Sometime after midnight on June 6, 1944, men of the 101st Airborne Division jumped into the terrifying darkness that was Occupied France with parachutes on their backs, tommy-guns in their hands and the name of a 19th century Chiricahua Apache warrioSometime after midnight on June 6, 1944, men of the 101st Airborne Division jumped into the terrifying darkness that was Occupied France with parachutes on their backs, tommy-guns in their hands and the name of a 19th century Chiricahua Apache warrior on their lips. But from "Geronimo: An American Legend," we never learn why this man, of all his tribe and all his race, was to become the patron saint of lonely soldiers faced with desperate, dark-of-night, against-all-odds fights.
The film turns out to be something less than it seems to promise. It takes the great Native American guerrilla soldier entirely for granted, as if he's a permanent feature of the landscape, a butte in Monument Valley. It describes him entirely from the white point of view: a stoic warrior, consumed in hate. It never penetrates, illuminates or sees him on his own terms; it gives us no theory of Geronimo, no insight.
Rather, "Geronimo: An American Legend" is a handsome but somewhat vapid chronicle of the endgame of the Geronimo campaigns, waged by elements of the 6th U.S. Cavalry across the wastes of Arizona and New Mexico in the three months that Geronimo ran free after jumping a reservation in 1886. In those months, he out-fought and outthought 5,000 professional soldiers with a platoon-sized unit (35 men, women and children).
Though the forceful and eloquent Wes Studi makes an impressive Geronimo, the movie is more concerned with a general, two lieutenants and a scout whose job it was to recapture him, or at least persuade him to surrender. Brig. General George Crook is played by Gene Hackman; the two lieutenants, Charles Gatewood and Britton Davis, by Jason Patric and Matt Damon; the scout, Al Sieber, by Robert Duvall. But this is no "Major Dundee" or "Ulzana's Raid," to name two virulently reactionary anti-Indian films of the past (both very good films, despite their savagery).
The surprise -- given that John Milius is co-writer and Walter Hill the director, and each has something of a reactionary reputation -- is that "Geronimo: An American Legend" fits into that western subset that might be called a "liberal" western, which tracks its lineage back through "Dances With Wolves" to "Little Big Man," "Broken Arrow" and "Drum Beat." Its values aren't savagery, revenge and skill at arms, but the repudiation of them and the redemption of forgiveness, respect and male bonding.
However admirable those values are, there's a subtle racism at play. The film is more interested in the impact of the ordeal on the white pursuers than on the red prey. It is in a sense conceived as a rite-of-passage melodrama, in which a naive young lieutenant (Damon) learns "the truth" about himself and the West. In the end, he claims too much of the filmmaker's attention at the expense of the darker-skinned but more authentic victims. It's "Cry Freedom" with six-guns.
The movie is swift to take up John Ford's themes in his great triptych of cavalry movies from the late '40s -- that the cavalry was the civilizing force in the West, the bastion of humane values between hate-filled Indians and racist whites. In this light General Crook is viewed as almost a saintly figure, and Hackman does well to bring out the character's benevolence.
But the fulcrum of the story is Patric's Gatewood. Himself an outsider -- a Virginian in the Union cavalry 20 years after the Civil War -- Gatewood might be described in modern terms as the ideal Green Beret: he speaks the indigenous language, is comfortable among the indigenous people, works well alone and has the guts of a burglar. The actor is restrained and convincing, particularly as viewed uncritically through the prism of the point-of-view character, the young lieutenant Davis. But, sadly, Patric lacks dynamism; he's genteel, not a font of energy, and he doesn't drive the film forward.
Thus, it's the more irresponsible characters who are the more interesting. Duvall's unregenerate Indian killer Al Sieber pretty much steals the show from all the earnest liberals, though the movie creates a fate for him that's patently false. The real Al Sieber, who was wounded 29 times, not 18 as the film has it, died at 63 in 1907. But Duvall, perhaps drawing on themes he worked in "Lonesome Dove," really gives the whole package: a sinewy, tough, smart and (almost) indestructible old goat.