Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It’s how they are. They have always been like this. When word arrives that Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has assembled a war party and left the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the United States Army assigns veteran tracker John McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to lead a young, prejudiced lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his troops from Fort Lowell to find Ulzana. Outmanoeuvered and unfamiliar with the terrain, the cavalry struggles to stop the long-mistreated and raging Apaches from destroying everything in their path in what initially seem like senseless acts of violence upon homesteads and families … The only thing that won’t slow them down is how much killing they do. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is about a devastating period in American history, that quarter of the nineteenth century when a brutal ethnic cleansing was carried out in the name of white conquest;  equally, it is about the astonishing violence of the Native Americans and this is a film that always has an eye on the war in Vietnam:  draw your own conclusions.  This narrative is hewed from a real attack in Arizona in 1885. Davison is good as the naïf who gains an education in the harshest possible conditions, Lancaster is superb as the ageing man who mentors him in the ways of the west. Between them is the compromised Ke-Ni-Tay who has insider information on Ulzana because their wives are sisters. Never an easy watch, despite the ostensibly beautiful camera setups, it’s one of the key westerns of its era and is an underrated work from director Robert Aldrich. Man give up his power when he die

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation.  June (Beryl Reid) is an actress who portrays the popular Sister George, a district nurse in a popular BBC soap opera. The actress spends her time drinking and engaging in Lesbian sex with her much younger live-in lover, factory worker Alice also called Childie (Susannah York) due to her penchant for baby doll dresses and her devotion to her collection of dolls. A television executive, Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) decides she likes Alice and wants to write Sister George off the show after she’s molested two nuns in the back of a taxi, two Irish Catholic novitiates just off the boat. June watches as her behavior and insecurity and bullying drive Alice away and into the arms of Mercy.  George discovers the only job she is likely to be offered is that of a cow’s voice on a kids’ show … I can hardly put through to the Controller your allegation that you may have been bitten by two nuns. Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller broke new ground with this, made directly after The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich’s regular collaborator, Heller added a sex scene between Childie and Mrs Croft to Frank Marcus’ 1964 play which was responsible for the film’s X rating under the newly instituted censorship system in the US. There were also censorship problems in the UK (the BBFC website states that this has by far the largest file of any film submitted with the sex scene “by far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted [for classification].” ). This was also the first film to show the inside of a Lesbian nightclub.   It fits into the rather cynical ‘hag’ template the pair pioneered with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte. Beryl Reid’s butch persona (well known from The Belles of St Trinian’s) adds a new twist to the format, with her tweedy randy predator meeting her match in Mrs Croft. Reid had played the role on stage and had its energy and complexity down to a T. This is a confrontational film about ageing, femininity, relationships and career and how they can all converge into a crisis at the whim of an executive’s pen. Fascinating on so many levels, with the central story’s blackly comic claustrophobia expressed through excellent design, this is great entertainment. What’s one looking for then, love and affection?

Apache (1954)

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Diversity is a troublesome moniker as yet – Robert Putnam concealed the results of his study for years for fear of alienating his leftist paymasters:  it doesn’t work, communities fail, charity nosedives and people don’t thrive. Effectively, we all do better among our own. (It’s not rocket science, bub.) In terms of how Indians were dealt with as a cinematic phenomenon it was tackled afresh and quite radically in a series of Fifties westerns with an enduring theme – how to reconcile opposing cultures on the same piece of land. Geronimo surrenders and one of his braves Massai (blue-eyed Burt Lancaster) would prefer to be given an honourable death rather than carry on as a whupped Indian living between two distinctly different worlds.He goes on the run from a prison train with Nalinle (Jean Peters) and battles it out with his own as well as the Army. The original ending to the screenplay adapted by James R. Webb from Paul Wellman’s novel was too tough even under the direction of legendary Robert Aldrich – Massai is shot in the back by federal troops. So a more uplifting lie was created, what we call a Hollywood Ending. Sometimes the truth is just a plain picture. With a notable performance by John McIntire and an early appearance by Charles Bronson (Buchinsky), Lancaster produced with Harold Hecht. Not for the PC crowd.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

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The Great Escape. The Guns of Navarone. Where Eagles Dare. And this. This is what Friday night was for when I was a kid. And boy does it still work. Major Lee Marvin gathers a bunch of psychopaths headed for the gallows or life imprisonment to do One Last Job in preparation for D-Day, a raid on a French chateau where members of Nazi command are hanging out. A kind of OSS for nut jobs is produced. Adapted from EM Nathanson’s novel by Nunnally Johnson, this was rewritten by Lukas Heller for director Robert Aldrich, with some major alterations which might or might not have been a good idea. Nonetheless, this crowdpleaser is violent, fiercely funny, nasty, brutish and nihilistic in equal measure and never less than vastly entertaining. There is something to offend everyone as they are recruited, trained and then unleashed. Thank goodness for that!

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ? (1962)

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Or, What happens to ageing Hollywood actresses. This adaptation of the novel by Henry Farrell (by Lukas Heller, a regular Robert Aldrich collaborator) was the first of a cycle of so-called hag movies. Hardly director Aldrich’s intention, he nonetheless fuelled it himself by doing a sort-of sequel, Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte two years later with Bette Davis and the original star proposed here, Olivia de Havilland.  Davis and Crawford’s offscreen rivalry made their casting as desperate old ladies with one living off faded childhood stardom, the other failed actress condemned to a wheelchair, a riff on rumours feeding into Hollywood legends plundered here with gusto. This is a marvellous comment on what the theorists might call the monstrous feminine, the terrible toll that Hollywood takes on actresses, and the sheer deadening effect of living in a dayglo Los Angeles suburbia. Who knew what went on behind the walls of all those Spanish houses before this came along? The twist is brilliant. Perfect California Gothic.

The Last Sunset (1961)

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Douglas Sirk’s concoction of lust and forbidden actions were potent enough for Robert Aldrich to borrow two of his big stars and plant them in a western. Leonard Maltin’s Guide calls this Strange on the Range and it’s true that incest is not often featured in the genre. Add Kirk Douglas to the grouping along with rising star Carol Lynley (remember her and Brandon De Wilde in Blue Denim?!) and you have a time capsule of some degree of wonderment. The script was courtesy of blacklistee Dalton Trumbo (subject of a new biopic starring Bryan Cranston) whose career was resurrected spectacularly by star Douglas when he helped to have him credited for Spartacus (1960). The action is well handled by Aldrich, the tough guy director, while it is charming to hear Joseph Cotten continuously refer to ‘Virginia gentlemen,’ of which he was famously one.