The story is simple. Ulzana, a war chief (Joaquin Martinez), leads a small band in a breakout from a government reservation. He leads the band on the titular raid, actually a sequence of raids on homesteads. A young cavalry lieutenant, not long removed from the east (Bruce Davison), is assigned to hunt down Ulzana. Riding with him are veteran scout and squaw-man Mackintosh (Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-ni-tay (Jorge Luke). Conflict seems inevitable between officer and scouts, but one of the movie's virtues is the way the conflict builds slowly yet never really boils over. It steers clear of archetypal conflict between by-the-book rigidity and veteran experience. Lt. DeBuin usually defers to his scouts' knowledge, but tension develops as he grows impatient with the careful maneuvering Mackintosh deems necessary to outwit or wear down the renegades.
The more DeBuin sees of Apache atrocities, the more eager he is to catch and punish Ulzana and the more frustrated he is with Mackintosh's dispassionate deliberation. Worse, he grows more hateful toward Apaches the more he probes Ke-ni-tay to explain his people's cruelty. As the scout explains, Apaches torture victims to gain power from them. The longer the torture, the more power the torturer acquires, just as a fire can warm many the longer it burns. In this land, Ke-ni-tay explains, a man needs power. The film seems to accept this savagery as a natural phenomenon. When DeBuin asks Mackintosh why he doesn't hate Apaches, the veteran answers that hating them for what they do would be like hating the desert because it has no water. An older western would assert an imperative to civilize such a place, but Ulzana's Raid holds no brief for natives or settlers. It rejects the idealization of Indians seen in contemporary films like Little Big Man, but neither sympathizes with nor demonizes the settlers destroyed (or occasionally spared) by Ulzana's band.
One of the settlers spared is a woman who was raped and disfigured yet left alive purposefully to burden the soldiers. Ulzana expects the lieutenant to send a detail back to base with the woman, and expects to wipe that force out and replenish his stock of horses. DeBuin is smart enough to accept his scouts' analysis of the situation and agree on a plan to do as Ulzana expects in order to trap him. A simple mistake -- Ke-ni-tay tells the lieutenant to wait for him to signal using a pair of binoculars to reflect the sunlight, not knowing that one of the Apaches also has a "long glass," the accidental reflection from which DeBuin takes as his scout's signal -- renders the eventual victory virtually pyrrhic and certainly bittersweet.
If the film has a hero, it's Ke-ni-tay. He's a classic "native informant" figure, and it's probably no accident that a bugle figures in the story in an echo of Gunga Din. It's not Ke-ni-tay's bugle; one of Ulzana's men uses it to trick a settler into thinking that the cavalry has chased his attackers away. Ke-ni-tay himself, despite the utter alien-ness of his culture at first glance, has adopted the American soldier's code. He knows the difference between a soldier and a raider. Ulzana's men have not "signed paper." If Ulzana can't lead them to plunder, or at least to fresh horses, they'll quit him whenever they please. By contrast, Ke-ni-tay has signed a paper and acts accordingly, finally earning DeBuin's respect despite their near-fatal misunderstanding. If American troops mutilating a dead Apache seem to be going native, Ke-ni-tay may be going the opposite way. If that doesn't make him the hero, it certainly makes him the film's most interesting character, and despite dependable work from Lancaster, Jorge Luke gives the film's best performance.
Aldrich and cinematographer Joseph Biroc filmed the movie on familiar terrain yet manage to reassert the brutality of the landscape. Ulzana's Raid doesn't quite have the visual sweep of Aldrich's earlier westerns -- it's hard to top his SuperScope Vera Cruz when you've seen that on a big screen -- but it has an indisputable craggy grandeur. Like many Hollywood westerns of its time, this one is marred by a generic, often tone-deaf score by Frank DeVol, but the story and the visual experience are worth enduring some bad music. By avoiding overt or allegorical politics, Ulzana's Raid manages to stand the test of time much better than many contemporary American westerns, and definitely belongs on any short list of the best films of the genre from this country in the 1970s.