Thursday, August 4, 2011

Did they know?

Sat down the other day to watch Robert Aldrich's cavalry vs. Indians Western Ulzana's Raid (1972), figuring it to be a decent potboiler Western from the last period during which American studios were turning out such films. By the end of the decade, the workaday Western was gone, and when Westerns appeared thereafter as in Silverado and Dances With Wolves they were super-special event movies. I missed a lot of westerns from the 1970's from having been overdosed on them in the 60's, so I missed how they had changed.

In a way, it was the way all American films had changed: the loss of innocence, the note of despair and loss. But the Western has a special talent for metaphor, usually carried in a more elegant form than, say a science fiction, which generally brings its politics out front and center. So it is perfectly possible to see Ulzana as just another example of trying-to-outwit-the-wily-Red-Man and nothing more. Perhaps the racism was less virulent, but still woven into the fabric. Being a 1970's film the violence is a little more realistic -- sudden, bloody and yielding consequences more real and painful than a 1930s cowboy clutching his bloodless chest and falling gracefully into the dust.

Today, Ulzana clearly is a Vietnam film. The enemy is largely unseen and they and their cultural context are, to the cavalry, completely unknowable. Their tactics are terroristic in nature. Their goal is to be simply left alone. The cavalry view the Apache as if they were not human, and least not humans like them. Cavalry officers ignore good intelligence (provided by Burt Lancaster as an old scout) in favor of their own narrative frame. Misdirection, missed opportunities and failure in execution leads to military failure by the cavalry. But in a way it doesn't matter, because a victory now would only be temporary, and either this Apache or another would arise to harass the US Army.

The only honorable allegiance is to truth and to other honorable people. Adherence to one side or another seems feckless. This is not warm, but a cosmic game of Chicken, winner is the last one to withdraw.

So the question is...did they know they were making a Vietnam film at the time? Or was this just something in the zeitgeist? Or am I reading something into it that's just not there? I was around in 1972, and Vietnam was, as a I recall, Topic A. So when is a Western just a Western?

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