Film Review:Geronimo:An American Legend,
Walter Hill, 1992
"With all this land, why is there no room for the Apache?
Why does the White-Eye want all land?" Geronimo
"You don't love who you're fighting for,
and you don't hate who you're fighting against."
Al Sieber, army scout to Lt. Gatewood
Geronimo:An American Legend,
Walter Hill, 1992
This film failed at the box office in the United States, largely I guess because it represents U.S. history in a manner which the majority of the cinema going public would perceive as unpatriotic. Consequently the film was only released in minority cinemas in this country, despite its array of stars. Gene Hackman does well as General Crook as does Robert Duval as Al Sieber. The story is told through Britton Davis, whose interesting experiences were recorded and published in a book which purported to tell "The Truth about Geronimo". The narrator is played by Matt Damon while Jason Patric is his superior officer 'Gatewood', whose name is rather irritatingly separated into two clear words by Wes Studi, who otherwise, for me, performs brilliantly in the title role, mainly because he projects an aura which rings true with a truly historically significant character.
The film deals with the central issue of the West for me, the culture clash between the native Americans and the new Americans. Directed by Walter Hill the tenor is never sentimental, both sides are uncompromising and neither is surprised by the actions of the other. The cultures are represented as accurately as possible: the spiritual undertones of the Apache approach to life is sympathetically represented and to some extent contrasted to the brash, almost dehumanised behaviour of those westerners making a living on the frontier. When push comes to shove both sides will act brutally, although the Apache are less brutish in their everyday behaviour.
Although the filmscript engages in historical liberties, as for example in the massacre of Apaches at the Fort Apache reservation - fearing this would happen a sizable minority of the occupants absconded led by Geronimo, Naiche, Nana, Mangas and Chihuahua -it is congruent with the type of events which did happen and presents the issues clearly and dispassionately in my view.
Walter Hill filmed the action in John Ford territory: Moab, Utah.Ford's Cheyenne Autumn and Rio Grande were made there. The cinematography is beautiful against this backdrop, Lloyd Ahern makes great use of the wide open spaces, almost as a homage to the master. Ry Cooder's score is also excellent, the camera and the music combine to give the film a haunting quality.
Al Sieber aside, the main "white" characters are shown to be rather out of sync with the U.S. military approach in that Crook and Gatewood are unsentimentally sympathetic and somewhat non judgemental of their foe, and deal with him in an honourable way. This is historically accurate and led to their replacement. The issue of Apache scouts being employed by the army is raised but not really resolved, as ultimately they find themselves in an invidious position.
While other films like Ulzana's Raid deal with these issues better, Geronimo the American Legend is a genuine attempt to redress the balance of history. I was dismayed to read that Wes Studi felt that the film had been weakened by its political correctness, however in reply to my question on his message board he denied having made this statement, adding that he felt that the film had not succeeded at the box office owing to the timing of its release. The film is perhaps weakened as a film by its almost documentary feel, which is alleviated by an action sequence in the middle of the film in which evil scalphunters are confronted by Gatewood, Sieber, and Davis to protect their Apache scout's flowing locks. Nevertheless as a thought provoking, serious attempt to deal with historical issues the film does stand up, in my view widening awareness of the reality of Manifest Destiny to the native Americans, something in which those who dismiss such attempts as 'revisionist' do not seem to be interested.
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009