In stories both intimate and grand, the big-screen Western was enjoying a resurgence in the early 1990s. Close on the heels of the Academy Award®-winning box-office triumphs Dances with Wolves (1990), The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Unforgiven (1992), moviegoers that year had already encountered the lower-key but ambitious projects of the black-powered Posse, directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles, and the female-centric The Ballad of Little Jo, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. The holiday season would bring the double-barreled excitement of two bold frontier-set ventures that promised fresh takes on towering figures of Western lore: Tombstone, director George P. Cosmatos’s wily, all-star reinvention of the Gunfight at the OK Corral and the bloody aftermath of that Earp-Clanton clans confrontation, and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), an ambitious depiction of the fabled Apache warrior’s defiant last stand against U.S. Cavalry forces that marked the formidable intersection of director Walter Hill and screenwriter John Milius (collaborating with Larry Gross) and which PBS-TV's Patrick Stoner found to be “a dynamite film with great acting and great action” that “has the grit of Unforgiven and the glory of Dances with Wolves.” In the sure hands of Geronimo: An American Legend’s creators, the grit and glory – as well as common threads of broken promises, harsh brutality and hard-won adversarial respect – were shared by both sides in the years-long “Indian removal” conflict depicted in this “film of great beauty and considerable intelligence” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). Thus, in this revisionist blend of actual events and well-considered inventions depicting real people, the filmmakers attempted, in the spirit of Geronimo’s “Never surrender” mantra, to portray a valiant cross-cultural interpretation of a tragic transitional time in American history.
The performances of a quite remarkable cast – the powerful Wes Studi (from Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans) as the title character, Gene Hackman (from Unforgiven) as General George Crook, Robert Duvall as Chief of Cavalry Scout Al Sieber, Jason Patric as the sympathetic Native American advocate Lt. Charles Gatewood, Matt Damon as the green rookie Lt. Britton Davis and Rodney A. Grant (another Dances with Wolves alumnus) as Mangas – all contribute to the mosaic of this gripping period recreation. Per NothingIsWrittenFilm essayist blogger Groggy Dundee: “Apache holdout Geronimo (Studi) reluctantly surrenders to General George Crook (Hackman), who promises the Apache will be fairly treated on a reservation. However, things go awry when the government tries to suppress a subversive medicine man, leading to a new outbreak of violence. Despite Crook's efforts to maintain the peace, Geronimo goes on the warpath with a small band, wreaking havoc across the Southwest and fleeing into Mexico. Crook is sacked, and his replacement, Nelson Miles (Kevin Tighe), commissions Lt. Gatewood (Patric), a friend of Geronimo, shavetail Lt. Davis (Damon) and grizzled scout Al Sieber (Duvall) to go into Mexico and bring Geronimo in peaceably. Most revisionist Westerns go overboard in “correcting” previous portrayals of the Indian Wars, but Geronimo: An American Legend is admirably even-handed, helped by its complex characterizations. Gatewood and Crook are decent men who genuinely believe in helping the Apache, and each reacts to Geronimo's intransigence according to his character: the idealist Gatewood grows disgusted with government policy, while career-soldier Crook blames Geronimo for breaking his word. Geronimo himself is a bit too noble compared to the historical figure, but the film doesn't gloss over his grisly crimes against white civilians. Compared to the Nazi-like cavalry and noble Indians of other revisionist films (see Soldier Blue), Geronimo: An American Legend has the ring of authenticity. This balanced portrayal of complex events makes the ending all the more powerful. The movie has the look and feel of a Ford or Peckinpah Western, with lots of brilliantly staged shootouts and battle scenes (remarkably graphic for a PG-13 film). Its Utah locations are eerily beautiful, and the film [shot in Panavision by Lloyd Ahern, who would go to collaborate with Hill on Wild Bill (1995, a Twilight Time title), Last Man Standing (1996) and Broken Trail (2006)] has an engrossing, epic scope and feel.” With its stirring Ry Cooder score on an Isolated Music Track, Geronimo: An American Legend premieres on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray May 22. Preorders open May 9.