Walter Hill & John Milius made a western!

As gorgeous as it is melancholy, Walter Hill’s Geronimo is an odd bird. Far more effective than his own Wild Bill, (a western made around the same point in his career as this film) Geronimo is a potent film that’s none the less a challenging watch. Hill ranks among my very favorite directors of all time. While not successful every time at bat, few and far between are other directors who’ve had their hand in so many all-time classics, and his name attached makes a film an instant watch. The 1990s simply weren’t as fertile for Hill as the 70s and 80s were, with duds like the aforementioned Wild Bill (perhaps the only Hill film I’ve seen that I outright dislike) and titles I quite enjoy like Trespass and Last Man Standing, which while fun, aren’t the cultural touchstones that many of his early works remain.

Geronimo comes at an interesting time in Hill’s career. Still getting budgets and wide-releasing films in theaters across the country, there’s a sweeping feel here. Gorgeous and classical western vistas are lavished upon the viewer throughout Geronimo. One absolutely comes to understand the holy nature of the southwest lands upon which Geronimo rode and raided, defying the relentless waves of “White Eye”. While at the same time, one understands that this American legend played out on the fringes and largely in places of isolation, a fact which does not elude Geronimo and his people: Why does the white eye need ALL of this land?

Probably the most distinguished Native American actor of my lifetime, Wes Studi is the highlight here among a remarkable cast playing the titular role. Then you’ve got Jason Patrick as Lt. Gatewood, a career military man who conducts his work with a quiet respect for the Apache. Gene Hackman plays General Crook, who’s tasked with subduing the Apache and bringing in Geronimo (but who also has at least a passing respect for his longtime rivals). Robert Duvall’s Al Sieber is a colorful bigot who hunts Natives for a living, and Matt Damon’s youthful Lt. Davis is our narrator and guide into this story, being trained by Lt. Gatewood and clearly sympathizing with Geronimo and his warriors.

At first I was quite troubled by how many of our lead (white) characters all come across as somewhat noble and sympathetic. The last thing I needed was some kind of story that reframed the tragic destruction of the Native American way of life as somehow nobly stewarded along by some nice white men. And I must admit there’s so much nobility going on among these men of action here in John Milius’ (!) screenplay that it’s just a bit much. Fortunately, Milius and Larry Gross’ script has more going on. In the end, it seems that the American Legend in question has more to do with the systems that grind on and crush the individuals who dare to try and shift it or oppose it. The sheer number of white people pressing into the west is something Geronimo and his men cannot comprehend. Their desire is to fight to the death to preserve their way of life… but eventually they come to understand that there’s simply no end to the sheer number of the invaders. Our white eyes also understand this in such a way that allows them to attempt to reason with Geronimo and bring him into captivity without having to wipe out his people.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s no question that Geronimo is a tragedy that is epic in scope. It’s just explored through the eyes of a cast of characters who are almost trapped by the grander narrative and can’t possibly shift the course of history, despite their varying levels of righteousness. It’s Geronimo’s rage against the inevitable which is the film’s heartbeat and greatest strength. But even that passion is extinguished as Geronimo himself comes to understand the inevitability of the white eye. In the end it’s a powerful story, but one which is hobbled somewhat by a lack of focus. With this incredible cast of actors, there’s never quite a lead who emerges among them. Studi, Patric, and Damon clearly round out the main characters, but it’s hard to get emotionally attached to most of them as the story bounces between them. They feel more symbolic than fleshed out. It may have benefitted from giving Studi’s Geronimo even more screen time and getting us inside his headspace and inside his dying culture just a little bit more.

Ultimately Hill and his writers and cast get across a vital and relevant idea: That while the west was won, and the land indeed beautiful beyond description… victory came at a price to all involved. The white American soul is forever tainted by the atrocities and dishonesty and terror inflicted upon the Native people in order to claim the land at any cost. And the Native culture forever altered. Those legendary individuals who fought, died, and rebelled against the onslaught of western civilization will largely be forgotten, ground down by the sheer size of the machine of which they were mere parts. It’s not a perfect film, but its tragedy is potent none the less.

The Package

Twilight Time has been doing the Lord’s work for years now and releasing many of the films from Walter Hill’s career on Blu-ray. This is absolutely thrilling and has resulted in an opportunity to revisit and write about a number of his fantastic films. While the revisit of Wild Bill recently confirmed my personal distaste for that particular film, this revisit of Geronimo was quite refreshing. This may not be one of Hill’s best films overall, but it’s certainly a largely forgotten gem at an interesting time in Hill’s career. The cast is A-list, the pairing of Hill and Milius is just flat out legendary, and the thematic potency is brave. This disc has no real bonus features to speak of, but it brings this film into a new era and gives it a gorgeous HD update.

And I’m Out.

Geronimo: An American Legend is now available in limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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