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 longstanding 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 level of 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 impact B.O.
While the cardboard TNT version hops, skips and jumps between key moments in the Apache warrior’s long, eventful life, this large-scaled 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 deep in courage, tenacity, tragedy, regret, duplicity and historical weight, one that will give anyone plenty to think about.
In movie terms, it’s also a fine tale of resistance and struggle, with plenty of confrontations, action and violence, all played against a stunningly beautiful stage. 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 from West Point who arrives in Arizona territory 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 and sets a kind of lecturing, reverential tone.
Closer to the center of matters is Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), a young Virginian who takes Geronimo into custody and peacefully escorts him to Brig. Gen. Crook (Gene Hackman), who is overseeing the settlement of natives on reservations.
Crook declares the Indian wars over and announces that the former nomads must learn farming. When soldiers attack a group of rebellious warriors, Geronimo and some followers head for Mexico.
With Geronimo on a wild, if justifiable, rampage throughsmall villages and settlements, the Army again takes up its pursuit with the aide of grizzled scout Al Sieber (Robert Duvall).
A cipher at first, Gatewood remains an ambiguous figure whose innate sympathy for Geronimo is counter-balanced by his patriotic and professional obligations. Little by little, however, Patric makes him an intriguing character.
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 resurrects the indelible iconography of John Ford’s Westerns, some shot in basically the same places, only to slyly and totally reverse their political meanings.
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.