Apache Review

The trend of the "Liberal Western" became most prominent in 1990 with the multi-Oscar winning drivel of Dances with Wolves but it's worth pointing out that Costner's overrated epic had numerous antecedents. These films tend to be directly revisionist in their treatment of the less savoury aspects of the American West in the second half of the 19th Century and they usually fall over themselves to portray Native American Indians in the best possible light. The worst of them - the aforementioned Wolves, Soldier Blue, Chato's Land - are ludicrously simplistic, usually showing the Native tribes as collections of wise old men, dashing young warriors and gorgeous squaws while portraying US Cavalry as a collection of bloodthirsty sadists who can't wait to massacre/rape/torture as many 'Injuns' as possible. However, a handful of films have managed to demonstrate the complexity of the situation. Yes, it's true that the Settlers did everything possible to destroy Native American culture while grabbing land to which they had no rightful claim. But it's also true that some Native Americans, especially the Apaches - the last tribe to surrender - often committed appalling acts of cruelty upon the men, women and children they encountered and it's very hard for a film to capture this balance.

One of the few directors who did manage to convey the intricacy of the historical record was Robert Aldrich who made two excellent films about the years following the surrender of Geronimo. Ulzana's Raid, from 1972, is one of the greatest of all Westerns and a reflective study of war and violence in which no side escapes criticism while Burt Lancaster's reflective Scout sardonically comments on the inability of either side to understand each other. His earlier film, Apache is rather more simplistic but it does manage to tell a good story which doesn't patronise or demonise the Native Americans, choosing instead to focus on the complex character of Massai, last of the Apache warriors.

The film is set directly after the surrender of Geronimo to the US Cavalry in 1886. Massai (Lancaster), a warrior with a fearsome reputation, cannot bear the thought of being herded into a reservation so he refuses to surrender. He is caught and put on a train to Florida, along with the other "troublemakers" but escapes and decides to take his revenge on the Cavalry and those of his brothers who have decided to collaborate. Arriving in a small town he is humiliated and then chased by a group of young white men and he finds his only shelter in the Oklahoma territory, in a stable owned by a Cherokee who has 'gone White' and adopted the lifestyle of the White settlers. The Cherokee farmer offers Massai shelter for a night and gives him some 'corn of
Talequah', saying "If you are wise, you will plant it not eat it". Covertly returning to the reservation, Massai visits the woman he loves, Nalinie, but finds that she refuses to be pessimistic and hopes for a better future now the Apache have made peace. Massai's worst suspicions are, however, confirmed by the appearance of a racist hunter named Weddle who thinks that the only way to vanquish the likes of Massai is to kill them.

Robert Aldrich was always fascinated by the confrontation between conforming society and the refusenik rebel and his best films manage to show how the outcast, whether excluded by choice or circumstance, could be integrated into a more tolerant society - his most famous movies exemplify this, notably The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard. But he also has a clear sighted understanding of how this is simply not going to happen without a lot of tears and blood and that the first stage is to acknowledge difference and then work towards comprehension. In Ulzana's Raid, Lancaster says "Hating the Apache for their cruelty is like hating the desert because there ain't no water in it", and that's a key line in Aldrich's work as a whole. In Apache these themes can be seen in embryo - Massai is a terrifying warrior but he also wants what everyone else wants, a place to call home, and his desire to find land and plant his corn is what humanises him. His violence is caused by need or nurture while the cruelty of Weddle - a somewhat stereotyped bad guy - is through some kind of sadistic choice. Massai also understands that his finest hours are behind him, saying "I am finished", but hopes that the future, represented by his and Nalinie's baby Little Massai, will be a place where great warriors are no longer needed to ensure the survival of the Indian nations. The last of his kind, Massai is a figure to stand alongside those other dying breeds in Aldrich's work - Mackintosh in Ulzana's Raid, Lee Marvin's hobo in Emperor Of The North and Burt Reynolds' honourable cop in Hustle.

Burt Lancaster was a fine naturalistic actor and he is very effective as Massai, despite being almost totally unbelievable as a Native American. Some have suggested that this is a non-PC and therefore racist piece of casting, but I think it's just the thoughtlessness of the period. Against this, you have to place the liberal sentiments of the storyline, the sympathetic portrayal of the Native Americans and the optimistic (if saccharine) conclusion. Lancaster produced the film, one his first productions with his long standing business partner Harold Hecht, and his presence is strong and compelling, though denied the intended tragic stature by the studio-imposed happy ending which changed the intended death of Massai at the hands of Federal troops. What he does capture is the sense of confusion Massai feels when caught between his world as an outlaw and the promise of a settled future. Jean Peters comes through with good work as Nalinie but the rest of the cast tend to give rather one-note performances.

The film looks marvellous, shot on location in the South with some wonderfully rich camerawork. The script has some pretty banal moments but also unexpectedly succeeds with some of the more thoughtful lines such as "You're not a warrior anymore, just a whipped Indian". Aldrich directs with pace and style, gearing himself up for his first masterpiece, 1955's deliciously dark film noir Kiss Me Deadly. He produces some exciting action scenes but is at his best in the scenes between Massai and Nalinie when his ability to probe character is already beginning to develop. Apache is not a great film nor a particularly significant one, but it is well made and entertaining and is interesting as a sign of things to come from the still undervalued Robert Aldrich, one of the best directors of the twentieth century.

The Disc

This is an MGM back catalogue release and, as such, is devoid of any significant extras. The film is quite nicely presented but the disc is otherwise entirely average.

The film is presented in fullscreen only. It was made in 1953 and released in 1954 when there was still a combination of 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 films being made, as well as the explosion of films made in one of the widescreen processes. It looks fairly good on DVD although only the colours in the second half really demonstrate the advantages of the medium. There are some artifacting problems and the film has a grainy appearance throughout. The picture is also a little bit flat overall which tends to detract from the excellent cinematography. No significant restoration seems to have been undertaken on the film as print damage is evident in places.

The soundtrack is monoaural and is adequate but unexciting. The dialogue is difficult to hear in places but this is not a serious problem.

The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which is, typically for the period, long and pompous, giving away details of the plot for no good reason.

There are 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles are available.

Apache is a good film which will please Western fans and which is interesting as an example of the changing attitudes which affected the genre from the fifties onwards. The DVD is slightly better than mediocre but nothing special. However, as online offers should enable you to pick it up for well under a tenner, it's worth considering.

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