Ulzana’s Raid
Produced by Carter De Haven
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Alan Sharp
Released by Universal, 1972

Dances With Wolves
Produced by Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner
Directed by Kevin Costner
Written by Michael Blake
Released by Orion, 1990

No, I haven’t lost my mind, or at least that’s what I choose to believe. But this hasn’t been a terrific month for movie-viewing, and I saw a neat flick on American Movie Classics, a 20-year-old Western I’d never heard of, called Ulzana’s Raid. Smart, tough, funny, it was all the things that Dances With Wolves wasn’t. And I’d been thinking of the latter picture, because I watched the Oscar presentations (broadcast from a planet in some ways much like our own) and I saw Richard Gere perform an act of self-parody of such extravagance that I was disappointed afterwards when he didn’t pull off his rubber mask and turn out to be Billy Crystal in yet another madcap prank. Gere, you will recall, thought we should broadcast waves of love to the Chinese communists that would cause them to slap their foreheads, realize that they have really been unpleasant to Tibet, and then, presumably, mend their ways. He never took his face off, and, indeed, in the New York Times of mid-April, either he or someone with an identical name published an oped piece urging us to “uphold the banner of Tibetan freedom.”

Well, it’s all right with me if these people have views, but when the views get turned into movies, the critic has a right to point out that there have been lapses in taste and judgment. And Dances With Wolves got seven academy awards, you will recall, including the prize for best picture. Ulzana’s Raid, on the other hand, got nothing but the short end of the stick, which is what used to happen to Westerns. (Clint Eastwood’s success with Unforgiven will, no doubt, spawn a new wave of oaters, or it would if the union rules weren’t so unrealistic and if there didn’t have to be a double for every horse, cow, buffalo, and pig that we see on the screen—but that’s another story.)

So, Dances With Wolves . . . I’m sure I never wrote about this before because I avoided it, managed to miss it entirely, which wasn’t easy. I’d heard and read enough to know that the Indians are the good guys, noble and ecologically responsible, while the white men are the bad guys, rude, crude, and careless of the ecosystem in which they are working out a sordid caricature of Manifest Destiny. This is funny, perhaps, but not entertaining, as it was funny but not entertaining when, in a section of upper-class undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, not a single young man or woman could say where Lisbon is. They knew the names of several extinct tribes of the Amazon, but Lisbon is a European capital and therefore part of Dead White European Men’s History, which is to say irrelevant and even offensive. (“On the banks of the Tagus,” I prompted, but that got only blank stares.)

So I rented Costner’s epic—181 minutes! —and watched it on the very same screen that I had seen Aldrich’s cavalrymen and Indians romping and frisking on only a few nights earlier. I was amazed at how crude this picture is in its technical aspects—in what we have come to call the grammar of film. One of the basic rules is that you don’t tell the audience in words what it has just seen. If you hear bangs and then see a guy come out of a saloon holding his gut with red stuff oozing down, you get the general sense of what is being portrayed. But if the guy then says, “My God, I’ve been shot,” that’s likely to get a laugh out of an audience, not because it is inherently comical but because the character is telling us something that we already know. And Costner’s noble lieutenant does this all the time. He’s got this journal, see, and he is something like Robinson Crusoe or maybe John Bartram, writing out his deep thoughts and making sketches . . . to tell us what we’ve just seen.

A whole screen full of dead buffalo! Wow! There they all are, all these carcasses, and even on the small screen of a television set, they look fairly impressive. The shots in the sequence that leads up to this panorama have been nicely built, and we’ve watched the Sioux dress up, paint themselves, and go out on a buffalo hunt that is at least half-religious in its character. And surprisingly, shockingly, there these dead animals are, strewn across the prairie. We don’t need Lieutenant Dunbar’s voice-over to let us know that this is not a good thing. “Who would do such a thing?” he asks. “The field was proof enough that it was people without value and without soul, with no regard for Sioux rights.”

Not that the Sioux are vegetarians, exactly, but when they kill buffalo, there is lots of soulful French horn music and lush strings, which John Barry has supplied to nudge us toward transcendental splendor. W-e understand that because they paint their faces and use bows and arrows or spears instead of rifles, they are at one with nature. The buffalo may not appreciate the difference, but Costner makes it clear to even the densest of viewers. “I’ve never known a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, and so dedicated to each other,” our young lieutenant says, and then, with an ingratiating aw-shucks kind of gesture, he adds, “and the only word that came to mind was harmony.”

The white guys are, to be blunt, inharmonious. They shoot the lieutenant’s horse—a heroic horse, a veteran of Civil War battle, and a gift from a Union general to the heroic lieutenant—and they shoot his pet wolf, a critter he has taught to eat from his hand and has named Two Socks. They are so inconsiderate and disagreeable that they destroy the whole country and make impossible the harmonious nomadic life that the Sioux have been living. The audience is then entitled to wallow in just enough guilt to afford an agreeable frisson—we’re white, after all, but how many of us were Indian fighters or even buffalo hunters, or how many of our grandparents or great-grandparents? We can send out waves of love, maybe, and uphold the banner of the Sioux—except that, one, they didn’t have banners; two, the Pawnees hated them, and virtually every tribe thought that every other tribe was scum, which is why Native Americans hate to be categorized together even as noble victims; and three, they weren’t such ecological exemplars after all, but would run whole herds of buffalo over a cliff because they thought it was funny!

Robert Aldrich has not had one of those revered Hollywood careers. He is a journeyman director whose best work was either The Dirty Dozen or, if your taste runs this way, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. He has also made some eminent turkeys. One of the great hoots of all time, in fact, was his Sodom and Gomorrah, from which I remember the imposing Anouk Aimée holding out her bejewelled arms and calling for the attention of her subjects in an unforgettable salutation: “Hebrews and Sodomites!” There was more to the speech, but the queen’s words never carry through the gales of the audience’s laughter. Ulzana’s Raid, though less well-known, is probably Aldrich’s masterpiece, with an intelligent script by Alan Sharp and one of Burt Lancaster’s very best performances as Mr. Mcintosh, the guide who goes along with the green Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who has just come out from Philadelphia.

There are lots of similarities between the two films. In a way, each is the story of what its lieutenant learns. Costner’s officer discovers the p.c. truth that Indians are finer, truer, nobler human beings than whites, and he marries Stand With Fist and, in the end, goes native. Davison’s lieutenant comes out to see whether one can be a Christian and a soldier at the same time, and what he learns, under Mcintosh’s tutelage, is that this is hard country and the Apaches are hard people. There’s no more sense, though, as Mcintosh explains, in hating them “than there is in hating the desert because there isn’t any water in it.” But you do have to know what you’re up against.

In other words, Indians are not really the subject of this film. What Sharp and Aldrich are getting at is larger and more interesting—truth, reality, and the duties and constraints of an honorable life in a dark and disagreeable world. When the Apaches talk, they speak in Apache but without the subtitles Costner gives his Sioux. The effect in Aldrich’s movie is to distance the Indians, to make them mysterious, which works dramatically because that mystery is what the young lieutenant has to unravel. We are told very early on about the philosophical resonance of what we’re watching, when Lancaster tells the major at the fort, “I’ve seen war parties come in all sizes—the kind with a hundred braves and the kind with one.” That is not an easy line to deliver convincingly, but Lancaster’s familiar weathered look and his peculiarly athletic slouch make it good. The major says he’ll send out a detail as soon as he knows the number and the probable intention of the war party. Lancaster looks up from his coffee mug to let a little sanity back into the conversation, “Their probable intention is to burn, maim, torture, rape, and murder, Charlie.”

So the detail goes out, to try to round up Ulzana and his renegades. And we cut back and forth between scenes of mayhem, in which the Apaches torture and kill the settlers in the Arizona bleakness, and scenes of the cavalrymen closing in. There are very few of what advertising agencies call “beauty shots” of Western scenery, which slow down the pace of Dances With Wolves. The point here is that this is not an earthly paradise. It is, on the contrary, hard, rugged country (Arizona and Nevada, mostly) with an arid beauty that isn’t so immediately forthcoming. The Indians, too, are complicated, acting, as we learn, on the very foreign but not at all contemptible notion that if you kill a man, you take his power—and if you kill him slowly and inflict a great deal of pain, you get more of that power. There isn’t any ethnicity in the direction of the Apaches’ hatred. It’s just what they believe and how they behave—which may or may not be historically correct but which allows for an elegant existential level of drama. The Western, after all, is our version of Greek tragedy, and the subject of the Western is always the closing of the frontier, which is to say the limitations of freedom. Culture and anarchy, civilization and its discontents, the measure and value of a human life—which a man can only keep by being willing to lose it—these are issues every bit as serious and grand as those Aeschylus and Sophocles addressed. When a Western works well, the homely modesty of its setting serves as a kind of ingratiation, so that we don’t mind being addressed on so lofty a plane. (Costner’s film refuses to take advantage of this strategy and preaches at us whenever it is unsure of the impact of its contrived dramatic turns.)

What happens? It is not, after all, a surprise that Ulzana dies. It’s a noble, even grand and ritualistic death. It is not even much of a surprise that Mcintosh dies—a truly splendid moment in which Lancaster occupies himself with rolling a cigarette. The impressive turn is that we believe the callow lieutenant has grown up, which is to say that we in the audience have grown up with him, having glimpsed and even to some degree accepted the harsh world that is beyond the theology and imagination of poor Philadelphians. (Philadelphia, these days, is considerably harsher, of course, and we are less deprived of opportunities for philosophical growth.)

A splendid film! Up there with Ride the High Country, The Shootist, High Noon, and Shane. Some of those movies are quite famous, and others are not. But, as Mcintosh would tell us, it’s hard country out there, and one learns to live in it.