Walter Hill is a director whose films are almost always to some some extent Westerns, even The Warriors and 48 Hours., often with noir tropes. In the early 90s, he made two films about real people in the West: Wild Bill and this film, Geronimo: An American Legend. Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven and Last of the Mohicans revitalised the prospect for Westerns, two of them by centring the narrative on Native characters. Tombstone came out around the same time, creating an environment where someone like Hill could get a project like this finally made (it had been in development for a long time). These should have been his masterpieces, but while they are good, neither quite reached the level hoped for.
The first screenwriter on the project was John Milius, who is probably best known today for being the basis for Walter in The Big Lebowski, which is bizarre. Milius is one of the great screenwriters, having written Jeremiah Johnson, Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian, the Indianapolis speech in Jaws, the original script for Apocalypse Now, and much more. He was a great writer, but a complicated man. A self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist,” he nevertheless aligned himself with the conservative wing of Hollywood. He has written a lot of historical scripts that have never been produced, the kind of old-fashioned movies that don’t get made anymore, and was a big influence on and friends with Hill. Milius’s script isn’t quite what reached the screen, as a long-time Hill collaborator Larry Gross was brought in, presumably to turn Milius’s epic script into something that could actually be made.
The focus of the story is the period where the Apaches have lost the war and are going to be forced to settle on a reservation. It covers the conflicts between Geronimo and the military as U.S. government troops are forcing them onto the reservation, and the events that lead up to his eventual surrender. It’s a complicated film, as neither side is necessarily seen in the best light. This probably reflects the conflict between what Milius wrote and what attracted Hill to the project. While similar, they have some serious differences. The story is mostly told through two of the white soldiers, played by Matt Damon and Jason Patric—very common for Hollywood to take that direction—but it is respectful to Native Americans. Wes Studi, one of the best Native American actors ever, plays Geronimo. He really gets into the complex nature of Geronimo as a leader, and has the right stature to bring to the role. I think Hostiles is a better movie with a similar story, but this one is definitely worth seeing. Robert Duvall plays the chief scout who goes after Geronimo when he’s on the run, and Gene Hackman appears as General George Crook, who was in charge of the forced relocation.
Geronimo: An American Legend tries to be a fairly nuanced movie on the subject, which is only right because it’s a complicated story. The film’s subtitle “An American Legend” suggests it’s part legend and the film undoubtably is , but that’s what films do. In the end it’s a well-made film, with a good cast, good cinematography and a good-quality director. As usual with Hill’s movies, it has a score by Ry Cooder.
This new package combines an HD remaster of the film with auto commentary from Western experts Henry Parke and Courtney Joyner; a 24-minute Zoom interview, The Old Days Are Gone, that finds Hill looking back on the production; an appreciation of the film by critic Bertrand Tavernier; a featurette with Kim Newman looking at film portrayals of Geronimo over the years; a 12-minute conversation with Studi about his lead role; an interview with Cooder on creating the soundtrack; an early silent, Geronimo’s Last Raid; original trailer, stills gallery, and a 40-page limited-edition booklet with new and old writing on the film.