(Walter Hill, USA, 1993)


In the ’90s, the Western genre became the vehicle for filmmakers unfairly caricatured as mere action directors to make sombre art movies. Eastwood blazed the trail with Unforgiven (1992) and Walter Hill followed with Geronimo.

This is a remarkably lucid and intelligent account of the historic massacre of the American Indian, putting political factors far above personal vagaries.

Hill’s darkly ironic, quietly moving presentation of these issues is narrated though a young rookie, Davis (Matt Damon), assigned to the “Geronimo Campaign”. His mentor is Gatewood (Jason Patric), a man who has a complex understanding of Apache ways and a deep regard for his prey, Geronimo (Wes Studi).

Geronimo presents a far less sentimental and romanticised portrait of the American Indian than Dances with Wolves (1990), where “good” Apaches neither shot guns nor exhibited base bodily functions. This film offers a different sort of fantasy projection, largely courtesy of its “rebel conservative” co-scriptwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now [1979], Red Dawn [1984]) – although it is rumoured he was far from happy with the finished result.

In this vision, the Indians are hard-boiled, laconic warriors, forming a secret brotherhood with their white counterparts such as the rogue-ish soldier Al (beautifully played by Robert Duvall). Women are virtually entirely banished from this sacred circle of brave men. The true enemy is not the person whom one fights and even kills on the battlefield, but the wimpy bureaucrat who stands above the fray issuing insensitive orders that bring tragic consequences.

However questionable this picture of events may be, it certainly allows some wonderful moments that are brought superbly to life by Hill. My favourite comes when Geronimo takes aim from a vast distance and shoots an opponent’s drinking flask. “Great shot”, remarks Gatewood. “Not so great”, replies Geronimo. “I aimed for his head.”

MORE Hill: Extreme Prejudice, Red Heat, Trespass

© Adrian Martin September 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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