By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: Friday, December 3, 1993
Once upon a time, tales of cowboys and Indians were anything but complicated. On one side there were hostile Indians, on the other, heroically pioneering white men, often in United States Army uniform, imposing "civilization" on the tribes. The whites wore the white hats, and that was that. Exalted notions of expansion and progress overwhelmed doubts, if any, about what today might be called ethnic cleansing.
No longer. The inroads of revisionists over the past decade or so now reach a new plateau in what Turner Broadcasting terms its "Native American initiative," a yearlong effort, the company says, to "present an educational and enlightening view of America's indigenous people, past, present and future." The multimedia project includes several movies, the first of which, "Geronimo," has its premiere on TNT Sunday. The Apache leader, his tribe and his family are portrayed exclusively by Indian actors. The story, a true one, is told from the point of view of their culture and historical records.
This is not, obviously, what used to be the Hollywood formula of Indians on the warpath, milked in cheap productions like the 1939 "Geronimo," which was simply a remake, with racial adjustments, of "Lives of a Bengal Lancer." For TNT, Geronimo is portrayed at three stages of his life. As an old man (Jimmy Herman), he is seen arriving in Washington in 1905 to march, for a fee, as a curiosity in a Fourth of July parade. In a hotel room, he tells his story in flashback to a nephew who has become an Army cadet.
Named Goyahkla, meaning "smart one," at his birth in 1829, young Geronimo (Ryan Black) gets his new name by leading a retaliatory attack on Mexican troops. Unprovoked, the troops have slaughtered and -- teaching the Indians something new -- scalped his wife, infant son and mother, among many others, in an unprotected village. The Apache raid took place on the feast day of St. Jerome. A grown-up, embittered Geronimo (Joseph Runningfox), based in Arizona and never trusting the duplicitous "bluecoats" carrying out a Government-approved policy of extermination, always argues strenuously that "if we are to live, all must die." The warrior's second wife is killed by American soldiers.
In short, if this Geronimo is obsessed with retribution, he has good reason. The overall portrait of the man and his people stresses their willingness to live in peace and indeed in an environmentally sound manner that is being fully appreciated only today. The stereotypes of the past are being made human. It's as if a Shakespeare appeared to ask, "Doth not an Indian bleed?"
In its eagerness to compensate for the past, however, this handsome and harrowing film can get trapped in its own distortions. These Indians are sometimes a touch too squeaky clean, on occasion looking and sounding like recent graduates from a tony prep school. And on the other side, it is now the villainous whites who are reduced to one-note stereotypes.
But the life of Geronimo, even in a somewhat sketchy profile, illuminates an undeniably fascinating chunk of the nation's history. Old Geronimo, in this telling, is adamant. "The fighting is over," he says, "but the struggle is not." In deciding to become part of that continuing struggle, Turner Broadcasting is showing unusual courage in a medium not particularly partial to that commodity.
Geronimo (1993) TV Movie
Cast: August Schellenberg, Joseph Runningfox, Michael Greyeyes, Michelle St John, Nick Ramus