Burt Lancaster: A Pair of Westerns

Burt, Claudia, Lee, Robert Ryan, Woody Stole

As I grazed on a bowl of chocolate-dipped pretzels last night, it occurred to me that the movie I watched had much the same texture and flavor. The Professionals (1966) was directed by Richard Brooks. Filmed in technicolor against the crunchy backdrop of Death Valley, California, Lee Marvin, and Jack Palance were the salty bits while Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale were the sweet chocolate glaze. Who doesn’t like salty-sweet combinations? I think Brooks knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. I know I enjoyed watching Burt Lancaster scale up the side of a cliff with a rope and no stuntman and snappy one-liners like this one:

Rico (Lee Marvin): So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, ‘n’ ninety-proof whiskey, ‘n’ fourteen-carat gold?

Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph!

The film received Academy attention for Best Direction and Screenplay (Richard Brooks), and Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall). The story is about a rich Texan who hires three talented mercenary misfits to rescue his beautiful wife from the Mexican bandit Jesus Raz (Jack Palance). The problem arises when the rescuers realize Mrs. Grant (Claudia Cardinale) wasn’t kidnapped by Razu, but running away from her Texan husband (Ralph Bellamy). 4/5
An easy-breezy film that triggered a memory from my youth when male relatives watched and chuckled on late Sunday morning while waiting for the football game to start.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is a serious tale starring an older Burt Lancaster, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Davison and Joaquin Martinez. It is set in the late 1800s and filmed at the Arizona/Mexico border. The terrain is hard and unforgiving but there’s no sweet glaze this time to balance out the harshness of Apache savageries like gang rape, brutal killing, and torture. Burt keeps his feet on the ground and isn’t supplying witty one-liners. Instead, he’s the mentor to a young Lieutenant who grapples with preconceptions of Apache way-of-life, hatred for them, and aspiring to be an effective commander. Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his men escape from the reservation station and Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) is assigned to bring them in. Director Robert Aldrich takes Alan Sharp‘s script and creates a memorable film. The character Ke-ni-tay (Jorge Luke) is stuck in the middle as the soldier scout who tries to explain to Lt. DeBuin the Apache man needs the power, the essence of a man to be strong. Living on the reservation makes men weak and goes against what Apache stands for. Ke-ni-tay was the most interesting character in the story. I would have preferred to see the plot pan-out through his perspective and know his backstory. However, the film is interesting enough except for the distracting, ill-matched score by Frank De Vol. For instance, after each horrific encounter between white settlers and the Apache, the music resumed with a happy, bouncing Magnificient Seven-ish theme. If you like your westerns with bite, you would enjoy Ulzana’s Raid. 4/5 Sorry, Burt, in this film you seemed tired and uninterested.

66 Comments on “Burt Lancaster: A Pair of Westerns

  1. I have seen both. Though I prefer ‘Ulzana’s raid’ as a film, I agree that Burt is more ‘himself’ in ‘The Professionals’. Looking forward to more, Cindy. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete. x

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  2. I like both of these films, though neither is my kind of movie. They are too, extremely, masculine–I should hate them–but I don’t. Kind of like what The Piano is to guys–a chick flick, no doubt, but a good chick flick.

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  3. Nice reviews, Cindy. I rewatched The Professionals recently and enjoyed it. Great supporting cast. I am a big fan of anything with Woody Strode in it. And Jack Palance is a favorite also. Been years since I saw Ulzana’s Raid. Got to look it up.

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      • I got a notion about Westerns having two types, generally speaking, where you have high entertainment ones like The Professionals, Magnificient 7 and then the “serious” ones that have a message or something to say like “Ulzana’s Raid” and “The Wild Bunch”. Do you think that’s incorrect to think of Westerns like that? I think of all the John Wayne westerns that were silly and lighthearted and then his performance in The Searchers. Clint Eastwood westerns seemed serious. I don’t know.

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        • Ulzana’s Raid and The Wild Bunch I would say are allegorical westerns and the same sentiment can apply to some of the John Wayne ones directed by John Ford (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are two examples). For The Searchers, it would be racism and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance operates as a social commentary on how we as a society on a whole often give off the vibe of preferring a myth over the actual truth. One could even call Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (also with John Wayne) one of the smartest pro-American western ever made – both Hawks and Wayne saw it as their response to High Noon, which they both allegedly hated for political reasons. As for the Clint Eastwood westerns, it depends. The Sergio Leone directed ones I think they can be allegorical in the context that by 1964, America was changing in drastic ways and the meaner aspects of those films fit well with what was going on during then – the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. as well as Martin Luther King Jr. and increasing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. All of this even though Leone lived in Italy. I have more to say on the subject, but let me just use this as a demonstration 🙂

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    • I love all kinds of westerns – traditional, revisionist, acid westerns etc. Though even ones that are probably labeled traditional (ones directed by John Ford or Anthony Mann) to name just two, actually laid the template for the deconstruction of the genre that would begin in the mid-to-late 1960’s If you study the psychological drama of the films.

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  4. The Professionals is great entertainment and what a cast. Just look at those names you listed. What could be finer than watching Lee Marvin picking off guys with a pistol whilst hoisting a machine gun on his shoulders; Woody Strode calmly firing off a volley of arrows with lit dynamite attached; and Burt Lancaster scaling up the side of a cliff. Not forgetting Jack Palance, who despite being shot multiple times still gets to ride off into the sunset with Claudia Cardinale.

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  5. The Professionals is near the pinnacle of Top Ten Westerns of all time. Just a great movie: superb Cast; great Writing … damn well everything you’d want in Movie/Western.
    Ulzana’s Raid – not so much. But still worthy.
    Burt could do Western.

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    • It’s interesting to hear the reactions of different bloggers regarding classic westerns. Some like them on the entertaining side, some like them serious.

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    • Oh I love them both jcalberta 🙂 And yes, Burt can do a western – not only in Apache, but also in Vera Cruz, which like the former and Ulzana’s Raid, was also directed by Robert Aldrich.

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