One of several high-profile films that marked Hollywood's conspicuous return to the western in 1993, GERONIMO offers a grim, hero-less revision of the genre. Fresh from West Point, Lt. Britton Davis (Matt Damon) serves under Lt. Gatewood (Jason Patric), an ex-Confederate who knows and reveres the infamous Apache warrior Geronimo (Wes Studi). Gatewood...read more
One of several high-profile films that marked Hollywood's conspicuous return to the western in 1993, GERONIMO offers a grim, hero-less revision of the genre.
Fresh from West Point, Lt. Britton Davis (Matt Damon) serves under Lt. Gatewood (Jason Patric), an ex-Confederate who knows and reveres the infamous Apache warrior Geronimo (Wes Studi). Gatewood convinces the warring Chiricahua Apache to surrender to the "White-eye" army and take up farming on
an Arizona reservation. When an army party led by Chief of Scouts Al Sieber (Robert Duvall) comes to arrest, and mistakenly kills, The Dreamer--an Apache medicine man who prophesies rebellion--a massacre ensues. Geronimo leads a faction that flees the reservation and resumes war with the cavalry.
The sympathetic General George Crook (Gene Hackman) tries to bring the Chiricahua back to the reservation, but fails to avoid several bloody conflicts with Geronimo and his guerrillas. When Crook retires, his replacement cracks down on the Apache. On their final mission, Gatewood and Davis lead a
small party that catches up to Geronimo's starving band of 35 warriors. The beaten fighter surrenders. All involved meet ignominious fates: Gatewood is assigned to an obscure outpost; Geronimo and his followers are sent to a Florida prison with the Apache scouts who had naively offered their
services to the U.S. Army; Davis, ashamed of the injustice, resigns his commission.
Although director Walter Hill focuses the narrative action on the famous Apache warrior, he does not make this Geronimo's story. Instead this version of the historic Geronimo campaign (1875-1886) is told from the point of view of a green cavalry officer, Britton Davis (who published The Truthabout Geronimo in 1929). As a naive narrator, Lt. Davis imparts the ambiguities of all of the characters involved and the injustices committed by many sides. Gatewood, as a son of the South, feels little allegiance to the reconstructed United States, but he dutifully captures the Indian renegade
he respects. Other white men also vacillate between heroic and villainous deeds. Gen. Crook is a reluctant commander in the field, never comfortable with his mission. Sieber has a palpable hatred of Indians, but prefers their principled killing to that of white scalpers and bounty hunters.
Geronimo himself appears in various guises: as a mystic, a rebel with a cause, and an unhesitating killer. He hates Mexicans for killing his wife and children. He makes peace with those white men he learns to trust, but massacres those who invade. He is often at odds with his own Apache elders.
These complex characterizations make for a more genuine portrait of the historic figures of the West, eschewing the fanciful mythologies of the traditional Western. But they also make for a more difficult dramatic structure on film. By trying to follow a more historically accurate timeline of
events, Hill's film becomes a series of episodes that do not build to an artfully pitched climax. The resolution, in which everybody loses, may fail to satisfy those wanting the emotional thrill of an action picture. But it will surely be cause for reflection for those interested in rethinking the
western film genre and the perpetually revised history of the West.
Amid the troubled flow of the narrative, however, GERONIMO contains a number of elements that keep the film interesting. Some work better than others. As with most good westerns there is striking cinematography to capture the Southwestern landscapes. Many of the grand vistas are photographed
with a red-tinted sky, giving the scenes a somewhat foreboding--but also slightly artificial--feel. On a few brief occasions Hill inserts black-and-white photography depicting Geronimo's visions of his future. These flourishes seem out of place, however, since most of the film is not from
Geronimo's point of view and he is not otherwise depicted as a seer.
As a director, Hill is best known for action, but he proves more adept at quieter scenes this time. There are a number of shoot-outs, bloody massacres, and counter-massacres in GERONIMO. These often deploy WILD BUNCH-like slow motion effects, but are not always coherently edited. More pleasing
contributions to the story are made by the music and the cast. Ry Cooder's original score nicely contrasts the white world's military airs and hymns with the Native American chants and tunes. The actors' performances are also filled with contrasts, although not always to good effect. Wes Studi is
fine as a stoic Geronimo, but the cast of cavalrymen seem out of proportion. The dominating screen presences of Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, two of America's best actors, overshadow the less charismatic Jason Patric and others. Placing the giants in the supporting roles makes it seem as if the
director is following the less interesting story.
In the end, GERONIMO is a welcome contribution to a revitalized genre, filled with interesting representations of both the Apache and the pursuing army. A story in which everyone has some blood on their hands may be somewhat difficult dramatically. But it is a genuine departure from both the old
cowboy-and-Indian horse opera and the New Age revisions in which Native Americans are universalized as pure and noble savages. (Extensive violence, profanity.)