Geronimo: An American Legend
Produced by Walter Hill, Neil Canton, and Columbia Pictures
Directed by Walter Hill
Photography by Lloyd Ahem
Screenplay by John Milius and Larry Gross
If you are a lover of film but have never seen Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), you are missing not only one of the best Westerns ever made but a truly great film that deserves more recognition than it has received. The screenplay, casting, directing, cinematography, and score are excellent, and the film skillfully explores a morally complex issue without the melodrama, simplifications, and indignant moralism that we have come to expect from most Hollywood productions. It does this by adopting the device of multiple points of view. (I counted seven.) Two of these points of view—those of Geronimo and the Southern American officer who won his trust and talked him into finally surrendering—had a particular and powerful meaning for me.
The Chiricahua Apache, led by the warrior Goyathlay (Geronimo), was the last Indian tribe to resist the reservation policy imposed upon them by the U.S. government. From roughly 1881 to 1886, they waged a hit-and-run war of attrition with the U.S. Army across the American Southwest. The fighting ranged across desert, canyon, and mountains in the Arizona and New Mexico territories and even portions of northern Mexico. It ended only when Geronimo, reduced to a force of only 20 or so effective warriors, finally surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona Territory, in September 1886.
Walter Hill’s film tells the story of the last years of this war from the point of view of Geronimo (played by Wes Studi), two other Apaches, and the white cavalry officers who were pitted against him. The latter include Gen. George Crook (Gene Hackman), or Nantan Lupan as he was known to the Indians, who took command of the Arizona department in 1882. Crook adopted novel and effective tactics against the elusive and refractory Apache, including the use of large numbers of Apache scouts. He also thought that it was good policy to treat the tribes with magnanimity, sympathy, and honesty. Two of his protégés—First Lt. Charles D. Gatewood (Jason Patric) and Second Lt. Britton Davis (Matt Damon)—held similar points of view. Al Seiber (Robert Duvall), the veteran scout and Indian fighter who served with Crook, provides the perspective of a tough frontiersman. Two other Indian points of view are provided by Mangus, an Apache scout serving with the American army, and an Apache chief who argues that peace is the only hope for his people.
The film does not evade the moral issue of who was in the right in the Indian wars. Was it the Indians who resisted white encroachment on their lands, or the Americans who moved west regardless of whether they were invited or welcomed? Contrary to the pretensions of both Hollywood and the universities, the question does not admit of an easy answer. The prevailing assumption in our culture today is that the Indians were justified in waging war in defense of their lands and their way of life. This assumption is based on a superficial understanding of the history of the Indian wars and on a moral argument that, if consistently applied, would make the politically correct mandarins of culture and state recoil. However, in the very act of recoiling, they would be revealing an inconsistency and double standard that proves not only their moral and intellectual bankruptcy but the real passion that motivates them: a deep and abiding hatred of Western Christendom and the European peoples who created and sustained that civilization for almost two millennia.
Those who reflexively defend Indian warfare must also defend the offensive character of that warfare, its methods, and the right of other peoples to take up arms in similar situations. Indian warfare, in the broadest sense, was defensive: The Indians fought to defend their exclusive possession of the land and their primitive way of life, both of which were threatened by white immigration. But the war waged by the Apache was also offensive: They attacked white pioneers and settlers on their farms, ranches, and homesteads. Their victims were not warriors or conquerors but peaceful settlers seeking land on which to build, farm, and raise a family. Finally, Indian warfare, whether practiced by the eastern tribes in the 17th century or the western tribes in the 19th, was always genocidal: Indian warriors tortured and killed prisoners and massacred women and children. The moral issue is clear: Either the Indians’ possession of the land and their right to maintain their way of life (which required that the lands of North America be kept forever in a natural wilderness state) justified offensive and genocidal warfare, or it did not. If it did, then don’t Europeans have the right to wage the same kind of warfare against the millions who are seeking homes and jobs in their lands and whose ever-increasing numbers and alien cultures threaten to destroy the Western way of life forever? If it did not, then shouldn’t the Indians be denounced for violently resisting the tide of peaceful white settlement? The Christian alternative (the position of Lieutenant Gatewood) was that the right of war in self-defense does not justify genocidal methods.
Hill’s film does not ignore this important question of the morality or immorality of Indian resistance, as well as its methods. Geronimo himself has no doubt that he is fighting the good war in the right way. In his eyes, he and his warriors are justified in killing every white person, male or female, and every Mexican who dares to encroach upon Apache land. His reasoning? The Apaches have an exclusive right to their land; they should not have to change their ways to accommodate the whites; and the only way to stop them is to kill them all. In one scene, Geronimo’s warriors round up a group of white miners for execution. Geronimo shouts at the doomed prisoners: “This is Apache land! This has always been Apache land!” One miner begins to weep and to plead for his life: “It ain’t right—we never did anythin’ to you.” Another pushes him aside contemptuously and tells him to “quit crying; he’s gonna kill you anyway.” He then defiantly rebukes Geronimo: “We make things out of this country. There was nothin’ here before us, and there would never be nothin’ if we left it to you!” The Indians at once enfilade the entire group, except for the defiant miner, to whom Geronimo replies: “You are a fool! But at least you are brave. Get off Apache land! The next time, I will kill you.” John Milius has cleverly used this lone miner to summarize the Europeans’ argument tor their right to dispossess the Indians: The Indians’ refusal, or inability, to cultivate and develop the land forfeited any right they once might have had to exclusive possession. In other words, cultivation, cities, and civilization have a higher and better claim to the land than primitive barbarism does, regardless of who got there first.
Two of the Americans actually concede that the Indians have a right to defend their lands with violence, although they do not condone the massacre of their civilian countrymen. One is the veteran scout and Indian fighter Al Seiber, who tells his friend General Crook:
I’ve fought ’em a long time. General. And I figure if I was one of ’em, I’d be standin’ right next to Geronimo, shootin at the bluecoats. But God made me who I am, and between them or us . . . I figure it’s us.
Seiber seems to recognize that neither side can claim a monopoly on virtue or justice, but he is still going to stand by his people and fight the Indians for the land. He is loyal to race and kin, a rare virtue among his 21st-century descendants. Of course, Seiber’s loyalty does not mean that he will take part in—or even countenance—atrocities just because they are committed by his own people or because the victims happen to be Indian. Seiber is a deeply moral as well as brave man, and he lives by a code of honor. In one scene, Seiber, Mangus, and Lieutenants Gatewood and Davis come across a burning Indian village whose inhabitants, mostly women and children, have been brutally massacred and scalped by white bounty hunters. In disgust, Seiber observes that the perpetrators must have been Texans, “the lowest form of white man there is.” Seiber and the others track the murderers to a Mexican village, where they gun them down. Seiber is proved right: They are Texans.
The other character who expresses sympathy for Geronimo’s determination to fight to the end is Lt. Charles B. Gatewood. (Gatewood is a Virginian who possesses the virtues of the aristocratic South: honor, probity chivalrous bearing, and “unfailing good manners.” The screenplay leaves no doubt that Gatewood’s Southern upbringing and history help him develop a relationship of trust, respect, and friendship with Geronimo. Seiber believes that Gatewood lacks sufficient animosity toward the Indians. (Seiber may understand why they are fighting, but he still hates them as the enemy.) He even rebukes Gatewood while on the trail of the hostiles: “You’re a real sad case, Lieutenant. You don’t love who you’re fightin’ for, and you don’t hate who you’re fightin’ against!” Gatewood, always the gentleman, replies, “Perhaps I could learn to hate with the proper rigor from you, Al.” He later explains to Britton Davis why he cannot hate Geronimo and why, even though they are foes, he still considers him a friend.
He’s a warrior. Every bit born in battle. Fightin’ a lost cause. I’m familiar with the type. My two older brothers and my father fought for the Army of Northern Virginia. My oldest brother was killed. My father was wounded, crippled. After the war, he took me aside and said, “You’ll carry the new flag.” Sent me off to the Academy. First of my family north of the Mason-Dixon line. So like my friend, I know what it’s like to hate the bluecoat.
Of course, Gatewood is as angered as Seiber by the sight of an Indian massacre. When he and Lieutenant Davis come across an abandoned stagecoach, they stop for a moment and view the scene from a distance. From Gatewood’s tight facial expression, you realize that he knows that the passengers have been murdered by the Apache. After riding up and finding three dead in the coach, a disgusted Davis remarks to Gatewood: “They didn’t have to kill them to get their horses.” Gatewood, his fury carefully controlled, laconically but bitterly responds, “No, they didn’t.”
Gatewood is not the only Southerner sympathetically portrayed in the movie. While searehing for Geronimo south of the border, Gatewood comes across a Southern expatriate living in a small Mexican village on the edge of the mountains. The expatriate has information on Geronimo’s whereabouts, which he is willing to reveal for some gold eagles. He tells Gatewood, whom he recognizes as a fellow Southerner, his story:
Been down here almost 20 years. Was in the war. Confederate officer. After the hostilities ended, I went to Texas, got into a little scrape with the law. Came down here, got a new name, new start, wife, family; but in my heart, I’m still a Tennessee man.
Like the Apache, Southerners are a noble but defeated people who must find a place in the new order. Gatewood chooses to serve the new flag, while refusing to abandon his integrity or culture; the Tennessean chooses exile. The Apaches are forced to make the same choice. In refusing to do so, they end up in exile anyway.
The Geronimo campaign ends with two incidents, one marked by nobility and pathos, the other by betrayal and perfidy. In the first, Gatewood, after months of searching, locates Geronimo and his remaining band of warriors in a mountain redoubt in the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico. There, he persuades the warrior that the war is over and that there is no point in further resistance, for the Apache are too few. Geronimo agrees to surrender, even though it means a minimum of two years of exile in Florida. In the second scene. Gen. Nelson Miles, who succeeds Crook, orders the Chiricahua scouts who had so faithfully served the Army arrested, disarmed, and put on a train to Florida, where they share the fate of their Apache brethren whom they had fought. Lieutenant Davis goes to see General Miles to protest: “Sir, I thought the U.S. Army kept its word. What’s going on out there is a disgrace.” Miles responds in the spirit of 186S: “Lieutenant, you are more worried about keeping your word to a savage than you are fulfilling your duties to the citizens of this country. We won. That’s what matters. It’s over, Lieutenant.” In other words, might makes right. In the wake of Appomattox, this has become the new American creed, even though it is often dressed up in moralistic garb.
The film ends as a train, a symbol of the new order, transports the Apache to prison in Florida. One of Geronimo’s lieutenants denounces Mangus (the Apache scout) for helping the White-Eye. Geronimo responds in a speech full of pathos and resignation:
There are so few of us left. We should not hate each other. No one knows why the One God let the White-Eye take our land. Why did there have to be so many of them? Why did they have so many guns, so many horses? For many years, the One God made me a warrior. No guns, no bullets, could ever kill me. That was my power. Now my time is over. Now, maybe, the time of our people is over.
As I watched this scene, I had an unsettling premonition: If present demographic trends continue much longer, the European peoples on two continents may wake up one day to find themselves a small remnant in a land that no longer belongs to them. We, too, may find ourselves on a journey of exile. Unless measures are taken soon to stop the influx of non-Western peoples into our lands, the time of our people may soon be over.
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