Starring: Wes Studi, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jason Patric, Matt Damon
Director: Walter Hill
Mood: If you’re hungry for a Western with a strong Native American lead that delivers a powerful history lesson but the story is so good that you don’t feel trapped in a classroom.
Sometimes I watch a Western because I’m craving the action and adventure. Other times, I actually want to learn something. Lucky me, Geronimo: An American Legend delivers on all of that and more.
The weird thing is that this movie was a box office bomb, and it seems like myself, Roger Ebert, and Quentin Tarantino are the only people who love it.
I ordered a copy of Geronimo for two reasons. Obviously I love all things Wes Studi. The guy is brilliant. But I’m also always on the lookout for quality Westerns that don’t cast white people as BIPOC characters, and don’t depict Native Americans, Black folks, or Mexican/Mexican-American people as nasty stereotypes.
They’re hard to find!
Geronimo isn’t perfectly accurate, but it’s a hell of a lot better at telling a Native American story with Native American actors than most popular Westerns. If you aren’t scared off by this quote from Ebert’s 3.5-star review, this movie is for you.
“…Americans are not quick to describe our treatment of the Indians as genocide, and even a somewhat revisionist film like Geronimo is careful to describe the conflicts between the U.S. government and Indian ‘hostiles’ as a war. It was a war carried out with most of the power on our side, and our justification – that the land belonged to us and we therefore had the divine right to cleanse it of an alien race – is, of course, Hitler’s argument.”
Director Walter Hill wanted this movie to be called ‘Geronimo’s War’, a title that would have been a perfect fit.
Geronimo follows the events leading up to the great warrior’s final surrender in 1886, although it has several flashbacks and some of the events, while authentic, are depicted happening out of sequence. It specifically adapts the version told by Geronimo (real name Goyaałé, which means ‘one who yawns’) to his biographer in 1905.
The movie is narrated by 21-year-old Lieutenant Britton Davis (Matt Damon), a keener fresh out of West Point Academy. The dialogue actually includes many quotes from the real Lt. Davis’ 1929 memoir, The Truth About Geronimo.
So although it’s definitely about Geronimo, it’s also driven by the stories of the soldiers who were caught up in chasing him all over the American Southwest.
Serving under General George Crook (Gene Hackman) and then under General Nelson Miles (Kevin Tighe), Davis and First Lieutenant Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) are carrying out orders to rid the Southwest of the last remaining Apache people. Geronimo has surrendered, and his people to be corralled onto a train and shipped off to a reservation in Florida.
But here’s the thing. Geronimo (Wes Studi) has been effectively leading a resistance up to this point. He repeatedly agrees to surrender, only to escape and continue fighting for the freedom of the few remaining Apache people. And he’s not yet done with that gig.
Geronimo portrays in great detail the ugliness of everything each side has done, the logic behind their actions, the emotions challenging their paths, and the very humanness of the people involved. It’s absolutely f*cking crazy how good the storytelling is here.
Director Walter Hill treats both sides equally with his lens – capable of great heroics, and capable of terrible villainy.
And it’s done so well that I spent the next 24 hours reading up on each of the people depicted.
Seriously, do yourself a favour and dive in:
- Geronimo (who was not a chief, but a highly respected warrior, strategist, seer, and healer)
- Britton Davis
- Charles Gatewood (who got NO credit for his efforts, even though it was Geronimo’s respect for him that led to the final surrender)
- George Crook (who actually fought for the release of the Apache army scouts and resigned )
- Al Sieber (who really did all the things mentioned in the movie and withstood all those wounds – only his death was inaccurate)
- Nelson Miles (who really was a deceitful asshole)
Walter Hill directed two of my other favourite Westerns: Broken Trail and The Long Riders. He’s directed other awesome movies like Wild Bill and Last Man Standing (both of which he also wrote), he produced the Alien movies including Alien vs. Predator, and he produced the entire Tales from the Crypt TV series plus the very first episode of Deadwood… so needless to say, I’m a big f*cking fan of his work.
His love for the Old West and lifelong study of its people radiate through every line and every shot.
Apparently he was pushed hard to cast a white dude as the lead. Hill fought back, and Wes Studi was chosen based on his work in Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. But because rich white dudes suck, it wasn’t until Duvall and Hackman signed on that the movie was greenlit.
Studi commands your attention from his first scene, riding up and looking down on the Apache army scouts and soldiers. Every line he delivers practically shimmers with intelligence and foresight. You absolutely believe that he sees and knows just about everything.
I was instantly taken with his poise on horseback, so naturally I did some digging. Studi, a full-blooded Cherokee himself, is actually a master horseman (!) who ran his own ranch as a young adult and worked as a professional horse trainer. He now does basically everything: actor, horse trainer, rancher, activist, linguist, artist, musician…
I can’t do him enough justice in so few words. Go read this mind-blowing article about him.
If you’re watching Geronimo and wondering why you kinda-sorta recognize Jason Patric, it’s MICHAEL from The Lost Boys! “Maggots, you’re eating maggots, Michael. How do they taste?” He is fantastic as Lt. Davis, soft-spoken and refined. It’s the right note to evoke the man who won Geronimo’s respect through his own respect for people and traditions.
Geronimo is now also one of my favourite Robert Duvall performances. This is not the bumbling, lecherous Duvall that I’ve become used to in a lot of other Westerns. His performance is a delicate balance of fiery badass and reasonable human – you get a great arc from his character.
Damon, Hackman, Rodney A. Grant, and Steve Reevis are also excellent in Geronimo, but this review would be a book if I kept going.
The action sequences in Geronimo are so sharp and intensely realistic that they often catch you off guard, bursting onto the screen after a scene of quiet dialogue.
Hill’s use of massive scenic shots and facial closeups make the shootouts both gripping and heartbreaking. I didn’t get emotional over one particular character, but rather over what was happening and knowing that it DID happen. That’s some damn good cinematography.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the ‘90s were a great f*cking decade for Westerns. Geronimo is now part of my list of top picks from that era. I don’t give a crap what the other reviews and ratings say – this movie is amazing. I was so stoked on it that I ended up ordering Geronimo’s Story of His Life. Give it a read.