Indian renegade Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) has escaped from the Apache reservation and is now planning a rampage as he makes for freedom. The U.S. Army are not about to allow him to get away, so call for seasoned scout McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) to track him down. A party to stop Ulzana in his raid is assembled with Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) at its head, a young officer fresh out of the military academy who wants to be more compassionate towards the Indians than his fellow whites. However, when he comes face to face with the atrocities of Ulzana and his cohorts, he may well change his mind...
The seventies was the era of the revisionist western, where the old view of movie cowboys and Indians was subjected to a fresh approach, far different from the cowboys good, Indians bad tack that many of these films' predecessors had taken. It was also the era of having Hollywood westerns, as they gradually fell out of favour as the decade progressed, "say something" about society, so there was an abundance of issues to be chewed over here. In the case of Ulzana's Raid, there were two themes to be tackled, one of racism and the other of the Vietnam War which was still raging in East Asia.
Therefore it's not much of a stretch to understand that the renegade Apache's war party is meant to stand in for the Viet Cong, what with their brutality and perhaps more importantly the manner in which they seem beyond the ken of the whites. Neither side is completely blameless in this instance, with the rogue Indians carrying out terrible acts of violence which we usually only see the aftermath of when DeBuin's patrol catch up with them, and the soldiers and settlers coming across as invaders who would be better off not sticking their noses in where they were not wanted. When these two groups come together, things turn ugly.
To illustrate that not all Indians are bad, and not all whites are bad either for that matter, is Lancaster's McIntosh who having lived with the natives understands their ways - he has an Indian as a wife - and although he does not hate them the way many whites do, he admits he fears them all the same for what they are capable of. To DeBuin they are akin to aliens, unfathomable though to make him feel better about the state his fellow soldiers leave them in, he insists on showing them respect - you get the impression Ulzana is not moved one way or the other whether his fallen braves are given a Christian burial or not.
Of course, even the liberal DeBuin, intended to represent the appeasers, those who wish to find a peaceful way out of every situation, balks at treating the Apaches fairly when they, for example, seek out homesteads to raze to the ground, murdering and mutilating the owners and raping their women, all without a shred of remorse. What neither side can perceive is the other's humanity, so they end up treating each other as lesser mortals not worth any kindness; McIntosh, the man in the middle along with the other Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tey (Jorge Luke), remains an outsider, looking on with wisdom and sorrow (Lancaster is especially good at conveying this) as the situation rumbles inexorably on towards its unhappy conclusion. Alan Sharp's script may tend towards the overfamiliar in its action sequences, but elsewhere remains literate in the grasp of its subjects. Music by Frank De Vol.