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 and heads for his homeland to win back his girl and settle down to grow crops. His pursuers have other ideas though.
Burt Lancaster ... Massai
Jean Peters ... Nalinle
John McIntire ... Al Sieber
Charles Bronson ... Hondo (as Charles Buchinsky)
John Dehner ... Weddle
Paul Guilfoyle ... Santos
Ian MacDonald ... Clagg
Walter Sande ... Lt. Col. Beck
Morris Ankrum ... Dawson
Monte Blue ... Geronimo
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.
If you can suspend disbelief that Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters are Apaches, then this isn't a bad western. If you can't, well then there's gonna be a lot of low ratings posted here.
In 1886, Geronimo and his braves surrender to the U.S. Calvary in New Mexico and are shipped off to Ft. Marion, Florida. All except one, an Apache named Massai (Burt Lancaster) who begins a one man war against the whites.
Massai escapes from the train that is shipping the Apaches back east and makes his way back to New Mexico. From there, he attacks wagons, soldiers, bridges etc., making life hard for the authorities. He kidnaps Nalinle (Jean Peters) and takes her up to the hills with him while Indian scouts John McIntire and Charles Bronson hunt them down.
Massai finds an isolated spot in the high country and starts to plant a small corn field from seed he got from a Cherokee farmer (Morris Ankrum). He also gets Peters pregnant with child.
The ending scene in Massai's little cornfield is pure Hollywood. The action scenes are tight as we see Lancaster jumping from rock to rock as he picks off at least 10 of the Indian scouts that have him surrounded. But then as Massai is wounded and runs into McIntire in the cornfield, disbelief occurs and the conclusion seems tacked on in order to make a happy ending out of it. You'll have to see it for yourself.
Still, it's entertaining enough as it is. It's based on a true incident and Lancaster at least brings some dignity to his role as the noble warrior turned farmer who wants to be left in peace. It could've turned out a lot worse.
Apache was the third feature Robert Aldrich directed. Before he worked as an assistant director to Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Lewis Milestone and even Charlie Chaplin and also made several episodes for TV films. He was invited to direct Apache by its co-producer and main star Burt Lancaster.
The Apache's particularity is that it doesn't enter the classic Western scheme of almost obligatory showing of the Indians as bad guys, thou the most illustrious example of this probably belong to John Ford's 1964 Cheyenne Autumn with which the legendary director bid a farewell to the genre. Also Apache's distinctiveness resides in the treatment that is given to the central theme of the Western genre, which is revenge.
Here the Indian rebellious warrior Massai, wonderfully played by Burt Lancaster is obsessively seeking revenge facing the enemy not only in a form of one person or a small group of people in accordance with traditional Western vengeance system, but in a form an entire society either Indian or White, a society that he considers his enemy and against which he courageously fights alone not looking for help from anyone till he meets an equally strong character Nalinle (Jean Peters), a woman who simply accepts him as he is ready to share all the difficulties of Massai's life and even to sacrifice her own life for the man she loves. From this point on as his affection for Nalinle increases, his desire to fight everything and everyone proportionally decreases resulting in his settling down looking for more peaceful existence, which is hardly possible due to the burden of his past deeds which weighs over him personified in a collective figure of the American authorities who unceasingly continue to hunt him down.
A weak, but also in many ways remarkable Western featuring convincing performances from Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters in a tale of self-sacrificing love and courageous but ultimately pointless fight for imaginary cause
* There really was a renegade Apache warrior called Massai, who was a bloodthirsty killer renowned for stealing, raping and murdering. He did indeed escape from a prison train bound for Florida and made his way back to his homeland. It is, however, doubtful that he was six feet tall and had blue eyes like Burt Lancaster.
* Robert Aldrich's first Western.
* United Artists pressured director Robert Aldrich into shooting a more optimistic ending in the final days of shooting. Aldrich reluctantly agreed and was dismayed when the film was released with this alternate ending. He later concluded that "if you shoot two endings, they will always use the other one, never yours".