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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Apache (UA, 1954)

Burt as athletic Apache

Several movies have featured Al Sieber (1844 – 1907), the remarkable Indian scout who tracked for Crook in his campaigns against the Apaches. This picture has John McIntire doing an excellent impersonation, probably the best of the film Siebers. His Al is tough, gritty and wise. Sadly, though, there isn’t much else good to say about this movie. Wait up, there are the locations: lovely photography by Ernest Laszlo of the Sierra Nevada and down round Sedona in Arizona.

Al Sieber
Mcintire as Sieber
The film treats the fascinating story of Massai (also known as Massa, Massi, Masai, Wasse or Massey), the last hold-out Mimbreños Chiricahua Apache warrior. Born in about 1847 to White Cloud and Little Star at Mescal Mountain, Arizona, near Globe, Massai later married a local Chiricahua woman and they had two children. He is said to have served twice as an Army scout but he met Geronimo and, with his friend Gray Lizard, joined Geronimo’s campaign. However, he was arrested and was put on a prison train to Florida. With Gray Lizard he escaped from the train near St Louis and walked back home some 1200 miles; it took them a year. The two then split up, Gray Lizard going to the reservation while Massai launched a one-man war, Rambo style, along what is today the New Mexico-Arizona border. Though the Army sought him here and sought him there, they never could find him. In 1887, he abducted a Mescalero Apache girl named Zan-a-go-li-che and took her home to his family at Mescal Mountain. Massai and Zanagoliche had six children together.
The Apaches before the train that was to take them to Florida. Geronimo is in the front row in the white hat, third from the right. No known likeness of Massai exists but he is presumably one of the others pictured.
Burt Lancaster, in only his second Western as lead (after the rather good Vengeance Valley) is Massai and while he is frightfully muscular and acrobatic, and impressive as he leaps down rocks with his wig flying in the breeze, I’m afraid he doesn’t convince at all. Nor does Jean Peters as his woman (called Nalinle in the movie). Both are over-made up white people with blue eyes. Charles Bronson is the Apache who joined the army and is Massai’s rival for Jean. Paul Guilfoyle is Santos, the Apache chief who sells Massai out for firewater. Not an Indian among them. That was 1950s Hollywood for you.
Blue-eyed Apaches
The cinematic Massai (adapted for the screen by James R Webb of Cheyenne Autumn fame from the Paul Wellman novel Broncho Apache) walks across the USA alone (no sign of Gray Lizard), braving fake rain and fake snow. And he ‘rides’ furiously across Arizona on wooden horses. No wonder the interpretation of director Robert Aldrich doesn’t really convince us.
Interesting how many weakish Westerns put themselves in better company:
"In 1952 - High Noon... In 1953 - Shane... And now..." A bit cheeky.
Although we admire the movie’s vaguely Broken Arrowish pro-Indian slant, the pace of the film, Aldrich’s first Western, is patchy and sometimes downright sluggish. Massai’s depredations are unconvincing (he never attacks anyone innocent or good). The studio also made Aldrich tack on a jarring, over-optimistic happy ending. In reality, nothing is known for certain about Massai's later life and death. One account says that in 1906, after contracting tuberculosis, he decided to take his wife and their children back to their home with the Mescaleros in New Mexico. On the way he was killed by a posse, west of the town of San Marcial, New Mexico. But no evidence of Massai's death was ever produced. Some believed that the Apache Kid was actually the man who died that day so the area was later named The Apache Kid Wilderness.
Bronson as Apache scout with his boss
Another account posits that Massai escaped over the border into Mexico, settling in the Sierra Madre mountains with a group of rebellious Chiricahuas who had refused to surrender with Geronimo.

The movie’s version of Massai’s fate is rather more saccharine. In any case, the true tragedy of the end of the way of life of the Apache people is never really addressed.
Apache Scouts by Frederic Remington
Aldrich did, later, make a top-notch Apache film, also with Lancaster, in the shape of Ulzana’s Raid (Universal, 1972). But judging by Apache and the Vera Cruz that followed it later the same year, he was a very long way from doing a quality Western in the mid-1950s. Apache was a box-office hit, in fact the top-grossing Western on the year, but it really isn’t very good.

See Apache once, of course, on the big screen if you can. You have to see it. Admire McIntire. John Dehner’s in it too as a corrupt Indian agent and Monte Blue is Geronimo. But honestly, buy another DVD.

Indian agent Dehner


  1. Hi Jeff,
    indeed not Lancaster's best western: He is not as credible as Apache and the end of the movie convinces not really. However it has one great scene in it: where Massai wonderingly walks through a town of white people: one long shot. I liked it...
    And of course every picture with McIntire in it is worth watching.

    1. Hi Bart
      Very much agree on McIntire!
      Lancaster was, basically, a good actor in Westerns, I think, though he was in some bad ones (eg The Hallelujah Trail) and he did have a tendency to ham it up (eg Vera Cruz). But on balance he had a toughness that suited the genre. Ulzana's Raid and Valdez is Coming are superb.

  2. "The Hallelujah Trail" is the greatest western ever made...Sturges must've thought everyone would say when he conceived it.

    I saw it once in a gorgeous letterboxed HD DVD. All I could do is wonder why & how.

    1. Yes, it really is unwatchable more than once.

  3. I think it was still off the beaten tracks in the mid fifties even after Broken Arrow and Devil's Doorway. Of course it has its flaws - especially from a 21st century perspective - but it has more qualities than said above in my opinion. It would have been probably much better if it had kept the much more aldrichian end of the original script but I read somewhere that the producers were shocked and afraid of the mainstream public reaction, hence the happy ending. Ulzana's Raid seems to be the Mr Hyde version of Apache... But the context was pretty different with the Vietnam War etc. San Marcial NM by the Rio Grande south of Socorro was flooded several times, after the 1929 one, it became a ghost town, leaving just a cemetery... JM