Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire
Synopsis: Following the surrender of Geronimo, Massai, the last Apache warrior is captured and scheduled for transportation to a Florida reservation. Instead, he manages to escape…
One of the first Hollywood films to take a sympathetic stance regarding the treatment of native American Indians by the white man, Apache still fails to rise above genre stereotypes and features an appallingly bad ending that damages the film beyond repair.
All-American Burt Lancaster makes the world’s most unlikely Red Indian as he takes on the role of Masai, the last Apache warrior, who wages a one-man war on the US cavalry after escaping from a prison train transporting him and the able-bodied members of his tribe to Florida. Aided in his hostilities by Nalinle (Jean Peters), a fiery squaw, Masai manages to terrorise the local cavalry before retreating to the hills when Nalinle becomes pregnant.
There’s a huge amount of confusion in the messages emanating from this film. On the one hand, we are asked to admire the courageous stand made by Masai as he battles with both the white man and the tribe that betrayed him, while on the other we are asked to admire his efforts to follow the white man’s example by abandoning his warlike ways and becoming a tiller of the soil. But for this one Indian worthy of our admiration we are shown an entire tribe who are not. The notional chief is an old man who prostitutes his daughter in return for booze and who betrays Masai, and the only other male character (played by Charles Bronson when he was still Buchinsky) is portrayed as a traitor for joining the white man’s army. In fact the film would have been much stronger had Bronson’s character been given more screen time to put across the case of those Indians who did try to assimilate with the white man’s way of life.
The film is careful to never show us Masai killing a white man unworthy of dying — i.e. the victim is either attempting to kill Masai or, as in the case of Weddle (John Dehner), is a stereotypical bad guy — and glosses over his murder of four cavalry men whose horses he steals. Meanwhile, the white men are nearly all portrayed as bad guys or decent men essentially unsympathetic to the Indians. Corn is the symbol of freedom, and of rebirth and growth, and Masai’s eventual attempt to acquire it (by growing a corn field) flies in the face of all the beliefs he has subscribed to so that the film essentially seems to be telling us that, for all his bravery, Masai was wrong and the white man was right…
Lancaster dominates the film, even though he looks unconvincing as an Indian and his acting barely passes muster. As was so often the case, it’s the sheer physical presence of the man that carries him through. Jean Peters looks equally unconvincing (although she does look hot) as a blue-eyed squaw, but she gives a decent performance. Bronson’s character is nothing more than a doodle and, while John McIntire injects some character into Al Sieber, the man who doggedly hunts down Masai, the white characters are all one-dimensional and unconvincing.
(Reviewed 16th November 2005)