Movie Review: Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

Best-in-breed Western, like Hombre __ 9/10

GeronimoGeronimo: With all this land, why is there no room for the Apache? Why does the White-Eye want all land?

What a treat! Get out your fond memories of Dances with Wolves, then take in a quasi-documentary treatment of the handling of the great Apache leader, Geronimo, by the US Government White-Eye military hierarchy. With a coterie of some of the best actors working in Hollywood in 1993. Also, keep a box of Kleenex nearby for how it ends up… or be prepared to weather another seething storm of outrage against government cruelty.

Directed by Walter Hill
Story and Screenplay by John Milius

Jason Patric … Lt. Charles Gatewood
Gene Hackman … Brig. Gen. George Crook
Robert Duvall … Al Sieber
Wes Studi … Geronimo
Matt Damon … Lt. Britton Davis

Don’t let the IMDb ranking fool you, this is movie/documentary is a 10. The performances by Matt Damon, Gene Hackman, Wes Studi, and Jason Patric are of the highest order. Patric as Lt. Charles Gatewood is the quintessential Western hero, only different somehow. He understates most things, in his quiet Virginia-gentleman Southern drawl; it would be easy to think the guy is a pushover. Until you realize that his soft words carry iron… that he means what he says and, once rationally convinced, nothing will interfere with carrying out what he thinks is right.

I feel it’s important to write more about this character of Gatewood, because not only is he hell on wheels in the world of action, he’s uniquely caring for the plight of the Indian and of Geronimo and Geronimo’s people. He’s a practical idealist, a genuine romantic-adventure hero, in the modern era where cinema and literature have more or less dispensed with that concept. It’s a true delight to have such an image projected once again in a popular venue, because it makes us long for what we’ve been so long missing.

So Patric’s performance is, to my mind, what lends the film its throwback hero magic. But Matt Damon, as the young lieutenant Britton Davis—a real person whose diary forms the basis of John Milius’s story—provides the underpinnings of the authentic Western story. Damon also transforms his character from the naive young man who arrives out west under Gatewood’s command into a confident leader of Indian scouts as the “Geronimo Campaign” (1885-1886) in Arizona ends. Gene Hackman as General Crook? Well, it’s Gene Hackman. I’ve never seen a movie where his presence did not elevate the project.

Finally, Wes Studi, playing Geronimo, is awesome. The movie did win a nomination at the Oscars for Best Sound, but probably the most prestigious nod (and win) came from the Western Heritage Awards for 1994. The movie, director, producer, and lead cast were included in the “Bronze Wrangler.” It’s a powerful film and draws you into the life-and-death struggle immediately, both the conflict between the military and the Indian rebels and the conflict between what a man with power is told to do and what he knows in his heart he must do.

Basically, through the negotiations of General Crook and the sensitive work of Lt. Gatewood, Geronimo agrees to “come in” and stay on the San Carlos Reservation with his people. [Lt. Britton Davis also writes about how the Apaches were mistreated by the American government in the reservation system.] The movie is centered about Geronimo’s quick disillusionment with being held prisoner on his people’s own land, and, with a group of 35 Apaches—men, women, and children—he makes a break for it. Does some raids, kills some settlers and miners. We know it’s simply a matter of time before he and the others will be captured. A compelling story.

It really hit me at the beginning seeing the Apaches coming in, and expected to farm corn on a narrow tract of property along the river. They were not considered a proud civilization of humans, rather savage criminals. I caught immediately the parallels between their circumstances and the modern state’s treatment of those who try to uphold the fundamental law, e.g. the common law, the Constitution, the nonaggression principle. Or the myriad victims of the WOD[1], the “income” tax, and so many other incursions on our natural rights by the soulless federale patriarchy.

The same things we freedom people realistically fear today—internment camps, pandemics, wars, knocks on the door, being disappeared—were inflicted on the American Indians routinely. The Trail of Tears killed thousands, and certainly tens of thousands more were killed over the years (on both sides to be sure) during the clash of civilizations.

It’s a subject that bears examination; this Wiki article seems to cover the big picture of the Indian conflict in North America from colonial times. Some claim more than a million of America’s indigenous peoples were killed through armed conflict and dispossession. But it seems, based on a cursory walk through the Web, that intentional acts of aggression by Whites or Whites’ governments would have been in the tens of thousands or perhaps as many as 200,000 if you do some extrapolations. Where the big numbers come from are the unintentional deaths from diseases brought over by the Europeans for which the Indians had no immunity. Ref. a popular (actually Pulitzer Prize winning) book reviewed on my site, Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond.

So I will spare the readers any further anti-federal government rant, except to state that Geronimo brings home the feeling of what it truly means for an entire people to lose its freedom, and what a horrible thing it is. No, of course, it cannot happen to us, right? Right?!

The whole matter of how the Europeans might have been more civil about living with who was already on the North American continent is interesting. Kind of hard to second-guess a whole civilization during its time, what with raids instigated by competing European interests or attacks by renegade factions here and there on the settlements. But the winners write history, too. If you read between the lines of our colonial past—e.g. Mayflower—there were so many times where some act of Indian aggression occurred, and for retaliation, the Whites organized a whole friggin’ army that slaughtered and sent packing a wholly different ‘nation’ of Indians who were at peace.

[I recall reading such a story in upstate New York on one of those turnpike plaques. Which makes you think, basically, if rich and powerful men want your land, and a government can be accessed for cannon-fodder (or arrow-fodder), these men of the power sickness will figure out a way to take it under cover of state.]

Well, that’s about it. The movie Geronimo, in my humble opinion, in its time got nowhere near the accolades it deserved. Perhaps some renewed enthusiasm is appropriate.

[1] War on Drugs.

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