There's a lot wrong with Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend. For a start, there's far too little of the magnificent Wes Studi and far too much of the unconvincingly one-note (and an off-key note at that) Jason Patric and a milquetoast Matt Damon when we want to spend more time with Geronimo. As John Milius said, "I wrote a script about a mighty warrior chief. They made a film about a ***king white male model." Not to mention film critic Larry Gross' rewrite is overly partial to other movies, particularly The Magnificent Seven and Alan Sharp's script for Ulzana's Raid. And, like all historical manhunt movies, it winds down as attrition wins over courage. Yet despite its flaws it's still one of the most impressive American Westerns of the past few decades.
Geronimo may be sidelined for much of the picture, but when Wes Studi is allowed centerstage, he burns with the intensity of a supernova in a performance at once ferocious yet controlled, giving a sense not just of the rage and calculated violence but of the sadness that drives it. He's a proud man, but also a constantly disappointed one. When he's on screen, everyone else might as well not be there. When he isn't, Gene Hackman's General Crook and Robert Duvall's tracker Al Sieber provide enough believable old-school professionalism to compensate for Patric and Damon.
Then there's the film's extraordinary visual sense. Unlike most modern films (including Hill's own subsequent Western, Wild Bill) it really embraces the landscape and isn't afraid of strikingly composed extreme long shots to give a real sense of scale to the picture. Ry Cooder's score, a mixture of sparse and plaintiff Native American airs and lightly ragged American hymnals, is another major feather in its cap: on paper it sounds like cliché, but put to picture it's absolutely right.
It's perhaps easy to see why it flopped: it's a tragic story without any winners, only losers and the action scenes are often more brutal lightening strikes than enjoyable action setpieces. But it's certainly a film well worth rediscovering even if it's better seen on the big screen than the small one.
Unlike their panned-and-scanned region 1 NTSC release, Columbia's DVD has a decent 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with a trailer the only extra.