Cinema / Westerns

Aldrich’s Apache: the story of the last Apache warrior

Robert Aldrich avoids naivety and brilliantly tells the story of a complex Indian character in this film that depicts the Indians’ torments and gives a more realistic view of the West.

Massai (Burt Lacaster)

Massai (Burt Lancaster)

Known as one of the first pro-Indians westerns, Aldrich’s Apache is definitely a film that contrasts with traditional westerns. Its hero is Massai, an Apache warrior who decides to keep on fighting even after his chief Geronimo has surrendered, in 1886. Massai becomes the only real Apache left, the one who fights the Whites’ cruelty and humiliations. He escapes from the train that is taking him and his tribe to Florida, and he starts a journey towards war and revenge. Nalinle (Jean Peters), a young Indian woman, will be there to accompany him.

Inspired by Paul Wellman’s eponymous book, Apache was very successful when it came out in 1954. Before Aldrich, two film directors, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann, had started to shoot films showing the reality of the West and the real living conditions of the Indians. Broken Arrow by Daves and Devil’s Doorway by Mann were released in 1950, a few years before Apache, and were highly successful. With Apache, Aldrich was one of the first directors to adopt an Indian point of view, breaking the myth of the West and showing its hidden sides.

Massai, about to kill Nalinle

Massai, about to kill Nalinle (Jean Peters)

Because of Apache’s ‘pro-Indian’ label, one may expect Massai to be a flawless hero; however, he is not a simple character, and his multifaceted personality is genuinely reflected in the film: he is violent and cruel, and his thirst for fight and revenge sometimes drives him to unjustified violence. He always has a violent relationship with Whites, but not only with them: Massai discovers that he can no longer rely on Indians either, and he shows more and more wariness as he sees them passive, or willing to adopt the Whites’ customs. His violence, even against women, is overtly depicted in the film.

But Massai also displays more human traits: he appears as mischievous and shows emotions. The film is filled with delightful and surprising scenes where Massai is laughing and joking. He is neither a mere savage, nor a perfect Indian hero: he is a complex character, a human being tormented by passions and hatred, whose behaviour is explained by the Whites’ humiliations.

Although Burt Lancaster’s performance in this film has been criticised, notably because the actor is obviously a blue-eyed White and does not look like an Indian, Lancaster portrays a convincing warrior who stands alone and keeps on fighting the Whites. His performance is emphasised by numerous close-ups on his face, which reveal Massai’s complex emotions. Apache offers a beautiful set of scenes, from the wonders of the city seen through Massai’s eyes, to the mountains of New Mexico, which are a recurring pattern in the film, and seem to stress Massai’s overwhelming love for his native land. The music composed by David Raksin and played by an orchestra beautifully fits the images, as it gets faster, louder and deeper during Massai’s adventures or moments of emotions, and becomes quieter when Massai becomes more peaceful. The music alternates between trumpets, violin, and flute, giving either epic or gentle atmospheres to the film.

Massai and Nalinle laughing

Massai and Nalinle laughing

The end of the film is famous for being a source of disagreement between the producers and Aldrich, who wanted a different ending for Massai. But it does not detract from the pleasure of following Massai’s incredible journey and evolution. Apache is definitely a special western, about a unique character, and gives a more realistic view of the West, where both Indians and Whites are depicted more faithfully than most of the previous westerns. But Apache also provides real moments of entertainment, and no doubt that it will delight you with its adventures, its humour, and its fascinating character.

APACHE, directed by Robert Aldrich, produced by Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster. Screenplay by James R. Webb. Released by United Artists.

The Cast

Massai…… Burt Lancaster

Nalinle….. Jean Peters

Al Sieber….. John McIntire

Hondo….. Charles Bronson

Weddle….. John Dehner

Clagg….. Ian MacDonald

Beck….. Walter Sande

Dawson….. Morris Ankrum

Geronimo….. Monte Blue

Santos….. Paul Guilfoyle (II)

General Store Proprietor….. Paul E. Burns

Indian Boy….. Lonnie Burr

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