dir. Robert Aldrich
"If an Apache cannot live in his home mountains like his fathers before him, he is already dead."
The Native American. Has there ever been a more misrepresented group in Hollywood's frequently embarrassing history. When not being used as bullet receptacles in various westerns, these folks were usually shown murdering and raping with the kind of singleminded, gleeful barbarity that would make Jeffrey Dahmer cringe. It was not enough that America robbed them of their history, identity, and land, the conquering country now had to rewrite history and portray the various Native tribes as perpetrators rather than victims of some of the bloodiest chapters in our Nation's sordid history. After thoroughly raping their culture, America was now asking the Indians to lick the shit off the U.S.'s big ol' dick (Wow, what a horrible piece of imagery).
Occasionally, Hollywood would attempt to redress this misrepresentation problem, and sympathize with the Indians. Although a noble effort, in subsequent years movies would go too far in the other direction. In their focus on the nobility and mysticism of the Natives, these movies would too often portray them as otherworldly, godlike, inherently superior, almost alien creatures. Sure, these movies sympathized with the Natives, but this group was still presented as Others, rather than just as people. Indeed, in an act of overcompensation and atonement for its years of injun abuse, the movie industry granted an Oscar to Kevin Costner for his Dances With Wolves. Not that this isn't a decent movie, but Wolves it still a Native American movie as told from a white perspective. Never mind that it is just a retread of Sam Fuller's superior Run of the Arrow. [Of course, as we all know, the real tragedy here was that Scorsese was overlooked for his work directing motherfucking Goodfellas. Seriously, what the fuck? But that's another issue.] Before people accuse me of mindlessly jumping on the Kevin Costner hate-wagon, I should note that I am quite fond of his recent film Open Range, an entertaining throwback genre picture, but I digress.
Perhaps most insulting to Native Americans has been the propensity to cast whites in the roles of the "godless red-men". Not only were they misrepresented, Native Americans didn't even get a chance to misrepresent themselves. Although black-face thankfully faded away in the early days of American Cinema, red-face stuck around for far too long. Even the sympathetic movies frequently cast whites as Braves. Case in Point: Burt Lancaster as Apache warrior Massai in Robert Aldrich's early directorial effort Apache.
Lancaster, the godless, commie, poontang loving, fag (as John Wayne referred to him), found a kindred spirit in similarly left leaning director Aldrich. [Side note: there is no record of John Wayne ever saying such a thing.] This iconoclastic team naturally chomped at the bit to make such an unconventionally pro-Indian Western. Good intentioned an enterprise though it may be, Apache dates itself in casting the blue-eyed Lancaster as the heroic, if flawed, Massai. It takes two steps forward and one step back.
Opening with the defeat of Geronimo, this film follows Massai, the single remaining active Apache warrior on his quest to defeat, or at least torment, the white man. This relic of the past keeps himself intentionally unaware that the Apache have been defeated and that the war between red and white is over. Frequently escaping the capture of the Cavalry, Massai eventually goes batshit when he is sold out by one of his own people, Santos (Paul Guilfoyle), for some firewater. Santos is also concerned that Massai is a bad influence on his bangable daughter Nalinle (Jean Peters). Although Massai swears that he will murder Santos and Nalinle, when he finally hunts them down, he opts instead to kidnap the lovestruck Nalinle. After some initial bickering this couple decides to tie the knot. The resulting tribal wedding ceremony/mating dance is quite a thing of beauty:
After Nalinle gets a bun in the oven, Masssai abandons his warrior ways, and instead opts for tranquil domesticity with his loving bride. They shack up in a mountain cabin and subsist on corn and deer meat. Although not wanting to invite danger to his family, the conflicted Massai feels that he has betrayed his roots and longs for the day when he can return to his warrior ways. His prayers are answered when the white man discovers their remote homestead and launches a raid. Massai soon commences with some good old fashioned ass kicking, and finally finds himself in a cornfield standoff with cavalryman Al Sieber (John McIntire).
Curiously, Lancaster does not even attempt to use a different accent or manner of speech in this role, instead speaking in his typical clipped streetwise yet urbane New York dialect. In the inappropriate accent department, however, Lancaster is not the only guilty party. Charles Bronson's role as Hondo, the Uncle Tom Apache, is almost as incongruous as Mel Brooks' Jewish Indian in Blazing Saddles. Although Bronson certainly looks the part, he is betrayed by his tough guy urban vernacular. Apparently, despite the the bottomless wallets of classic Hollywood producers, dialogue coaches were beyond the reach of most budgets.
Truth be told, as wrong as the casting may be, Lancaster is still fun to watch. The man's got presence goddamnit. Sure, you won't forget that you're watching Burt Lancaster, but that's part of the fun. Way back when, actors excelled not so much in disappearing into roles as portraying particular personas. Lancaster's star power only helps to embellish the legend of Massai. His awesomeness trumps all else.
Despite its flaws, Apache is still an entertaining revenge picture. Given that Aldrich was behind the wheel, this is not surprising. Although I have yet to view Aldrich's entire cataolgue, I think it's safe to say that the man was incapable of making a bad picture. Excelling in a multitude of genres, he was particularly adept with the action picture. He also exhibits a masterful sense of framing in every shot. Sure Apache may be rife with political incorrectness, but it was produced with the best intentions. In terms of bizarre casting, incidentally, Burt Lancaster's performance as Massai pales in comparison to John Wayne's performance as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror, a movie so offensive that God gave half the cast and crew cancer. [Well, it was either God or the filming location's proximity to nuclear testing grounds, but more on that later when I review Wayne's opus.]