Hollywood's version of cowboys and Indians changes with the times WESTERN Evolution

January 05, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

What do Jay Silverheels, Chuck Conners, Adam West and Mike Mazurki have in common?

Let's try this one: What do Ronald Reagan, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and James Stewart have in common? You guessed, respectively, fallen one-time TV stars and conservative politics?

You are wrong.

The answers are: Geronimo and Wyatt Earp.

Each of the above, in works of magnificent tackiness (i.e., Mazurki as Geronimo on "F-Troop") or works of magnificent magnificence (Fonda as Earp in John Ford's classic "My Darling Clementine") has done service in the myth department.

And those myths still carry clout today: Geronimo and Wyatt Earp are yet again stalking American movie theaters in two recently released films -- "Geronimo: An American Legend" and "Tombstone" -- played this go-round by the Cherokee Indian Wes Studi and Disney's former "Circus Boy" Kurt Russell.

It's odd and surely more than coincidental that the two films are almost archetypes of the two principal typologies of Western films: one is an "Indian" movie and the other a "town" movie. The core value of each is the bedrock frontier faith that the West needs "civilizing": that it must be swept clear of American Indians and gun-packing riffraff to make room for "quality people." Manifest Destiny, in other words, at the point of a gun. Only recently has this assumption been questioned -- most notably in "Dances With Wolves" -- but neither of these films approach such apostasy.

In their current incarnations, though, the two figures -- demonic Geronimo and stately Earp -- differ considerably not only from the real thing, but from previous editions of each. In fact, one can track each character through his cinematic incarnations and resolve a vivid image of the state of American culture at the time.

Geronimo, alone among the American Indian antagonists of manifest destiny, has more usually been played by an authentic American Indian (such as Silverheels, who, although born "Harold J. Smith," was a Mohawk) than by an Italian in bronze shoe polish. It's as though Geronimo's ferocity was of such intensity that it intimidated the men who would stereotype him, even through the most casually racist of years in Hollywood.

A man worthy of myth

The authentic warrior was a piece of work, one of the few western myths who stand up to mythologizing.

Born Goyathlay in about 1829, of the Apache subtribe Chiracahua, he grew up in a state of war with the Mexicans, losing his wife and children to them. He had worse luck with his white masters, who insisted upon imposing a hopelessly inappropriate reservation system on a nomadic lifestyle.

Who would grow corn who had hunted free in the mountains? Thus, Geronimo (as the Mexicans called him) became a chronic reservation jumper in the 1880s, usually leading murder raids until caught or persuaded to surrender. No one doubts his courage and boldness, but filmmakers have differed in portraying his meaning.

Played by Silverheels, he was the hot-headed "bad Indian" to Jeff Chandler's good one (Cochise) in the moderately liberal "Broken Arrow" (1950), which eschewed extremists in either camp and counseled a middle ground for men of good will like Cochise and Jimmy Stewart's Tom Jeffords, the Indian agent.

In both "Major Dundee" (1965) and "Ulzana's Raid" (1972), which present fictitious accounts clearly inspired by Geronimo's exploits, he's portrayed as a remorseless savage. Both movies adhere to the right of white soldiers to hunt and destroy him; both, shorn of either subtlety or self-doubt, are terrific if one-sided westerns by reactionary directors: Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich.

The Aldrich film, in particular, captures some of the horror of the conflict: the routine presence of atrocity, the desperate sense of cat-and-mouse between contending opponents, the curious presence of "Indian scouts" from an ethnically opposed Apache subtribe helping the soldiers.

Both films were taken as a metaphorical version of events unspooling at the time in Vietnam.

Evidently "Geronimo: An American Legend" was initially conceived as a monument to his warrior spirit and a kind of antidote to the Native-Americans-as-eco-hippies line pushed in Kevin Costner's gratingly PC "Dances With Wolves." Published reports have indicated that in John Milius' early version of the screenplay, Geronimo hung white children on meat hooks.

But in the final version, PC has returned with a vengeance: the only sign of atrocity is a scene where the Indian shoots a group of miners, leaving alive only the one who "stood up to him." "You are a fool," says Studi's Mr. G., "but you are a brave fool."

That's a pretty romantic conceit for such a ruthless campaign; the movie itself offers a temperate, restrained, victimized Geronimo.

Artistic myth

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