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‘Geronimo: An American Legend’

By Richard Harrington
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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"Geronimo: An American Legend" is clearly a better title than "Gatewood: Chasing an American Legend," but Walter Hill's visually spectacular, guilt-ridden western would be more accurate sporting the latter title.

You've got to be suspicious when Wes Studi, the steely-eyed Cherokee actor who made such a vivid impression as the vengeful Magua in "The Last of the Mohicans" and is cast here as Geronimo, gets fourth billing -- behind Jason Patric, who plays U.S. Cavalry Lt. Charles Gatewood, and Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman. What we have here is that familiar Hollywood process in which the story of a person of color is refracted through White-Eyes.

And Gatewood's tongue, while not forked, is surely covered with molasses: His monotone pronouncements are delivered so slowly, softly and with such sensitivity that you'll come away thinking he's in the Peace Corps, not the cavalry. Gatewood is a gentlemanly Virginian still unsettled by the Civil War; despite graduating from West Point, he's hardly gung-ho when Yankee superiors assign him to handle the surrender of Geronimo, for whom he clearly has empathy ("I know what it's like to hate the bluecoat").

In fact, all of the major white characters are so sympathetic to Geronimo and are such decent, honorable men (they protect him from bounty hunters and other avengers), you wonder what the fuss about evil White-Eyes is all about. Brig. Gen. Charles Crook (Hackman), overseeing the forced settlement of the Apaches on reservations, is known to them as Nantan Lupan -- "Gray Wolf Chief." He respects Geronimo. Flinty scout Al Sieber (Duvall) respects him, even as he's trying to kill him. Lt. Britton Davis (Matt Damon), whose journal provides the narrative, grows to respect him. Gatewood actually gets to be Geronimo's buddy, albeit not a blood buddy.

"You don't love who you're fighting for," Sieber complains to Gatewood, "and you don't hate who you're fighting against."

The problem is that by choosing to focus on the final couple of years of Geronimo's subjugation in the 1880s, Hill and his writers are forced to suggest context and causation and there's no real sense of Geronimo as warrior or leader other than in Lt. Davis's dour pronouncements. For scriptwriter John Milius, who prefers the convenience of myth to the annoyance of fact, Geronimo is clearly more a symbol of oppression than oppressed.

And while there's no denying the genocidal horrors of Manifest Destiny on Native Americans and their culture, Milius seems to be playing out his unfinished Vietnam agenda (call it "Apocalypse Then") with White-Eyes' talk of pacification and relocation programs, political compromises and religious freedom, covert negotiations and broken promises (the "40 acres and two mules" pledge has multiple resonance). What "Geronimo" really needs is a script medicine man like Russell Means, rather than a liberal spin doctor like Milius.

A fighter, not the farmer the Army wanted him to be, Geronimo led his Chiricahua Apache warriors (35 of them) through southern Arizona chased by 5,000 troops. Studi, whose craggy features and stony demeanor are much like Tommy Lee Jones's, is clearly underused here: He makes somber pronouncements ("in our hearts, we never surrendered"; "I didn't start the trouble") and looks pained. The narrative is certainly reverential enough ("it seemed they were chasing a spirit more than a man"). But Geronimo is not involving, or heroic; he's a historical cipher who proved as elusive to the filmmakers as he did to the Army.

Hill does well with the limited action scenes -- one, in which the soldiers mow down bounty hunters in a Mexican bar, could be an outtake from "The Long Riders," and he benefits from Ry Cooder's evocative period soundtrack and Lloyd Ahearn's wide-screen cinematography. The film was shot in the same Utah locations John Ford used for a number of his classic westerns ("Cheyenne Autumn" and "Rio Grande," among them) and Ahearn comes up with vistas that are alternately dry dusty browns (for the barren reservations) or look like hand-tinted historical panoramas.

But sumptuous backdrops do not a great film make, and neither did Hill. Saddled by Milius and Larry Gross's leaden script and Hill's somnambulant pace, "Geronimo" is hardly better than Ted Turner's recent fiasco.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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