Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) ***
Directed by Walter Hill. Written by John Milius and Larry Gross. Photography, Lloyd Ahern. Editing, Freeman Davies, Carmel Davies and Donn Aron. Production design, Joe Alves. Music, Ray Cooder. Cast: Jason Patric, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Wes Studi, Matt Damon. A Columbia release. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence)
There are bad bandwagons (the majority) and there are good bandwagons. Both kinds are propelled by lucre -- but let us not go into a holier-than-thou mode, as few things in life are untouched by the profit motive. In the visual media, the bad bandwagons can produce things like three Amy Fisher telefilms within one week-- next, no doubt, is the Lorena Bobbitt story. What redeems the rare good bandwagons is that they also have social or educational virtues. Such is currently the case with three offerings about the famous Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo.
One "Geronimo" is a TNT-produced dramatized biography. Another, also on cable, is a chapter in the A & E's series "The Real West." The third is "Geronimo: An American Legend," the movie by action-director Walter Hill.
All three "Geronimos" are laudably revisionist: they attempt to reevaluate the past in the light of new knowledge, new morals and new standards. The TNT film means well but zig-zags too much, often feels vague, artificial and dull. The A & E hour is a thoughtful documentary that is informative, even eye-opening.
Sensibly, "Geronimo: An American Legend," does not try to compress a lifetime inside two hours. Limiting its scope, it concentrates on the last stages of Geronimo's insurgency in 1885-86. In 1883 Geronimo's band had surrendered to General George Crook and been placed back in the despised San Carlos Reservation. In May 1885, Geronimo fled again with 143 Apaches (including women and children), and held at bay 5,000 soldiers (about one-quarter of the total U.S. Army strength), as well as 3,000 Mexican troops. In May 1886 there was another surrender, but again Geronimo decamped with only three dozen followers. The able General Crook had to resign, was replaced by General Nelson Miles, and finally, on September 4, 1886, a tricked Geronimo gave up for good and, with his people, was deported to Florida.
The film takes some liberties with chronology, people and facts but overall remains more faithful to history than the majority of such movies. It uses the device of a narration by 2nd Lt. Britton Davis (Matt Damon), a real person who, in 1929 wrote a book, "The Truth About Geronimo." I suspect that the Davis text was entirely transformed and embellished, yet, what is presented in the movie does ring true.
Davis, a Texan fresh out of West Point, had requested to be stationed to the Indian wars. His immediate superior was 1st Lieutenant Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), a patrician Virginian who respected the "enemy" and who, with sensitivity, skill and courage tried to negotiate Geronimo's final surrender.
Wes Studi (the villainous Magua of "The Last of the Mohicans") plays Geronimo with appropriate Indian imperturbability and medicine man mysticism. He resembles little the many photographs we have of the aging Geronimo, looks much younger than the model and lacks his perpetual scowl. Gen. Crook is nicely incarnated by Gene Hackman as a humane commander, clever tactician and, by the period's norms, quite a liberal and understanding being. Robert Duvall plays Al Sieber, the chief of the Apache scouts hired by the Army to track Geronimo. Sieber's portrayal is doubtlessly quite romanticized , but so effectively that with his every appearance (generally brief) Duvall steals the show.
Interestingly, the movie over and above dedicating itself to the clash of cultures and the dismal lack of the "White-Eyes'" understanding of the Indians sets out to honor Lt. Gatewood who has been unfairly overlooked by history and finished his life in obscurity. Jason Patric, most handsome in an un-Hollywoodian way, plays him with remarkably quiet control and with immense appeal. Setting aside other considerations, Patric is a solid reason for seeing this film. His is a believably complex character. Duvall tells him : "You don't love who you're fighting for, and you don't hate who you're fighting against."
Patric also delivers some impressive horsemanship, as do the Indians and the 6th Cavalry in excellent action scenes. In 1980, Walter Hill's "The Long Riders" did marvels with galloping outlaws-- the James, Younger, Miller and Ford brothers. In it, as in his other movies, Hill relishes extreme violence. And the combination of Hill, macho scriptwriter John Milius ("Apocalypse Now," "Conan the Barbarian," "Red Dawn") and co-writer Larry Gross ("48 Hours"), would make one expect non-stop mayhem. Yet "Geronimo"'s violence, though plentiful, is relatively moderate. More than once it reins in graphic depictions, and in some cases, killings by Indians or whites are mentioned rather than depicted.
Often the action takes on the look of director John Ford's poetry in motion. Ford also comes in via Ray Cooder's score, Irish-like music that recalls the many Irish in Ford's Cavlary Trilogy. Yet more obviously Fordian is Hill's use of that master's favorite terrain, around Moab, Utah.
Unknown outside television, cinematographer Lloyd Ahern films landscapes in ways that are stunning even to connoisseurs of the Western genre. Now and then Ahern gets arty with color filters, or incongruous with closeups taken from afar with enormous telephoto lenses that stress rippling heat waves -- but by and large his images are masterful.
In spite of trying to stick to essentials, the plot does tend to meander. It is the inevitable result of attempting a delicate (a strange term applied to Hill and Milius) balance between oppressors and oppressed, and this without sanctimonious judgments, without anachronistic or simplistic pro-Indian militancy, and without quite demonizing the whites. You get the feeling that the movie would have liked to last four hours instead of two, elaborate several points of view and show even more of its historical complexities. But its limited time-frame ends up as something of a muddle. It leaves you hungry for more, but it also leaves you with the memory of some ucommonly striking shots and scenes, and the characters of Patric and Duvall.