Rep Diary: Robert Aldrich and Burt Lancaster
Arizona Territory, the 1880s. Ulzana, a Chiricahua Apache, has jumped the reservation, and his raiding party is at large. A lone cavalryman is escorting a woman and her adolescent son to the fort when they are set upon by Apaches. The buckboard carrying woman and child is separated from the cavalryman when one of their horses is shot dead in harness. The woman stands and screams “Soldier, don’t leave me!” He rears his mount and rides back, as though to the rescue… and shoots her square between the eyes, to save her from a fate worse than death. The soldier takes the boy onto his horse to flee, but his own horse is shot from under him. Without bothering to return fire, the dismounted trooper discharges his gun into his mouth, dying with gun smoke swirling from his lips. Deprived of the sport of torture, the Indians fall on the corpse with knives, rising to play catch with the young man’s innards.
This is 15 minutes into Robert Aldrich’s 1972 Ulzana’s Raid, a Western vehicle for a 60-year-old Burt Lancaster. It’s an introduction that tells the audience, in clear terms, that this film is not playing around.
Aldrich and Lancaster made four films together. The last, 1977’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, is a geopolitical thriller. The other three are Westerns: Apache and Vera Cruz—both released in 1954, through United Artists—and Ulzana’s Raid, almost two decades later. And while Ulzana’s Raid</em> is practically the product of another world with regard to what was permissible in depicting screen violence and the historical West, it’s also a mirror-image of Apache, the two works in dialogue with one another across the years.
You can, looking through the prism of American movies, put together 30 years of the history Apache Wars. There is Battle at Apache Pass and John Ford’s Fort Apache and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow and Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise and Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend and, yes, Ulzana’s Raid. Apache, singularly, begins when the fighting is for all practical purposes over—the opening title announces that “This is the story of Massai, the last Apache warrior. It has been told and retold, until it became one of the legends of the Southwest. It began in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo.”
Lancaster’s introduction comes when an exhausted, defeated, senescent-seeming Geronimo walks a white flag towards a detachment of American soldiers, including U.S. Army Chief of Scouts Al Sieber, a real historical figure, played by buckskin-clad John McIntire. The ceremony is interrupted by gunfire, from the unreconstructed warrior Massai—Aldrich’s star, under a stiff black mop-top and layer of bronzer. Though the war is ended, Massai is determined to carry on the fight alone, just as an unreconciled Geronimo had once split from conciliatory Cochise. Throughout Apache, Massai will be kept on the run. He is on the run from the Americans, whom he evades by jumping off a prison train in boisterous frontier town St. Louis, where he is chased through the streets in a scene of riotous energy and perpetual motion. He is on the run from his own subjugated people, who are willing to betray their last warrior to curry favor with the whites or simply buy a drink.
Such unceasing pursuit demands a performer of considerable vigor, which Lancaster certainly possessed—having come late to stardom, he was 41 in Apache, but is trained down and in fine condition. Lancaster made a specialty of aggrieved pride, and his eyes flash with suicidal resolve as he delivers lines like “Every white man, every Indian, is my enemy. I cannot kill them all, and someday they will kill me.” Those flashing eyes are also piercingly blue—as are those of Jean Peters, playing the role of Nalinle, the daughter of his tribe’s drunken, ineffectual chief. Massai takes Nalinle captive, and marries her after an abusive courtship. He veils even gentle words with condescension, in a relationship that could be expressive of Apache chauvinism (or an outlet for Lancaster’s own, which has been well-documented).
Aldrich carried a reputation as a purveyor of über-masculine entertainment—reviewing the 1974 prison-football movie The Longest Yard for New York Magazine, critic Tom Allen called the director “The Macho Machine.” In fact, Aldrich made a number of movies with prominent female characters—Autumn Leaves, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Legend of Lylah Clare, The Killing of Sister George, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, and …All the Marbles. If he is still thought of today as an overwhelmingly masculine director, it is perhaps because there is little milk of human kindness in his films, each of which posits life as a hostile arena, a punishing schedule with never a home game. A tackle at the University of Virginia and lifelong pigskin nut, Aldrich’s essential metaphors for life were the locker room and the gridiron, and his heroes were those who didn’t know when to walk off the field. “This is the only war we had,” says Sieber at Apache’s conclusion, “and we ain't likely to find another.”
These days it’s frowned on for actors to play against racial type—Cloud Atlas and the upcoming Lone Ranger film notwithstanding—and the performances in Apache may be difficult for a contemporary viewer to swallow. Lancaster, however, brings certain inalienable virtues to the part, lending Massai his indomitable ego and long, imposing shadow. A few years later, the same qualities would convince Count Luchino Visconti that the pride of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx could be taken for another remnant of a doomed aristocracy, the Sicilian Prince of The Leopard.
The sense of self-identification in Apache is particularly intense if one knows the personalities behind it, for Lancaster and Aldrich are using Massai’s story to express their alone-against-all worldview. Both were stubbornly independent-minded men, their art given tensile strength through tug-of-war opposition to the prevalent moviemaking system. As Eugene L. Miller, Jr. and Edwin T. Arnold put it in their book of interviews with Aldrich, the cornerstone of the director’s personal philosophy was the idea that “Compromise was another word for betrayal.”
Aldrich was a scion of the Eastern establishment, cousin to Nelson Rockefeller, not in fact the final remnant of a scorned and battered people. But while he and Lancaster were indulging their own persecution mythology with Apache, they were also exhuming a recalcitrant native hero from the annals of history. There was a real Massai, and he really did escape from a train taking Apache prisoners to Florida near St. Louis, he really did make his way back to his ancestral territory and take a bride while on the run from authorities. These facts are known, but there is some uncertainty as to the circumstances of the actual Massai’s death, and the fictional Massai’s death is likewise controversial. Aldrich’s original approved ending had called for Massai to be shot in the back by one of his own, the Indian scout Hondo (played by Charles Bronson, then going by Buchinsky), but UA overruled this, allowing a wounded Massai to return to Nalinle and their new agrarian life, thus keeping their star alive and reasonably triumphant. So it happened that the young renegade Aldrich had his first bitter taste of the compromises that came along with an “A” budget.
Apache, like Vera Cruz and Ulzana’s Raid, was made under the auspices of Hecht-Lancaster, an independent company formed by Lancaster and Harold Hecht. An ex-dancer-turned-agent, Hecht had discovered Lancaster in 1945 when the actor was performing in The Sound of Hunting, a rare Broadway engagement after his first performing career, as an acrobat, had been sidelined by injury six years earlier. Together Lancaster and Hecht took Hollywood by storm, and set to work establishing their autonomy, forming their own company to produce Lancaster’s films. Christened after the actor’s long-suffering wife as “Norma Productions,” their first undertaking was the 1948 noir Kiss the Blood Off My Hands; later Hecht-Lancaster, the company was eventually renamed Hecht-Hill-Lancaster with the addition of partner James Hill. Some of the most ambitious and critically acclaimed American films of the Fifties and Sixties would be released under its auspices, Lancaster pictures like The Sweet Smell of Success and Birdman of Alcatraz as well as titles like Marty and Cat Ballou.
The company’s successes still lay in the future when Robert Aldrich was tapped to make Apache. Aldrich’s resume as a director at that point was limited to some television (The Doctor and China Smith) and a couple of features, notably 1954’s World for Ransom, shot on the cheap on the China Smith sets with the show’s star, Dan Duryea. Aldrich had, however, served an assistant director apprenticeship with a series of almost unbelievably distinguished filmmakers: working under Renoir on The Southerner, Chaplin on Limelight, Joseph Losey on M and The Prowler, Max Ophüls on Caught, and, perhaps most importantly of all, with Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky on Body and Soul and Force of Evil.
The last three titles named were made under the auspices of Enterprise Studios, an independent production company founded by actor John Garfield in 1946 with partners David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld. Enterprise, a progressive hotbed which valued the director as artist and encouraged experimentation, would have been a model for Hecht and Lancaster, and its atmosphere was something that Aldrich would seek to reproduce throughout his own career, with such indie ventures as The Associates and Aldrich, Parklane, The Aldrich Studios, and Ro-Burt Productions (undertaken with Burt Reynolds.) The Utopian striving of Enterprise put a permanent brand on Aldrich, and it is telling that his last completed film, 1981’s …All the Marbles, was a comic, tough-gal retooling of Rossen and Polonsky’s Body and Soul, in which women’s wrestling replaced boxing.
Aldrich had worked under Hecht as production supervisor on two films at Columbia, including the 1951 Lancaster Western Ten Tall Men. Aspiring director Aldrich had expressed to Hecht his interest in adapting the 1936 novel Bronco Apache by Paul I. Wellman, whose work was experiencing a bit of a vogue during Western boom times—his 1939 Jubal Troop was later filmed by Daves as 1956’s Jubal. Hecht was unconvinced at first, but the low-budget resourcefulness of World for Ransom changed Lancaster and his minds, and they gave Aldrich his first big budget with Apache, the first in a seven-film, $12 million dollar deal between UA and Hecht-Lancaster, struck after the actor’s vault into megastardom with 1953’s From Here to Eternity.
Despite or because of its new, softened ending, Apache was a money-maker, and its personnel were duly reunited on the next Hecht-Lancaster film for UA. That meant not only Aldrich and his star-producer, but cameraman Ernest Laszlo (working now in the brand-new SuperScope process) and editor Alan Crosland, Jr., as Aldrich began his habit of maintaining a team of devoted collaborators from production to production. Vera Cruz, the zestily nasty film that resulted from this reunion, belongs on any shortlist of the most entertaining movies ever made. Certainly Lancaster seems to be having a hell of a time in it, flashing a blindingly white, toothsome, almost Rooseveltian smile, like a mouthful of dice, from a sunburnt and begrimed face, an amoral brigand whose shamelessness even a tired and saddle-sore Gary Cooper can’t entirely resist.
Vera Cruz, like Apache, begins with an expository scroll, establishing the scene as Mexico during the clash between the French-backed puppet dictatorship of Emperor Maximilian and the native Juaristas. It’s the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War when, we’re informed, American soldiers of fortune have begun traveling south of the border to sell their services to the highest bidder. Lancaster, wearing bad-guy black and silver-studded S/M accessories, plays mercenary Joe Erin. Erin’s principles (or lack thereof) are established in the very first scene, when he takes advantage of a displaced Confederate whose horse has gone lame, Ben Trane (Cooper). Erin price-gouges Trane on the price of a new steed though, as it turns out, Erin didn’t technically own the merchandise to begin with.
This is the first in what will be an ever-unfolding game of double crosses, a shifting series of allegiances formed and discarded as Erin and Trane maneuver to steal the shipment of French gold that Maximilian has hired them to protect. The intrigue only ends with disillusioned Trane’s development of something like a conscience: peasant pickpocket Nina (Sara Montiel) and the rhetoric of the revolution seduce him, establishing the moral compass missing throughout the movie and setting up Trane for a showdown against Erin, who stays true to his cynical pragmatism. This hasty showdown does little to settle the stirred up moral confusion—though the pat concession to generic expectation evidently dissatisfied Aldrich, who would years later speak of an unproduced Western project, Rebellion, as “Vera Cruz with balls, energy, and real sex.” More immediately, the loutish Goofus character, as embodied by Lancaster, would appear entirely without a corrective Gallant in Aldrich’s next film, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, starring Ralph Meeker as a Cro-Magnon version of Mickey Spillane’s detective Mike Hammer.
The French-occupied period in Mexican history is a setting rife with openings for cultural clash and political frissons—witness Trane’s dressing down of a snotty, tin soldier French officer (Henry Brandon) when the coarse Americans crash a ball and banquet at Maximillian’s palace, an exchange that typifies the gaily slashing dialogue by Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb and Borden Chase. It’s surprising that more films haven’t taken advantage of the dramatic potential of this piece of history. Of those that have, Major Dundee first comes to mind—and Vera Cruz, with its focus on gross, venal appetites and destructive will-to-power—not to speak of the spitting machine gun that features in its final tactical assault—offers a clear blueprint for morally confounding Westerns of the 1960s, for the films of Peckinpah and Leone, himself a vocal admirer of Vera Cruz.
Both Lancaster and Aldrich were big, willful men with a powerful sense of their own heroic destinies as artists. As such, they weren’t destined for a long collaboration of the sort that Anthony Mann and James Stewart managed. In the years between Vera Cruz and their 1972 reunion, each man had faced his share of triumphs and setbacks. When Ulzana’s Raid came along, Aldrich was in one of his bust periods, divesting himself of the studio he’d bought in the wake of the success of The Dirty Dozen, after a string of box-office failures.
Back to the wall, the director returned to his origins to make one of his very greatest films. Shot in the state parks of Arizona and Nevada—the crew were billeted at the Las Vegas Tropicana—Ulzana’s Raid returns to the milieu of Apache, though taking place just before the insurgent tribes were brought to heel. Lancaster, no longer the young buck, doesn’t play Ulzana; as the veteran scout McIntosh, he’s essentially slipping into the Al Sieber part played in the earlier film by John McIntire. (The character name seems to be a homage.)
But here we see the imp of the perverse that was in Aldrich, his congenital inability to go with the times. While Apache had aligned itself to the Indian perspective in an era when this was hardly customary, Ulzana’s Raid took an unstinting view of the brutality on both sides of the Indian wars at a moment when the Native American was experiencing an overcompensatory regeneration on screen, routinely depicted as something nobler and better than the Western man. Aldrich’s old boss, Polonsky, had returned from a long blacklist hiatus with his Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, John Ford did his penance with Cheyenne Autumn, and Little Big Man looked askance at the world of the whites; Sacheen Littlefeather collecting Marlon Brando’s Academy Award and Lancaster’s role in Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson still lay ahead.
We do not ride with the Apache in Ulzana’s Raid. When they fall upon the cabin of a Swedish homesteader, we endure the attack with him, suffer his sweltering claustrophobia, feel his false hope on hearing retreating hoofbeats and cavalry fanfare, are sick at heart when McIntosh discovers the Swede burnt at the stake with his pet dog’s tail stuffed in his mouth. Much has been made of the film as a transposition of then-contemporary events in Vietnam to the American West—certainly worth noting, though it shouldn’t distract from the film’s historical integrity as a Western per se. Nevertheless, the state of the Swede’s body recalls contemporary reports of dead GIs discovered with genitals cut off and stuffed in their mouths.
If Ulzana’s Raid switches the viewer allegiance of Apache, the identification character has stayed in many essential points the same. McIntosh is, per one officer, “a willful, opinionated man with a contempt for discipline whether military or moral.” Though circumstance would make them enemies, one imagines that McIntosh and Massai would recognize one another as natural nobles, surrounded by the small and the petty, both friend and foes. The veteran McIntosh, hardened by a lifetime of testing himself against the frontier, is teamed with an untried cavalry lieutenant played by Bruce Davison, a charge whom he must teach to understand the brutality of their enemy. While Lt. DeBuin stops and gapes in incomprehension at each fresh travesty, McIntosh always seems to be turning away, reading his lines offhand, matter-of-factly moving on to the next order of business, never inhibiting his efficiency with bother about ideology or understanding. “Ain’t no sense hating the Apaches for killing, lieutenant,” McIntosh tells him. “That would be like hating the desert ‘cause there ain’t no water on it.”
This line is the work of Scottish-born Alan Sharp, with whom the script originated. Sharp was a self-described specialist in “moral ambiguity, mixed motives and irony”—and as such a perfect collaborator for Aldrich. A burly working-class lad turned playwright and novelist, Sharp’s previous screen credits include the existential actioner The Last Run, eventually filmed by Richard Fleischer, and the Peter Fonda-directed Western The Hired Hand. Sharp, who died this February at age 79, rested his reputation on these films, as well as Arthur Penn’s 1975 Night Moves, for which he penned the exchange that best summarizes the view of war—Mexican, Apache, Vietnam—which comes through in Aldrich’s films. Gene Hackman’s character is watching football, Aldrich’s favorite game, when his wife asks him “Who’s winning?” “Nobody,” he responds. “One side’s just losing slower than the other.” The contest is ultimately pointless, perhaps—but it is a passionate desire to lose slower which unites Aldrich’s outsider heroes.