Today we focus on a legendary figure of American colonization, Geronimo, the protagonist of this 1993 movie directed by another American cinematic legend, Walter Hill.
This man’s real name was Goyaałé, born and raised in what is now the state of Arizona; becoming one of the most respected Apache tribal chiefs.
Opposing the conquest of the west by white settlers with all his might, this mighty warrior also often faced soldiers across the border.
Indeed, it was precisely the Mexicans who gave him the name Geronimo, hating him intensely yet also respecting his prowess in the relentless battles for the freedom and land of his people.
The story began when he surrendered at the end of the Apache-Army wars in 1876, agreeing to settle with his tribe on the San Carlos reservation.
Growing anything in that small patch of land was difficult, so these people depended almost exclusively on the rations the government gave them to survive.
Until one day, a group of soldiers shot a shaman, allegedly guilty of fomenting hatred against whites during a ritual ceremony.
Unable to bear this outrageous injustice, Geronimo revolts and flees with a small group of followers.
Thus begins a period of violence in which the abuse of power toward the Apache worsens further while what little remains of the tribe is forcibly relocated to distant Florida.
To end this bloody war, the army organizes a small group to track down Geronimo and, if necessary, chase him to Mexico.
Leading this group is Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, an old friend of the tribal chief who hopes to reach a peaceful conclusion to the conflict.
Except that the U.S. government is no longer willing to tolerate any more raids and killings by the Apaches, establishing a truce they really have no intention of honoring.
The story of the last western hero
I have been a massive fan of Walter Hill since I saw his exhilarating action musical Street of Fire when I was a child, coming to our days with his latest works such as Bullet To The Head or The Assignment.
Geronimo is a harsh recreation of the West’s legends in the late 19th century, displaying the consequences of the war not only on native Apaches but also on American soldiers.
Indeed, many of these soldiers and officers see segregation as unjust and meaningless, bearing poorly on the orders of their arrogant and insensitive ranking superiors.
Even among the Apaches themselves, deep divisions exist between those who think they can trust the peace accords against warriors who instead have a deep hatred of whites.
In many ways, Walter Hill‘s direction is so accurate in historical detail and realism that it is almost documentary-like at certain moments.
Each set design is done with great care and precision, recreating the American West environment of the time in the battlefields, reservations, and desert landscapes.
In each scene, we can admire the clothing and everyday objects of the Apaches and the army, with the native costumes made from leather, feathers, and light fabrics. At the same time, the soldiers were precisely modeled according to the historical period uniforms.
This realism combines with the excellent technique of a great cinematic master, alternating action scenes and more reflective segments with a compelling pace and constant tension.
Let us also not forget that another legend like John Milius is at the screenplay, accurately recreating numerous historical events while enriching the recipe with robust and incisive dialogue, much of it in the native Apache language.
Best of all, the narrative always remains balanced without idealizing or demonizing any of the characters involved.
Memorable actors for a memorable western
Wanting to find a flaw, there is a total lack of female characters in this movie.
However, being a historical reconstruction, the plot focuses on the actual people involved in the events of those turbulent struggle years.
We begin, of course, with the main character, Wes Studi, who is himself of Cherokee descent and brought great authenticity and strength to the nature of Geronimo, portraying him as a brave and resolute man, yet at times vulnerable and unsure of his decisions.
Playing a warrior of few words, the actor brings to the screen all the charisma of this tribal chief primarily through his intense gaze and magnetic stage presence.
One of the most important bonds in the story is his relationship with Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood, played by the excellent Jason Patric, an experienced and disciplined military man who is, however, also a man of compassion and understanding, able to see things from the Apache perspective.
Perennially at his side is fellow Lieutenant Britton Davis, the young Matt Damon playing an idealist loyal to his Nation who must confront the hardships and cruelties of war.
These two soldiers will receive the task of tracking down Geronimo and offering him a fake peace proposal, accompanied by the fantastic Robert Duvall as veteran Army scout Al Sieber.
The latter initially seems harsh and indifferent toward the Apaches, although later, his true thoughts emerge, stating if he were in their place, he would not hesitate a moment to join Geronimo’s army.
An assertion he smoothly expresses in front of General George Crook, the great Gene Hackman, also torn between military duty and fascination toward the Apache’s thousand-year-old culture.
Despite praise from critics, unfortunately Geronimo: An American Legend was a critical box office failure, unable to cover even half of the movie’s production costs.