The Oater Limits
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.
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.”
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 in 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.