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The Right Geronimo? : Native Americans call Walter Hill's 'Geronimo' the most honest look yet at the feared Apache leader, but the director is not so sure

December 05, 1993|JACK MATHEWS | Jack Mathews is the film critic of Newsday

Geronimo, the legendary Chiricahua Apache leader whose name is on the tip of the tongue of every schoolboy about to try something daring, died on a reservation in Oklahoma in 1909. "Geronimo," the movie that director Walter Hill hoped would help set the record straight about the man behind the legend, died four years ago in Hollywood.

Or so it seemed.

"We had a really good script, but I couldn't make any headway with it," said Hill, whose association with the "Alien" and "48 HRS." franchises makes him one of the industry's most powerful producer/director combinations. "Finally, it went into development hell and stayed there for about three years."

Development hell is really Hollywood's purgatory, the place where rejected film projects go to be forgotten. But to Hill's great surprise, "Geronimo" was rescued and brought back to life . . . by colleagues Kevin Costner, Michael Mann and Clint Eastwood.

"There is no question about it, we're getting this movie made thanks to the success of 'Dances With Wolves,' 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Unforgiven,' " Hill said, during the shooting of "Geronimo" this summer. "All of these Westerns are riding the backs of those. Thank God."

"Geronimo: An American Legend," which opens nationally Friday, is the first of half a dozen films in the current, post-"Wolves" Western revival. Coming at Christmas is George Cosmatos' "Tombstone," which stars Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, the real-life lawman previously portrayed by such stars as Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Burt Lancaster and James Stewart. Next summer, Costner will add his name to the list as the star of Lawrence Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp."

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Other Westerns heading our way: Richard Donner's "Maverick," with Mel Gibson as the cardsharp hero made famous in the '60s TV series; Jonathan Kaplan's "Bad Girls," a sort of "Thelma & Louise" on the range; Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead," about a woman (Sharon Stone) seeking vengeance against her family's assassins, and Simon Wincer's "Lightning Jack," a comedy about an Australian (Paul Hogan) adrift in the American West.

Not all of these movies will offer revisionist looks at the Old West, or even of Hollywood's vision of the Old West. Talk to the filmmakers and they say they're following the traditional, epic style of John Ford, where a fact is never allowed to tarnish a legend.

But both Earp movies are downplaying the lawman's fabled gunplay and concentrating instead on the man and his love life, and how many traditional Westerns do you recall whose central figures were tough, independent women?

Hill, whose 1980 Jesse James saga "The Long Riders" was definitely in the John Ford tradition, is quick to say that "Geronimo" is intended as mainstream entertainment, and that it is not historically accurate in every detail. But Native Americans involved in the project say he is attempting the most honest look yet at their most feared fighter.

"We're telling the story of Geronimo the fighting man," said Wes Studi, the Cherokee actor playing Geronimo. "We're not putting him on a pedestal and saying he never did anything wrong. He was brutal, he did kill women and children. But he was reacting to the way his people were being treated by the U.S. government. He was a stubborn man trying to preserve a way of life."

"People will come away from the movie with some understanding of what happened to Indians at that time," said Sonny Skyhawk, one of the film's Native American consultants. "Is the film historically accurate? No, but it provides an accurate glimpse of what he went through."

"Geronimo" is a Western without conventional heroes and villains, said Hill. Though events covering several years are condensed into one, a series of violent conflicts and betrayals leading up to Geronimo's final surrender, the film attempts to show how the inevitable western migration of European descendants led to a form of cultural genocide, and to the loss of hundreds of innocent lives on both sides.

Dramatically, "Geronimo" follows the attempts by two sympathetic Army officers (Gene Hackman and Jason Patric) to track down Geronimo's elusive band and save them--if you consider reservation life being saved--from certain annihilation.

"It's like 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,' " said Hill. "These characters are real, but certainly we're allowing legend to serve the truth. If I was doing this as a PBS documentary, I would do it a lot differently."

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Hill credits "Dances With Wolves" for making it possible to do "Geronimo" with any credibility at all. When he was shopping the script around five years ago, he couldn't get past the argument from studio executives that he should cast a major action star in the title role.

"The first thing I heard was, 'Why can't we have X or Y Caucasian put on makeup and play Geronimo? If you do that, we'll make the movie.' I said, 'You can't do that.' They wouldn't think of having a Caucasian actor play a black leader. The implications are just staggering."

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