Ulzana's Raid (1972)
Cavalry-vs.-Indians movies were such a cliché by the early '70s that directors used them as shorthand--if you heard some war whoops and gunshots, you knew a character was watching a corny old movie on TV. But with Ulzana's Raid, screenwriter Alan Sharp and director Robert Aldrich found a way to take another look at the subgenre through the prism of the U.S. government's then-ongoing war in Southeast Asia. Years before anyone seriously attempted a Vietnam film, dedicated Hollywood lefty Burt Lancaster played the weary, seen-it-all veteran (in this case a scout, though he might as well have had a platoon sergeant's stripes on his sleeve) to Bruce Davison's green lieutenant. A band of Apaches on a killing spree stands in for the Vietcong as Davison's pious officer finds his moral high ground crumbling during a grim, bloody campaign of attrition. Polemics aside, Ulzana's Raid is a first-rate, thinking-person's action film, thanks to Sharp's taut script, Aldrich's brutally effective direction, and a masterful performance from Lancaster in one of his last he-man roles. Many pundits date the death of the old-school Western to John Wayne's onscreen demise in The Cowboys, also from 1972, but as this film reveals, Lancaster gave the genre one last stab wound, just in case any dusty breath remained.