The Oater Limits

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OK, so now I know I mustn’t call ULZANA’S RAID an oater. It’s an Indian wars western that’s seen as a Viet Nam allegory, written by Alan Sharp and directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Lancaster and a nubile Bruce Davison.

I always felt Sharp’s writing was a good deal more pleasing and to-the-point than Aldrich’s filmmaking on this one — I first saw it on 35mm at Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a Sharp retrospective, many moons ago. I think what was screened was the European cut, supervised by Burt, whereas the version I just saw was the US release, the director’s cut — there’s about ten minutes of differing material, it seems. I recall a bit where two men, trained not to make a sound even at the point of death, fall from a cliff in stoic silence. Unfortunately, this is represented by the usual rubber-limbed dummies tossed into the void, and without screams dubbed on, a farcical special effect becomes even more laughable. I support Aldrich’s decision to delete this material, if his decision it was. I can see Lancaster including it because it’s conceptually quite strong, and only let down by the filmmaking.

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But Aldrich does let the side down fairly often. His composer, Frank DeVol, assembles a tuneless concatenation of cliches — cut to watchful Indians, cue sinister flute. The film seems to have none of the grace notes of seventies filmmaking — it isn’t visually lyrical or particularly dynamic, though its choppy abruption gives it a vaguely robust quality. There IS a good night scene, notable mainly for avoiding all the half-hearted approaches to desert night — no blue moonlight, no impenetrable darkness, just a good dim greyness. But otherwise it lacks the elegance of golden age cinema without gaining anything from modernity except flashes of violence (I do quite like the way Aldrich makes little of the bloodshed — a good thing too, since the makeup “by Cinematique” consists of crimson paint liberally daubed over cavalry jackets). The direct cutting is often a bit confusing, cutting to one of those watchful Indians and then to his POV, bringing us up short as we realize it’s a new scene and he’s not looking at the preceding action after all. The dissolve-as-scene-change can be useful after all.

But the script is very strong — Sharp was unapologetic about showing Apache atrocities — but he also shows the unenviable plight of those Indians who try to get along with the white settlers and are robbed and mistreated for their troubles. Asked if it would be more powerful to leave the horrors offscreen as in THE SEARCHERS, he said that such an approach could be powerful, but he had rather wanted to show a dead man with his dog’s tail in his mouth. He had a strange wistful expression as he said it. As Lancaster says in the film, “Indian’s got a sense of humour. Just not one you’d recognize.”

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Fiona’s reaction to this horror: “WHAT am I looking at?”

It’s not just the pithy dialogue — Sharp also writes strong situations, crucibles for striking behaviour. The key one is the early scene where a cavalryman rides back for a woman about to be captured by Apaches — and shoots her in the head. Unsaddled by his enemies, he then blows his own brains out. The Apaches are about to chop the dead woman’s fingers off to get her wedding ring, when her young son, whom they disregard (since killing a boy will not impart “power”) rushes up, sucks her finger to lubricate it, and slips the ring off and hands it to the brave, thus sparing her post-mortem mutilation. It’s powerful, upsetting stuff — and imaginative, in a horrible way.

War makes barbarians of everybody, which can certainly be a comment on Viet Nam if you like, but I’m not sure how far the analogy stretches. The mass colonisation of America probably made the Indian Wars inevitable, whereas the “police action” in Viet Nam was a misguided exercise inĀ realpolitik which was wholly avoidable. The indigenous people got it in the neck both times, but Aldrich and Sharp presumably didn’t know that the outcome for the USA was going to be different this time round.

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17 Responses to “The Oater Limits”

  1. “A misguided exercise in realpolitik which was wholly avoidable” is putting the best possible spin on it. The United States INVADED Vietnam, divided it in two and declared that the South, which we controlled, was at war with the North. The North’s leader Ho Chi Minh was once considered an “ally” (ie. he hadn’t gotten in our way)
    See Sam Fuller’s China Gate where Ho Chi Minh is played by Lee Van Cleef.

    The invention of “The United States of America” was an exercise in realpolitik of an even more massive sort in that the indigenous population was declared alien and named “Indians.” They fought long and hard against the white invaders but were eventually defeated and (the last insult) mythologized. Ulzana’s Raid is preferable to The Searchers but the United States of America is incapable of making a film (or pretty much anything else) about its “Birth” that is not a compendium of lies.

  2. I’m fascinated by the Indian scout’s calm explanation of the justification for torture: to gain the power of the victim. Anybody who’s bullied or been bullied at school knows this is a real phenomenon, simply given a mythic significance by the Indian. The perpetrator of cruelty feels powerful. But what the Indian did on a largely individual scale, the white settlers did on a national/racial one.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    David E, I fully support what you say about the political reality since I often teach a class on Vietnam in Film that offends the “fratboys” (who naturally have not done military service) l eading to comments in evaluations (the academic equivalent of poison pen letters!) of me being “anti-American” and “anti-veteran”. Since the key text used iin class Loren Baritz’s BACKFIRE: HOW AMERICAN CULTURE GOT US INTO VIETNAM, an natural born American can do a better job of being “anti-American” than I can.

    (I’d recommend this book to David C.)

    As we both know, politicians such as LBJ used western analogies to decribe the Vietnam War and isn’t THE GREEN BERETS “a bad Western”?

    Since I’m running CHINA GATE in class in a few weeks, I guess you mean that Lee Van Cleef is a “symbolic “version of Ho? In the film, he is mixed race like Lucky Legs and regards his command of languages as superior to Ho’s. In my opinion, he is the most sympathetic character in the film since he accepts Luck’ys son without qualifications unlike his actual father Brock.

    I’m interested in your further comments especially since Vietnam veteran Harry Haines, who teaches at Montvlair State University, in his comments on the moviegeeksunited Kubrick podcast mentions similar problems he has with fratboys

  4. Thank you Mr. Williams. I should have said “symbolic” but that’s pretty much de riguer with Sam Fuller. You’re right about Van Cleef’s character — which makes Dickinson’s betrayal of him all the more irrational.

    Back in the late 80’s I taught a class in “The War Film” at USC Santa Barbara. The main films I used were China Gate , Huston’s The Battle of San Pietroand Thank Your Lucky Stars. Sam came and lectured the class — not on his own film but on the Huston, as his unit followed the one depicted in the film through those Italian towns. As you can well imagine we were all mesmerized.

  5. And while we’re on the subject of Sam, his Run of the Arrow is Beyond Fascinating as it deals with a disgruntled southern officer (Rod Steiger) who post-Civil War heads for the west and joins a Native American tribe. His love interest is played by Sarita Montiel.

  6. If I hadn’t annoyed you, we may never have had the amusing “Oater Limits”. So there.

    A also saw the Aldrich American cut, but haven’t seen the Lancaster for comparison. The allegory to Vietnam seems clear in the savagery and bleakness, if not in any of the particulars.

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    That must have been a superb experience with your students far more recpectful than the ones in the class Bill Krohn taught who ran out at the sound of the bell despite Sam being there.

    I taught RUN OF THE ARROW last semester and will do it again (assuming I have summer school support) when Samanta’s documentary A FULLER LIFE becomes available on DVD.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Also, David E. I’ve just rememberwed that the Steiger character is a recent Irish immigrant and there is a fascinating book about Irish-americans in the Confederacy published by McFarland that I referred to in that class.

  9. Sharp of course gives Lancaster’s scout a Scottish name, but avoids challenging the actor with dialect — something he DID do in Billy Two-Hats with Gregory Peck.

    It must be tricky teaching American history to Americans from an outsider’s point of view. I would be tempted to hide behind what the films are saying, rather than allowing my own views to come too far forward… though in the case of something like The Deerhunter or Apocalypse Now one would have to mention the filmmakers’ blatant fabrications.

  10. And it took quite awhile for those blatant fabrications to be pointed out. Being a quasi-hallucination Apocalypse Now has a hook it can get off of. But not The Deer Hunter.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    Exactly. To date, no evidence has been found that the NVA and Viet Cong engaged in russian routlettte. Although the claims of literary license have been made, the scene operates on the same ideological level of the beastly Hun bayoneting Belgain babies in WW!, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the recent WMD fiasco.

    Also, I have a suggestion as to David C’s use of the term “oater.” Could it not have derived from Scots Porridge Oats? Well remembered as a breakast ceresl with the image of a muscular Scots guy with singlet and kilt about to throw that huge iron ball in the air featured on the cover?

  12. Maybe a case could be made for the western as a Scottish invention? Sharp wrote his screenplay of Rob Roy as a western, but maybe the original legend and Walter Scott novel was a western prototype: the good outlaw. And one could point to the Scottish roots of seminal western filmmakers from DW Griffith to… Andy Clyde.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    We must never underestimate the Celtic imagination especially as Sir Walter wrote a novel whose title became the logo for an anarchist group’s newsletter in the future – THE BLACK DWARF.

  14. David Boxwell Says:

    Best ever remake of THE DEER HUNTER (enacted by animal puppets!): Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES. Cimino gets cut down to proper size . . .

  15. I’d forgotten that! I guess they were just trying to be offensive, but they wound up debunking a rather obnoxious sacred cow.

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