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It is named after the Indian, but Geronimo: An American Legend is barely a revisionist western. The film takes as its protagonists Lts. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) and Britton Davis (Matt Damon), with smaller roles for Al Seiber (Robert Duvall) and Brig. Gen. George Crook (Gene Hackman)—all genuine historical personages lightly fictionalized by original scripter John Milius and rewrite man Larry Gross. Like most Hollywood Indians before him, this Geronimo (Cherokee actor Wes Studi) remains the Other, while the government double-dealings against him and his people are reduced to narration and end titles.
The tension here is not so much between Apache and “white eye” as between history and the film’s subtitle. In his time, Geronimo did qualify as a “legend,” thanks largely to the efforts of the 1880s’ equivalents of The National Enquirer and A Current Affair; even his name was given to him by observers, Mexican soldiers who may have been thinking of the desert-dwelling St. Jerome when they started calling Goyahkla “Geronimo.” Still, other than the Chiricahua Apaches’ impressive ability to vanish into the mountains—and in this they were aided by the border with Mexico, across which troops generally were not allowed to pursue them—little about the campaign to capture Geronimo seems mythic in the cold light of history.
According to Donald E. Worcester’s The Apaches: Eagles of the Southwest, the tribe had subsisted principally on plunder for centuries, and Geronimo and some fellow Chiricahuas made the last of several breaks from reservations not for any grand cause but because of their refusal to accept Army-enforced bans on three activities: brewing and consuming corn liquor, wife-beating, and mutilating women accused of adultery. (In the film, an Army/Indian confrontation precipitates the flight, but the incident portrayed actually occurred years earlier.)
Gatewood, Davis, Crook, and to a lesser degree Seiber were sympathetic to the Apaches, and the Army in general was considered more trustworthy by most southwest Indians than were the civilian government agents who regularly shortchanged reservation residents on promised supplies and let Euro-Americans mine illegally on Indian land. Indeed, Geronimo probably doomed his own followers to exile in Florida by getting drunk and running off after having agreed to surrender to Crook; that mescal-fueled whim (not depicted in the film) led to Crook’s resignation and his replacement by the less agreeable Brig. Gen. Miles (Kevin Tighe, typed as a heavy by several John Sayles films).
The harsh, dry terrain of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico, along with the Apaches’ disdain for agriculture, required the tribe to organize into small, mobile raiding parties. Such a lifestyle has a well-documented appeal to self-described “Zen fascist” Milius; the teen-age resistance fighters of his Red Dawn, to cite but one example, followed the Apache model. Combined with director Walter Hill’s flair for stylized carnage whether in a modern city or on the 19th-century frontier (The Long Riders), Milius’ account of the man he has called a “human predator” could have been wildly, if irresponsibly, entertaining.
Instead, Gross has softenedMilius’ original script, making the human predator gentler and wittier (and younger); meanwhile, Hill has taken John Ford (with some homages to Robert Aldrich) rather than Sam Peckinpah as his model. Geronimo has a vast canvas (its exteriors were shot on the forever Ford-identified area around Moab, Utah) and a stately pace, but those who read “stately” as a synonym for “dull” wouldn’t be entirely wrong. In the hands of contemporary Hollywood, the last great campaign of the Indian wars is mostly uneventful.
That’s history again, intruding on Geronimo with a dour effect it didn’t have on Unforgiven, Posse, or even the ludicrous Dances With Wolves. In fact, the Geronimo campaign was mostly uneventful. Troops and Indian scouts pursued Geronimo and his band, but rarely encountered them; ultimately, the chief surrendered to Gatewood without a fight. It was a guerrilla war that ended at a peace conference, much like more recent conflicts with which Apocalypse Now scripter Milius is familiar.
This may be Hill’s talkiest movie, and if the conversationalists are charming in their tight-lipped, macho, and sometimes grizzled way, the chatter’s not so great. “I know what it’s like to hate the bluecoat,” explains the courtly, Southern-bred Gatewood, thus encapsulating his kinship with the Chiricahuas. “You killed women and children,” Crook admonishes Geronimo; “So did you,” the Indian replies, thus encapsulating the film’s sense of historical fair play. “I hate an idealist,” complains Miles after Davis objects to the arrest of all the Army’s Indian guides upon the removal of the Geronimo threat; “I’m ashamed,” says Davis, who resigns. (The historical Davis had already left the army by then.)
“We’re trying to make a country here,” Gatewood tells Davis at one point. “It’s hard.” That the filmmakers are reduced to such protestations of great purpose is a sure sign of their shortfall. In Hill’s wide-angle shots, the country that was already there before the Army, before the Apaches even, looks spectacular. But nothing else about Geronimo approaches the landscape’s impressiveness.