Hail to the Chief

Manifest Destiny. What a clever two-word rationalization for the indiscriminate slaughter of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples and the bald-faced theft of their land.

On September 5, 1886, Chiricahua Apache warlord Goyahkla, better known as Geronimo (a moniker bestowed upon him by the 3000 or so Mexican soldiers whose ranks he thinned after escaping from the U.S. Army five years earlier), surrendered for the second time to the U.S. Army at the Canyon of the Skeletons in Arizona. In addition to eluding the Mexican troops during those five years, Geronimo and his band of 34 starving Apaches (including several women and children) had dodged the U.S. Cavalry, which had deployed over 5000 regular troops -- one-quarter of its entire manpower -- to bring in the defiant leader. Even so, no army ever captured him. His voluntary surrender marked the end of the Native Americans' last stand in the face of the insatiable white Euro-hordes. Old Goyahkla didn't see eye-to-eye with that Manifest Destiny thing, but in the end even he acknowledged that the greed of the white man was an unbeatable opponent.

"Do with me what you please," he said at the time. "Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all."

Geronimo is director Walter Hill's workmanlike retelling of Goyahkla's extraordinary true-life tale. Hill, whose career began so promisingly with Hard Times, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, and 48 HRS. before derailing with Streets of Fire, Crossroads, Another 48 HRS., and Trespass, gets back on track with this episodic chronicle of the elusive warrior's life. Hill has obviously seen his share of John Ford westerns; Geronimo makes liberal use of the panoramic red sandstone vistas of the canyons surrounding Moab, Utah, where Ford shot Rio Grande and Cheyenne Autumn. And like Ford, Hill likes his heroes strong and silent.

Given the involvement of screenwriter John Milius, a man better known for his penchant for firing weapons on film sets than for his cinematic achievements, it is a minor miracle that director Hill resisted the urge to allow the film to degenerate into the my-gun's-bigger-than-your-gun school of action filmmaking favored by Milius. (Milius's biggest claim to fame has been the original screenplay for Apocalypse Now, although the final version of the film bears only superficial resemblance to Milius's blueprint. Since then he's gone on to show his true colors with sophomoric macho dreck like Big Wednesday, Red Dawn, and Flight of the Intruder.)

There's not much new or revelatory to be learned from Hill's and Milius's take on the legend. True to the latter's canon, the righteous warriors -- whether U.S. Army cavalrymen or Apache braves -- are the heroes. Women and children are merely the spoils of war, and the "white-eye" political leaders and their lackey generals break every promise they make. It's a pretty simplistic view of the Old West, but perhaps Geronimo's is one of those stories best told simply. And Hill can do simple.

Wes Studi, the best thing about The Last of the Mohicans, gets the call as the proud, defiant Apache leader and he more than does the role justice. With the recent surge of interest in westerns sparked by the success of Dances With Wolves, Studi is making a profitable mini-industry of noble savage roles. Studi's iron gaze would be the best thing about this film, too, were it not for the casting of flinty old Robert Duvall in the role of supreme Cavalry scout Al Siebert, a luckless polecat who has been following Geronimo's trail since the end of the Civil War more than two decades before, and who survives seventeen gunshot or arrow wounds but never catches his quarry. Duvall's part is a small one, but that doesn't prevent him from stealing every scene he's in. The Siebert character is not central to the story, but audiences will be grateful for his inclusion in the film because the laconic scout provides all of what passes for comic relief in this otherwise relentlessly serious film. It's hard not to bust a gut when, after stumbling upon the gory aftermath of a massacre of peaceful Yaqui Indian women and children by ruthless bounty hunters, Duvall deadpans the memorable one-liner, "Must be Texans -- lowest form of white man there is."

December marks the return to the big screen after two-year absences of both Jason Patric, who plays Geronimo's sympathetic foil, U.S. Army Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, and of Patric's one-time lover and gossip-column star Julia Roberts (The Pelican Brief). Patric's is easily the more impressive acting job of the two. Matinee idol looks aside (it's hard to imagine a nineteenth-century cavalryman looking as fresh-faced and hunky as Patric does after years of chasing Geronimo through deserts and across mountains), the strapping young leading man is properly stoic and quietly magnetic throughout. His presence adds more to the goings-on than it takes away and he looks great on horseback.

The film is narrated by Matt Damon, who plays Gatewood's charge, Second Lieutenant Britton Davis. At one point, partly out of frustration and partly out of admiration, Davis admits, "At times it seemed we were chasing a spirit more than a man." It's a statement that could be expanded to fit Hill's and Milius's attempt to get to the essence of the Apache leader. They chase the spirit gamely enough, but they never quite succeed in bringing in the man.

 
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