Geronimo Movie Essay
The Journal of Arizona History
The Journal of Arizona History, the scholarly publication of the Arizona Historical Society, began publication in 1960 as Arizoniana and changed to the present title in 1966. Each quarterly issue contains 3-4 articles, reminiscences, documents, and/or photo essays pertaining to the history of Arizona, the Southwest, and northern Mexico; 10-14 reviews of current books; and a booknotes section highlighting reprints and publications of local and regional interest. The typical issue consists of 120 pages and contains approximately 25 historic photographs. A volume index appears in each winter issue and a cumulative index is available on the Society’s website.
Coverage: 1965-2014 (Vol. 6, No. 1 - Vol. 55, No. 4)
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Subjects: History, History
Collections: Arts & Sciences XI Collection
"A powerful stocky warrior with a perpetual scowl on his face, Geronimo personified all that was savage and cruel in the Apache," states Robert M. Utley's introduction to a recent edition of "The Truth About Geronimo," written by Britton Davis in 1929. "Few whites who knew him had much praise for him, and most of his own people feared and disliked him. Davis characterized him as 'a thoroughly vicious, intractable and treacherous man. His only redeeming traits were courage and determination. His word, no matter how earnestly pledged, was worthless.' History has supported this judgment."
Obviously, times have changed. The revisionist view of Geronimo is apparent in "Geronimo: An American Legend," an earnest, leaden epic directed by Walter Hill from a reverential screenplay by John Milius and Larry Gross. No matter that this film's narrator is actually Britton Davis, played as a bland young West Point graduate by Matt Damon and urging the story forward with colorless observations. The real flavor of Davis's account, and of the ferocity that earned Geronimo his place in history, is nowhere evident on screen.
If the baby, so to speak, is Geronimo's dauntless fighting spirit, it has been thrown out with the bath water of outmoded film stereotypes regarding American Indians. Shooting evocatively amid Utah landscapes that summon John Ford's westerns, Mr. Hill finds ample opportunities to settle old scores. The contempt and condescension with which Indian warriors were so often treated has given way to a warm bath of noble sentiments, none of which advances this film's dramatic purposes at all. "With all this land, why is there no room for the Apache?" asks Geronimo, on one of the many occasions when the film's characters seem to speak their lines in capital letters. "Why does the White-Eye want all land?"
As played by Wes Studi, who was so formidable and effective as Magua in "The Last of the Mohicans," Geronimo is more often made to seem gently perplexed than fierce. This is more a dramatic problem than a political one, since all the film's actors share a placid, reasonable demeanor that becomes unexpectedly dull. As the film recounts the last battles, in the 1880's, between the Chiricahua Apache and the American and Mexican soldiers who overwhelmingly outnumbered them, it adopts an attitude of undifferentiated regret. Almost no one dares play the villain in the fight that destroyed the Indians' independence and altered their destiny.
The film views the events it depicts as part of a colossal misunderstanding, rarely doing justice to the Apaches' anger or going so far as to assign blame. The story's American soldiers are an unusually open-minded group, led at first by Brig. Gen. George Crook (Gene Hackman). General Crook, such an easygoing officer that he at one point invites Geronimo in for coffee, offers Mr. Hackman a role not even he can breathe much life into. Potentially more interesting is another nice-guy officer, Lieut. Charles Gatewood, played by Jason Patric with a soft, purring drawl and a pensive manner. The formidable Mr. Hill ("The Warriors," "The Long Riders") has more often presented tough, vinegary characters who don't waste time questioning their sense of purpose. This subject brings out his kinder, gentler side, which effectively reins him in.
Also in the film, and showing some of its few signs of life, is Robert Duvall as one of the story's maverick characters, a veteran Indian scout named Al Sieber. Sieber sometimes voices a healthy skepticism that would have been welcome elsewhere in the story.
The dialogue ("It is good to see the great warrior") does not seem any weightier by virtue of its having been translated into the Apache language in some places. The scenery is automatically vivid, especially when it takes advantage of the landscape's stark contrasts, but Lloyd Ahern's cinematography is sometimes suffused with dusty reddish tones. Even the musical score by the resourceful Ry Cooder has a droning, authentic quality, suggesting that earnestness has taken precedence over energy. It has, every time.
"Geronimo: An American Legend" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes violence. Geronimo An American Legend Directed by Walter Hill; written by John Milius and Larry Gross; director of photography, Lloyd Ahern; edited by Freeman Davies, Carmel Davies and Donn Aron; music by Ry Cooder; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Mr. Hill and Neil Canton; released by Columbia. Running time: 115 minutes. This film is rated PG-13. Lieut. Charles Gatewood . . . Jason Patric Brig. Gen. George Crook . . . Gene Hackman Al Sieber . . . Robert Duvall Geronimo . . . Wes Studi Lieut. Britton Davis . . . Matt Damon