I've seen quite a few Aldriches including his oft-mentioned masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and while I can appreciate the qualities of that film (considered by many to be the greatest if not film at least noir ever made), strangely enough it's only with Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972) that I truly appreciated the man's work. The film is late period Aldrich, and I think it shows: a young filmmaker can't do a picture this measured, wary, or economical.
I like the frustrating way the cavalry keeps arriving on the scene, always late (even unto the end, in fact), in time only to see the latest atrocities Ulzana hath wrought; I like the way Aldrich uses the tilted rocks of the Arizona desert as a series of Sisyphean slopes against which protagonists and antagonists struggle for the upper hand. I especially like the timing of some of the sequences: while violence often erupts suddenly and develops quickly, there are other times when patient action is required, and any attempt at hurrying leads to deadly mistakes. It's the kind of suspense our filmmakers have practically forgotten how to create, much less build on.
Most of all I like the way Aldrich uses the atrocities--they're horrifying enough, and Aldrich photographs them head-on, albeit without resorting to grisly closeups, but they're hardly gratuitous. They drive home more than any mere lecture or workshop or seminar every could the alien nature of Apache culture and thinking. It seems horrifying, cruel, and sadistic, and Aldrich doesn't deny any of these qualities, but he also gives equal time to the thinking that created these qualities. I think it's Davison's struggle to understand that thinking that's the true dramatic arc of the film, and not Ulzana's pursuit and eventual capture.
Aldrich gives adequate time to explaining that thinking to Davison, but I like the fact that he doesn't explain everything--he doesn't explain how this Apache practice of torture and mutilation (actually, stealing power), is in some way a tribute to the victim; that if he hadn't been so treated, it means he has nothing worth stealing, and is beneath contempt (that's why when one smart settler manages to shoot himself, the Apache's answer is to spit on his corpse).
The final, wordless confrontation between the scout and Ulzana--that was great. It brings the audience's sympathies full circle. We mourn for the dead settlers, and we mourn for--well, maybe not mourn, but perhaps appreciate to some extent, at least--Ulzana's devastated hopes.
A great film, and for the first time I think I truly appreciated--emotionally as well as intellectually--Aldrich the filmmaker.