Apache was a box office hit in 1954 for the independent production company Hecht-Lancaster releasing through United Artists. Burt Lancaster was perhaps the most successful of the actor-producers who were part of the changing structure of Hollywood during the decline of the studio system in the 1950s. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the key directors of the period for ‘action pictures’ but here early in his directorial career on just his third feature shot in only 30 days. The story, based on incidents in the life of a historical character, was adapted from Paul I Wellman’s 1936 novel Broncho Apache by James R. Webb, a prolific screenwriter who would later pen John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.
In the early 1950s there was a cycle of films that featured Native American characters and unsurprisingly most of them were Westerns. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), George Sherman’s Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise ( 1954) and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) were just some of the films in the cycle. Historical Native American characters were generally played by white actors. Jeff Chandler plays the Apache chief Cochise in three of the above titles. The casting of Burt Lancaster as another Apache warrior Massai in Apache is therefore conventional for the period.
Many of the films in the cycle refer to the ‘final’ war between the US Cavalry and the Apache nations in the late 1880s in Arizona and New Mexico. Massai was a warrior invited to join Geronimo but he was disarmed around the time Geronimo surrendered. Like Geronimo he was put on a train to go to a prison camp in Florida but escaped and walked back 1200 miles to Arizona. These events are shown in the film, but the remainder of the film narrative is more creative with historical events. Lancaster is in his athletic mode in the film; leaping, rolling, riding and generally outwitting capture. The plot sees him being betrayed by a local chief, the father of a young woman he wants as his bride. Nalinle is played by Jean Peters and eventually she will overcome Massai’s anger about the betrayal (which at first he thinks involves her). Perhaps the crucial sequence in the narrative is when Massai on his long walk back to his home meets a Cherokee man who has ‘become white’, living in his own ranch house and adopting a white life. This man gives Massai the warrior a bag of seed corn and urges him to be a farmer not a warrior. Although Massai at first appears to dismiss the Cherokee man’s ideas, we know that what he has said has more meaning than it might have coming from a white settler or US government agent.
As Massai, Lancaster is athletic, intelligent but stubborn and brutal when he needs to be. The depiction of his treatment of Nalinle is disturbing to watch now but it’s important for the narrative. It’s a great performance and over the next couple of years Lancaster would reach his peak as the athletic and charismatic leading man. He went on to work with Aldrich on Vera Cruz, also released in 1954.
The film does give time to what I would now see as the colonisers of the West, represented here by the US Cavalry, various private ‘agents’ and the important historical figure of Al Sieber, the ‘Indian hunter’ whose job was to find those Apache warriors who became ‘renegades’. Played here by John McIntire is the familiar figure who understands his quarry and will eventually find him and, sometimes reluctantly, deliver him to the coloniser. It’s also worth noting that the film represents the large numbers of Apache who take the US dollar and serve with the Cavalry as scouts and regular soldiers. Charles Bronson makes one of his early credited appearances as the scout Hondo working closely with Sieber.
The ending of the film was forced on Lancaster-Hecht and Aldrich by the distributor United Artist, but what we see in the main part of the narrative has been acknowledged by various film scholars who deem the film one of the strongest of the cycle. I enjoyed the film and it was interesting to see it and to be reminded of more recent films covering aspects of the same story, including Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) with Native-American actor Wes Studi in the lead role. It’s also interesting to see Aldrich and Lancaster working together on their first film and to be reminded of Ulzana’s Raid (1972) one of the most important of the ‘allegorical’ films commenting on the Vietnam War.
Reading some of the many blog entries of Western fans and scholars about this and similar films is a fascinating exercise. Much comment is made about Lancaster as a ‘blue-eyed’ Apache warrior. The eyes are certainly noticeable and like Lancaster’s flashing white teeth, stand out against the heavy make-up. As I’ve noted this casting decision was the convention at the time and we should remember how the film industry followed the racist attitudes of the wider society, but this shouldn’t mean we ignore the film. I noted one comment that suggests that ‘blue-eyed’ Native Americans are not that uncommon and may have been around for several generations. More disturbing for me was the significant number of right-wing commentators who want to dismiss Aldrich and Lancaster as having anything to say about American history. Some do this in a disguised way by simply arguing that this is a poor Western and laying out all its ‘inauthenticities’ – Apache was shot mainly in California with just a few landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico and the story is very much a fictionalised version of the events. I don’t think this distracts from the central purpose of the film which is to show us the final stage of the process of colonialist settlement from the perspective of the colonised, rather than the coloniser. Apache was a popular film and one of the more influential films of the 1950s.