Ferocious and fun, Apache is the first of a pair of action films that made Burt Lancaster a Western hero while launching the career of Robert Aldrich, the king of Hollywood anarchy. Blue-eyed, six-foot Burt makes an unlikely-lookin' Apache Indian, but the solid story and liberal theme make Apache one of the more successful 'Indian hero' movies.
Apache is a bunch of movies rolled into one. As a vehicle for the action-dervish Lancaster, it allows him to sell a social message while wowing the kids with his Crimson Pirate - like circus skills. It's also a fairly low-budget film that ace assistant director Robert Aldrich used to climb from television work to the rank of top kick director. The movie really moves, as they say, expressing most of its points in action. The very unrealistic Massai 1 is so charismatic, he probably had real Apache kids cheering for him at matinees. In keeping with Aldrich's consistent subversive streak, Massai is a real terrorist hero. Should achieving his aims peacefully prove fruitless, outright slaughter of his enemies is a perfectly fine alternative for Massai.
The script wastes no time trying to coddle the audience about white persecution: with the treacherous Weddle (John Dehner) around, it's a given. Equal-opportunity villainy is provided by Charles Bronson's Hondo, a sellout who loses his girl but at least avoids the humiliating death of his white counterpart.
The most original part of the movie is the first third, where Massai escapes from a Florida-bound relocation train and makes his way through the strange white man's world, not comprehending things like women's bustles and Chinese merchants, and not all that curious about them either. Massai is a slight development on the Hollywood 'noble savage'. He carries the soul of his culture with him, asserting his pride as a warrior at all times, but he's also pig-headed and ignorant. Naturally, the love of the woman Nalinle (the ravishing, if heavily bruised Jean Peters) and fatherhood turn him into an idealized Apache For All Seasons, which works great in the theme department, yet paints the story into a corner from which it can't escape at the end.
On his odyssey back from Missouri, Massai spends a night at the farm of an assimilated Cherokee played by Morris Ankrum (is this how Ankrum became a Mexican general in Aldrich/Lancaster's next film, Vera Cruz?) and initially rejects the idea of harmonious living in the white man's world. But Nalinle's faith makes a bagful of seeds into a hopeful symbol that works well in the film's liberal scheme.
If the story avoids awkwardness, Robert Aldrich's direction can't. Obvious cutting results in some continuity problems (various events just happen too quickly, like Nalinle's pregnancy) but Aldrich's shot-to-shot continuity can be jarring too. He's wise enough to exploit a Sam Fuller-like disdain for studio polish, but sometimes you just have to conclude that his camera placement is not the greatest, as when a high angle for the cornfield conclusion reveals it to be a thin patch in which nobody could hide for a moment. But Aldrich makes up for it in sheer boldness, taking the misogyny in King Vidor's Duel in the Sun a step further in Lancaster's manhandling of poor Jean Peters. She's tossed around like a sack of potatoes, dragged through the dirt, and is tied up like a dog for hours on end. Naturally, she only loves Massai more, and comes out of it still looking like a million. But it's a living.
Aldrich confided to his biographers that he learned a big lesson from Apache. The original script had Massai being shot down like a dog just as he had shown a proclivity toward assimilating like the Cherokee farmer. UA allowed Aldrich to shoot that ending, but also had him film one with an upbeat but totally unrealistic finish. Naturally the director was later outranked and the happy ending was used against his wishes. "If you don't shoot it, they can't use it against you", he reasoned. You can't blame the producers, as the original ending would have made Apache a pretty grim show, perhaps even inviting charges of anti-Americanism ... just the kind of subversive reaction Aldrich would provoke time and time again in his later films.
If you like Apache you'll find MGM's DVD a good show, but it's no gift to those of us who've wanted to see it in a good version. If anything, the colors are worse than on the earlier laserdisc, with the whole first part of the movie kind of dank and greenish in tone. You can tell it hasn't been remastered in ages: the same ragged tear in the film I noticed on 16mm tv prints in the '70s is still there, marring Lancaster's biggest 'moment'. 2 Otherwise the picture is just okay.
The justification for this gripe comes from seeing DVDs from Fox, Columbia, and Paramount that are taking films of the same vintage and making them popoff the screen. Because it looks so good, watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is fun even though I've seen the film far too many times. Watching Apache, you think, "Good movie, maybe someday I'll get to see a good copy." Not a good testimonial for a DVD.
The disc comes with nice French and Spanish tracks and subtitles, and a goofy trailer that covers the surrender of Geronimo like a newsreel. It's a textless trailer, which accounts for the blank shots of mountains that are supposed to have the title superimposed, and other gaps where text actor ID's should be.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. more authentic picturizations of Apache warriors can be seen in
Major Dundee's Sierra Charriba, and in Robert Aldrich's own Ulzana's Raid (which is a nice career
bookend movie on a similar theme).
2. It comes just before he leaps up and screams while attacking the
soldiers at the end. Mad Magazine made a full-page gag out of a still of this, courtesy
of 'woggly.' Click Here to make large enough to, like, read the dialog balloon.