GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND looked to have a lot going for it: a director (Walter Hill) skilled in delivering tough action, a story and script by flinty maverick John Milius, a sturdy cast and ample production values. It looks sensational, with magnificent Utah-Arizona scenery captured in Lloyd Ahern’s gorgeous cinematography. The costumes, stuntwork and sound quality are all top rate. But Milius’ original script was emasculated in a bland soft-sell rewrite from Larry Gross, and weak performances in key roles further drain urgency and excitement. Though the treatment is reasonably accurate as to chronology, PC guilt trumps Truth. The fearsome, factually less-than-sentimental Apache warrior would have a good, nasty laugh over the tame result. *
The Arizona Territory in the late 1880s. Decades of warfare look to have ended with the Apaches consigned to a reservation. U.S. Army General George Crook (Gene Hackman) hopes this enforced idleness will bring peace, but warrior leader Geronimo (Wes Studi) escapes and hostilities resume. Tasked with bringing him back are sympathetic Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), veteran scout Al Sieber (Robert Duvall) and idealistic young officer Britton Davis (Matt Damon). Easier said than done.
As written, the historical characters conform to their recorded attitudes, but the playing is skewed to modernist interpretation. Hackman walks through without breaking a sweat, almost as divorced as he was in the forlorn Foreign Legion epic March or Die. Duvall is better, providing some grit as the legendary Sieber. He gets the best lines in the script: “”I don’t see how anyone can sink that low. Must be Texans. Lowest form of White Man there is.”
Unfortunately the stilted dialogue given to Studi and other Native Americans is just more trite rehashing of “Noble Injun-speak” heard in countless earlier, less-studiously “serious”, more readily entertaining movies. Patric and Damon (22, in one of his first films) would later show they could handle the genre (Patric in The Alamo, Damon in True Grit), but here, they’re just the wrong guys in the wrong movie. Patric, other than displaying some pretty impressive horsemanship, goes the Brando-lite murmur route, complete with iffy accent: he’s about as energetic as petrified wood. Damon is mostly a blank, looking more geared for a frat party than a frontier patrol.
Several action scenes have vigor (it is Walter Hill, after all), but they’re not sufficiently set up by the plot to register more than momentary impact. A deserved Oscar nomination did come for the Sound; the gunshot effects have real punch. There’s an OK, portentous-variety score from Ry Cooder. By far the most creditable element is the camera work: Lloyd Ahern delivers some of the finest cinematography in a western since The Wild Bunch and the wonderful desert locations hadn’t been as vibrantly showcased since Cheyenne Autumn.
Running 115 great-looking but mostly lethargic minutes, the movie tanked bigtime at the box office, 77th place for 1993, the $35,000,000 cost tortured over a slow fire by a gross of just $18,636,000. With Rodney A. Grant, Kevin Tighe, Steve Reevis, John Finn, Scott Wilson, Stephen McHattie, Mark Boone Jr., and M.C. Gainey.
* The NY Times asked John Milius, who wrote the first draft, his opinion of the results. At the time, he’d not yet seen it, but he tasked the reporter as whether they left in his scene where the Apaches had hung children on meathooks. Take a Wild West guess. “I wrote a script about a mighty warrior chief. They made a film about a fucking white male model.” Though a disappointment, this handsome, lackluster picture is certainly superior to the 1962 Geronimo, with a game but woefully miscast Chuck Connors.
Genre history tie-in—one of the assistant directors was Josh McLaglen, son of director Andrew V. McLaglen, ramrod on a slew of westerns. And grandfather Victor served saddle time in John Ford’s classic “cavalry trilogy” of the late 40s, and was on the receiving end of Geronimo’s anger in the climax of Fort Apache.
Supporting player Rodney A. Grant, who plays Mangas Coloradas in this picture, served as Geronimo in The Staircase, a 1998 TV movie, as well portraying Crazy Horse in another TV film, Son Of The Morning Star. Grant’s best known as ‘Wind in His Hair’ from Dances With Wolves, which also featured Wes Studi (as the mean Pawnee brave). Two years later, Studi’s sensational performance as ‘Magua’, in the terrific 1992 version of The Last Of The Mohicans cinched his hire as Geronimo.
Duvall’s character Al Sieber survived 28 different wounds over his career until 1907, when he met an opponent he couldn’t beat, getting crushed by a boulder. In the movie, the script skips accuracy to indicate his death was due to a gunfight (fictitious) with those cussed Texans. Really, what can you say about a guy so tough it takes a boulder to kill him?