Sad, stately and ideologically
au courant, “Geronimo: An American Legend” relates the final stages of the U.S. government’s subjugation of the West’s native population in absorbing, detailed fashion. Neatly turning long-standing genre conventions upside down while working squarely within them, director Walter Hill has fashioned a physically impressive, well-acted picture whose slightly stodgy literary quality holds it back from an even greater impact.
Strong campaign and continued interest in Westerns and Native American matters should combine for solid business, although it’s impossible to know how TNT’s concurrent, rushed-to-air telefilm on the same subject will detract from B.O. While the cardboard TNT version hopped, skipped and jumped between key moments in the Apache warrior’s long, eventful life, this large-scale feature intriguingly concentrates on 1885-86, when the U.S. Army devoted 5,000 men, or one-quarter of its entire troop strength, to the effort to stamp out Indian resistance once and for all. Of course, the result is a foregone conclusion, but it’s a tremendously resonant story, full of courage, tenacity, tragedy, regret, duplicity and historical weight, one that will give anyone plenty to think about.
In movie terms, it’s a fine tale of resistance and struggle, with plenty of confrontations, action and violence, all played against a stunningly beautiful backdrop. Somehow, this “Geronimo” rarely becomes quite as stirring as it seems it should, but it still offers an intelligent, respectful reading of a key historical chapter that has too often been trivialized, sanitized and revised by Hollywood.
Pic is framed by the words of a secondary character, Lt. Britton Davis (Matt Damon), a freshly scrubbed lad straight from West Point who arrives in Arizona territory just in time for the Geronimo push. Narration clearly establishes the film’s p.o.v. as that of sympathetic whites and provides plenty of useful information over the course of things, but its strictly 19th century diaristic style seems at odds with the way the characters talk (unlike a similar device in Robert Benton’s underrated “Bad Company”) and sets a kind of square, lecturing, overly reverential tone.
Closer to the center of matters is Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), a young Virginian who, after an opening skirmish between the cavalry and the last remaining Chiricahua Apaches, takes Geronimo into custody and peacefully escorts him to Brig. Gen. Crook (Gene Hackman), a veteran Indian fighter who is overseeing the settlement of natives on reservations.
A liberal by 1880s standards who respects Geronimo and would protect him against the many bloodthirsty avengers lurking about, Crook declares the Indian wars over and announces that the former nomads must learn farming. All is quiet for awhile, but when some soldiers violently attack a group of rebellious braves , Geronimo and some followers escape and head for Mexico.
With Geronimo on a wild, if justifiable, rampage through small villages and settlements, the Army again takes up its pursuit with the aide of grizzled scout Al Sieber (Robert Duvall). When Crook is unable to persuade Geronimo to surrender again, he is replaced by Brig. Gen. Miles, a martinet who institutes a no-compromise, full Indian pacification policy and orders Gatewood to bring Geronimo in once and for all.
A cipher at first, Gatewood remains an ambiguous figure whose innate sympathy for Geronimo is counterbalanced by his patriotic and professional obligations. The thick-skinned Sieber accurately points out, “You don’t love who you’re fighting for, and you don’t hate who you’re fighting against.” Little by little, however, Patric makes him an intriguing character. He’s good on horseback, and his soft, lulling accent is strikingly reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s when he played Southerners.
Wes Studi is a rugged, commanding, admirably defiant Geronimo, convincing as a leader and, once he surrenders, a man who knows his life is over. Only problem with all the young actors — white and Indian — is a total lack of humor seemingly imposed on them by the script. Pic’s tone is kept in a dour straitjacket that Hackman and Duvall manage somewhat to escape with their irony and seasoned humanity.
Working on stunning locations around Moab, Utah, Hill no doubt deliberately resurrects the indelible iconography of John Ford’s Westerns, some of which were shot in basically the same places, only to slyly and totally reverse their political meanings. Many of the same scenes are present — the Indian raids, the cavalry battles, the Indians’ long march, the removal of an Army officer, younger officers doing their duty — but their import is inverted, even if the ultimate aim in both cases is to limn the passing of an era.
Ironically, the single sequence of greatest tension and narrative economy is a barroom standoff between good guys and bad guys that is uncannily Hawksian in the way it quietly escalates to a resolution of terrible swiftness.
Rich and majestic production values demand big-screen viewing rather than video consumption. Lloyd Ahern’s grand widescreen lensing is actually too colorful at times due to the overuse of filters, especially on landscape shots. Sets and costumes are densely textured, and Ry Cooder’s generally fine score goes slightly overboard at a couple of points.