'70s Westerns 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' and 'Ulzana's Raid' Echo the Unease of the Vietnam War

In the 1970s, the Western was dying. The sociocultural revolutions of the '60s had left the old white hat/black hat staple of the Hollywood cinema looking quaint, and even Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah couldn't stave off sclerosis. But as it happens, the Western was one of the first routes by which filmmakers began to address one of those '60s flashpoints—the Vietnam War—onscreen, years before it, too, became something of a staple. Two late-period Western classics recently made available again for home video not only provide ample six-gun kicks, they show how, once again, the movies are often about more than the stories themselves.

Clint Eastwood won just about all the kudos there are to win for subverting his iconic laconic gunslinger persona in 1992's Unforgiven, and he deserved them. But he began that process in 1976 with The Outlaw Josey Wales, recently issued on Blu-ray for the first time by Warner Home Video. Eastwood directed the film as well as starred as the title character, a Missouri farmer whose wife and child are murdered by Union partisans during the early days of the Civil War. Digging his pistol out of the literal ashes of his peaceful life, Eastwood's Wales becomes a Southern guerrilla fighter who, once the war ends, finds himself the subject of a manhunt. Far from a typical war film or even Western, Josey Wales becomes a picaresque journey through the postwar trans-Mississippi, as Wales slips down the byways accompanied by various odd fellow travelers (played by, among others, Sam Bottoms, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke), each on the run from something, all of this punctuated by the occasional sardonically humorous encounter or pistol battle. It remains one of Eastwood's most kinetic and lively films as star or director, and one of his best loved.

It also, as it happens, features all sorts of resonances with what was happening in the United States at the time. As the weary veteran hounded by those who hate him and want his hide, Eastwood's Wales stands in at a certain level for the veterans who had been returning from Vietnam, participants in an unpopular war and given no excess welcome or thanks for their service. As Wales' little band of unwanted companions finally arrives at something like a home, he himself can't allow himself to feel so. Without a gun, without a horse, without a grudge to pursue, without closure, he can't end his own private conflict, not unlike the unease that lingered broadly after the war's end in 1975. (Of course, as a guerrilla fighter avenging his invaded home, Wales might bear some different resonances at a screening in Ho Chi Minh City.) When final showdown comes, however, it is calm and accepting, with Eastwood delivering the film's payoff line: "I guess we all died a little in that damn war." It could hardly be more explicit, when you consider the context.

Robert Aldrich's 1972 film Ulzana's Raid is far more obscure, known mostly to Western cognoscenti and big fans of its star, Burt Lancaster. It's been unavailable on home video for many years, and became available recently only as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from the Universal Vault Series (available via Amazon) or via Netflix streaming. Its obscurity is unjust. Not only does subversive entertainer Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard) uncork a bracingly unsentimental, even brutal Western, he put the unforgiving attrition of Vietnam-style small-unit combat onscreen the better part of a decade before anyone else would come near it.

In an early scene, a young cavalryman accompanies a homesteader's wife and her son in their wagon back to the fort to avoid a marauding band of Apache warriors. When the Apaches suddenly attack the wagon, the young cavalryman spurs his horse and, shockingly, rides away. It is only when the woman pleads that he wheels his horse, rides back, and even more shockingly, shoots her in the head before turning to ride away again. It is with this scene that Aldrich establishes the grim stakes, both in terms of the characters onscreen and in terms of the film itself. There is no High Noon honor here. There's just living and dying, and no one wants second place.

What follows is a meticulous cat-and-mouse game as war chief Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) and his braves try to outfox and escape the cavalry. The troopers are led by young Lt. DeBuin (Bruce Davison), a stereotypical officer from back East, but he depends on seen-it-all civilian scout McIntosh (Lancaster) for tracking and advice. The green CO vs. the salty but capable sergeant would become a reliable trait of post-Vietnam war films, but this is one of its earliest and least clichéd appearances. DeBuin, a preacher's son, wants to understand how the Apaches can be so cruel and rages at the lack of sense it all makes. McIntosh understands as much as he needs to, which is how to maybe survive and prevail, and the rest is pointless moralizing. It's like Aldrich recast the Central Highlands of Vietnam in dusty Arizona.