aldrich’s other action films. The director further denies catharsis by extending sympathy to both (losing) sides of the conflict; there isn’t even someone to hate. “You didn’t feel hatred for Davison’s character,” he told Sight & Sound magazine two years after the movie’s release, “because you were shown over and over again that he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know any better than to make those painful and irrational mistakes at the Indians’ expense.”
The conclusion of Ulzana’s Raid implies that the cavalry will continue to make such mistakes now that their one knowledgeable member is dead. This pessimistic attitude is typical of Aldrich’s films (Kiss Me Deadly famously ends with a nuclear apocalypse), but it would be a mistake to label his work as nihilist. Throughout Body and Soul, Williams points to the left-wing idealism at the heart of the director’s movies. By presenting certain conflicts as beyond repair, Williams argues, Aldrich suggests the need for radical change to destroy harmful systems and create better ones. Raid makes it clear, however, that such change will not come through individuals, no matter how smart or well-intentioned. Collective action is needed.
Indeed, a spirit of collective action informs all of Aldrich’s films. While he maintained a cynical stance toward Hollywood on the whole (as evidenced by his scathing Hollywood-set dramas The Big Knife (1955) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968)), Aldrich nonetheless admired how the studio system operated. Even after that system collapsed in the 60s, Aldrich sought to preserve the team of collaborators—which included cinematographer Joseph Biroc, composer Frank DeVol, editor Michael Luciano, and production designer Michael Glasgow—with whom he’d regularly worked since his second feature, World for Ransom (1954). (Tellingly, he named his production company the Associates & Aldrich, not the other way around.) In interviews he presented himself as an organizer of creative talents who encouraged his casts and crews to help shape the material at hand. His dream production model didn’t really differ from Hollywood’s; he just wanted less interference from studio executives.
Aldrich briefly realized his dream. Following the success of Dirty Dozen (which was the number one box-office hit of 1967), he bought his own movie studio and made four films with near total creative control: Lylah Clare, the lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George (1968), an antiwar action movie called Too Late the Hero (1970), and the darkly comic crime movie The Grissom Gang (1971). These are bracingly, even admirably weird films that combine slick Hollywood craftsmanship with the complex, adult themes of contemporaneous European art cinema. All were commercial flops, as was Ulzana’s Raid, causing him to sell off the Aldrich Studio less than five years after he opened. But he fought on, making movies for other producers in as close to his own fashion as circumstances would allow. Before his death at 65, he would direct one more commercial hit—the prison comedy The Longest Yard (1974)—and at least one more major film, the military conspiracy thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), which is even more direct than Ulzana’s Raid in its critique of the Vietnam war.
Intriguingly, Aldrich’s style grew more modest as his content grew more provocative. Where his 50s and 60s work teems with hopped-up editing and Wellesian camera angles, his later films are comparatively straightforward. Aside from such exceptions as the split-screen sequences of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, his directorial flourishes are replaced by a uniform tone—brusque, caustic, and foreboding—that reflects a concentrated team effort. The filmmaking privileges content over style, pushing to the foreground the contradictions inherent in the material.
The Arizona locations of Ulzana’s Raid seem purposely generic, evoking the westerns that John Ford (and many other directors) shot in Monument Valley between the 30s and 50s. Grounding the story in genre rather than history, Aldrich and his team emphasize its allegorical nature; this in turn heightens the immediacy of individual gestures and lines of dialogue. The movie’s present-tense quality allows it to transcend both its 19th-century setting and Vietnam war subtext, reminding us that the questions it poses about imperial power, its responsibilities and its shortcomings, are ultimately timeless. Aldrich, a compassionate intellectual beneath his cynical exterior, understood that very well.