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‘Geronimo: An American Legend’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 10, 1993


Walter Hill
Jason Patric;
Gene Hackman;
Robert Duvall;
Wes Studi;
Mark Damon;
Rodney A. Grant;
Kevin Tighe;
Steve Reevis;
Scott Wilson;
Carlos Palomino
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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There is a stirring story to be told about Geronimo, who confounded 5,000 U.S. cavalry men between 1885 and 1886 with just 34 men, women and children. There's a deep, touching tale to relate about the man who went from Apache chieftain to circus has-been, selling his autographs for money.

But don't look for stirring, touching or anything in "Geronimo: An American Legend." Look for the exit sign. In the depths of his worst depression, the defeated warrior could never have anticipated the posthu ous ignominy he would suffer in this Walter Hill-John Milius affair.

Embellishing events culminating with Geronimo's surrender at the Canyon of the Skeletons in Arizona in September 1886, screenwriter Milius, whose credits include "Conan the Barbarian" and "Red Dawn," creates another white-witness-to-history un-epic. Since moviegoers apparently can't handle the"primitive" Geronimo (Wes Studi) as the main character, Milius centers things on Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), the U.S. Cavalry lieutenant charged with capturing the Apache leader.

We see the federal comings and goings around Geronimo, as well as the bureaucratic machinations to place him in reservation exile. We enter the lives of Gene Hackman (as relatively Indian-sensitive Brig. Gen. George Crook), Robert Duvall (good-old-boy Apache hunter Al Sieber); and Kevin Tighe (Hackman's meaner replacement). And while we hang with the forces of Manifest Destiny, we hear the voice-over recollections of Gatewood's sidekick, Second Lieutenant Britton Davis (Matt Damon), whose true-life account informed the screenplay.

The production employed a commendable array of Native American performers and consultants. It has its politically correct moments and damns the more bureaucratic of Geronimo's western foes. But "Geronimo" still feels like a whitewash -- the American equivalent of watching the story of South African warrior Shaka, as told by Boer filmmakers and featuring the willing participation of modern-day Zulus.

Geronimo is the prey, not the protagonist -- even though Studi's presence as the Apache leader (he was Magua in "Last of the Mohicans") is the best thing of all. His riveting gaze and halting, effective bursts of speech imbue this disastrous affair with some dignity.

Duvall, one of Hollywood's greatest journeymen, weighs in memorably with old-salt mannerisms and utterances. He may have the best moment in the movie, when he surveys a burning village of slaughtered Indians, the work of bounty hunters, and wonders who would sink to such depths. "Must be Texans," he says. "Lowest form of white man there is."

For all intents and purposes, this arm's-length biography (not to be confused with the TNT miniseries of the same name) is best forgotten -- or exiled to video. It's hard to take a film seriously when, on one side, you have Goyahkla, a k a Geronimo, spiritual leader of his tribe, and facing him, you have the guy who came between Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland. Patric has his talents -- and if you're in the video store, catch him in "After Dark, My Sweet." But in this laughable and unbelievably boring film, he's a stubbled, pretty-boy anachronism. He's not participating in legend or history. He's the star in a grown-up, heinous Bill & Ted adventure.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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