Friday, May 01, 2009

The Films of Robert Aldrich: His early career and Apache

Robert Aldrich's career in Hollywood began in the early 1940s doing odd jobs for RKO as a production assistant, script clerk, and various other odd jobs. Eventually, Aldrich graduated to more substantial positions: assistant director to (among others) William Wellman (on The Story of G. I. Joe), Robert Rossen (on Body and Soul), Abraham Polonsky (on Force of Evil), and Charles Chaplin (on Limelight). A life-long liberal Democrat, Aldrich found himself associating with the Hollywood left during his early career. Although he was never a blacklistee himself, Aldrich would occasionally pay a professional price for this. Many of the themes that run through Aldrich's films as a director are informed by his politics, which is ironic given that many of his films are the kinds of films that Red-State viewers tend to like.

After cutting his directorial teeth in the very earliest days of television, Aldrich's first film as a director was Big Leaguer in 1953, a baseball drama starring Edward G. Robinson (which I haven't seen at this writing). His big break, however, came the following year, directing Apache for the production team of Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht, with Lancaster in the lead. While there are great directors who are obviously great from the first frames of their first films, Aldrich is not among them. Apache is an ungainly film, and whatever craft Aldrich may have learned in television or on Big Leaguer isn't evident in Apache. The themes that carry through his work, however, are immediately apparent.

Synopsis: After the surrender of Geronimo, the young warrior, Massai, escapes from the prison train transporting the Apaches who followed Geronimo to internment in Florida. He journey's across the country, seeing the world of the white man, as well as seeing how another tribe, the Cherokee, have made their peace with the white man. A Cherokee farmer in the Oklahoma territory gives Massai a bag of seed corn and advises him to take up the plow rather than the tomahawk and rifle. Once back in the midst of what remains of his own tribe, Massai is appalled at what he sees. The remaining Apache men are being mercilessly exploited by the white business man, Weddle, and Nalinle, the woman Massai loved is being courted by the treacherous Hondo, who collaborates with the whites. Betrayed to the whites by the father of his lover, Massai escapes again and vows vengeance, only by himself, not on behalf of the Apache nation. But the calming influence of Nalinle urges him to try the Cherokee way with his bag of seed corn. Unfortunately, he's a hunted man, and the hunters find him eventually...

This is a fairly early film in the cycle of revisionist Westerns that re-examine the place of Native Americans in the mythology of the West, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that it's as subversive as it is. Massai, let's face it, is a terrorist. Add to that the depiction of American capitalism, incarnated in the weaselly Mr. Weddle (John Dehner), and you have a film that is questioning the very underpinnings of the Western film. This is not a film with clear-cut white hats and black hats. Also present in this film are the characteristic presentations of the protagonist as anti-hero and loner, contending against an indifferent system that is utterly corrupt. Unlike most of Aldrich's later films, this is largely free of the Gothic tinge of madness.

What really sets this apart from some of the subsequent films dealing with the sympathetic Native American is that this one still functions as an adventure. Aldrich never, ever lost sight of the fact that his films were first and foremost entertainment, and he was one of the most adept directors ever at smuggling subversive meanings into popular filmmaking. The revenge drama element drives the film forward, and it's compulsive. It almost rescues the film from its many faults. And it's faults are prominent and right in view for most of the film. Its most damning fault is no fault of the director's. Burt Lancaster's production company built the movie around Lancaster himself--in particular Lancaster's athleticism (see also, The Crimson Pirate), so this starts out as a vanity project. Unfortunately for Aldrich, this saddles him with a lead actor who is never really convincing as an Indian. Lancaster's Nordic features and blazing blue eyes are completely unconvincing:

Co-star Jean Peters suffers a similar fate. Combine this with the weird diction in all the dialogue the Native American characters speak--perfect English, but completely stilted--and you have a recipe for disaster. Massai's weird tendency to speak of himself in the third person becomes comedy gold after a while. One cannot look at the film from a 21st Century vantage and sidestep the essential racism in this depiction, but, on the other hand, I doubt Aldrich would have cared. He made what he made with the materials available and within the cultural imperatives of his time. One of the film's other problems stems from Aldrich's status as a novice director. The original script called for a much bleaker ending to the film, and you can see the first two acts setting up that ending, in which Massai must fight to the death with Hondo (Charles Bronson). Aldrich even filmed this ending, and one wishes it were still extant. The executives at United Artists asked Aldrich and Lancaster to film an alternate, more up-beat ending, and lacking his later clout to do what he wanted, Aldrich complied. This was the ending that the studio used, much to the director's chagrin. Aldrich later said: "(If) you shoot two endings, they will always use the other one, never yours". In a lot of ways the film was a learning process for the director, and there are a lot of puzzling editing choices and very often, the camera is just flat out in the wrong place. This is particularly evident in this shot:

This is the cornfield where Massai flees at the end of the film, hiding from his enemies. I mean, really? Aldrich couldn't have chosen a better vantage point to hide the fact that there's no way Massai would have been able to hide in that field?

In any event, the film is entertaining in spite of all of this--and occasionally because of it--so it's not a total loss. It's an interesting film even if it's not very good. There's a steep learning curve evident between Apache and Vera Cruz, which Aldrich directed the very same year, again for Lancaster and Hecht. I'll get to that film in my next installment.


jesse said...

Oy, that photo of Lancaster is painful.

Are you going to go through all of Aldrich's films? I'm looking forward to following your series though, wherever it takes you...


Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yep. That's the plan. I was hoping to do them chronologically, but that may not be feasible, because some of his movies are going to take some finding. Fortunately, most of them seem to be available.