Although Lee Van Cleef's portrayal of a Native American will understandably raise concern in some viewers, this fun if cheesy film takes a clear anti-racism line.
Captain Apache (1971) has a terrible reputation among Spaghetti Western fans. The movie is often used as an example of how the genre took a turn for the worse as it entered the ‘70s. For me, however, it is an incredibly fun if cheesy film that embraces the type of boundless creativity, shameless risk-taking, and over-the-top invention that I find so appealing about the genre.
The film starts by flashing this sequence of quotes across the screen:
“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”—Paleface saying
“The only good Paleface is a dead Paleface” - Indian saying
“Love they neighbor”
Then, the theme song kicks into full gear while a montage begins with scenes that help illustrate the following lyrics: “They are after me with guns, knives, and fast fast horses / They are after me with bombs, drugs, and fast fast women / They’re going to tail me, trail me, try to nail me / But they haven’t got a prayer”.
With this montage we get to see the star, a heavily tanned Lee Van Cleef, as the title character, Captain Apache, in all his badass glory, and we realize that it is he who is singing the catchy song. “They call me Captain Apache, a Redskin in calvary blue,” he mumbles with charm. A graduate of West Point who wears a fur-lined jacket, this Native American character of Van Cleef’s will tomahawk his way into your memory, and director Alexander Singer cleverly inserts him into a plot that exposes the corruption and racism that was running rampant in the American Wild West.
The plot actually has more in common with a spy thriller or a hard-boiled detective story than that of a typical Spaghetti Western. The U.S. Government hires Captain Apache to investigate the murder of the commissioner in charge of Native American relations, assuming that evidence will prove the Native Americans responsible. The only real clue Captain Apache has to go off of is the dead commissioner’s last words: “April Morning”. As the plot unfolds, several different characters are introduced who either know or are trying to find out what this phrase, “April Morning”, means. But, as Captain Apache says, “Every time I get a lead on April Morning someone gets killed.”
These characters, among others, include a gunrunner named Griffin (Stuart Whitman), a blonde bombshell named Maude (Caroll Baker), several calvary members like General Ryland (Hugh McDermott) and O’Rourke (Charles Stalmaker), a Mexican temptress named Rosita (Elisa Montes), Moon the Native American chief (Percy Herbert), a bunch of muscles like the snarly-faced Snake (Tony Vogel), and a Mexican bandit turned general named Sanchez (Charly Bravo).
Eventually all these characters, including Captain Apache, end up on a train heading to Tucson. It is on this train that we learn what April Morning is and how it plays into a elaborate conspiracy to set-up the local Native Americans so that the U.S. Government can justify forcing them out of their reservation, which is located on valuable land, and off to Yellow Snake Canyon which, as Captain Apache points out, is “filled with snakes!”
Before learning all that, we get to enjoy some great dialogue and many moments of B-movie madness. Griffin, the gunrunner and local businessman, for example, has two body guards that happen to be identically dressed identical twins. Captain Apache, upon meeting them, tells Griffin to “keep your freaks away from me,” to which he asks, “Why do you always insult people who might kill you?” and our protagonist answers, “I like to see a man enjoy his work.”
After Griffin says, “You’re at the wrong table, at the wrong hotel, in the wrong town, and you might even be in the wrong line of business,” the two insulted twins take Captain Apache to the bar where they try to kill him… by forcing him to drink. He says, “I don’t fight with freaks,” and instead goes along with their drinking game. “Bottoms up,” one says while taking a shot, and if Captain Apache doesn’t follow suit, the other says, “My brother is waiting.” This goes on and on until Captain Apache points out that he’s drinking two to their one, and “I’m Indian—one more and I’ll go crazy.” He takes one more and then soberly knocks them both out.
Because Van Cleef’s character, who is far superior in both intelligence and ability than all the other characters, parodies the racist sayings about Native Americans and completely contradicts the stereotypes of them, Captain Apache is, regardless of what some viewers may believe, a pro-Native American, anti-racist film. While some will understandingly be offended by the sight of a white man playing a Native American, such practices a normal part of the Spaghetti Western genre. Producers used Spaniards to play Mexican characters, just as they used southeastern Spain for the American Southwest and, occasionally, like this case, they used white men to play Native Americans. (Burt Reynolds as Navajo Joe is the most notorious example.)
As silly as most of it is, Captain Apache is the film that made me appreciate the entire spectrum of the genre. It’s easy to dismiss every Spaghetti Western that doesn’t come close to the quality of of Sergio Leone’s many masterpieces, but sometimes these films—whether they’re goofy, exploitative, or just plain bad—have moments of magic in them that can’t be ignored.
Take, for example, the scene in Captain Apache where we unexpectedly get to see Van Cleef tripping-out one some sort of truth sermon (probably a mescaline based concoction); his eyes bulge while he rolls around on the ground sweating, grimacing, and having visions before escaping from his captures up a M.C Escher type of staircase. If this scene doesn’t increase your love for the genre, I don’t know what will.