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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Geronimo (TV movie, TNT, 1993)

A valuable corrective

In 1993, two movies were made about Geronimo. Columbia's Geronimo: An American Legend was directed by the excellent Walter Hill and starred Wes Studi as the Apache chief and Robert Duvall as Al Sieber. Click the link for a review. The other, a TV movie made by Turner and aired on TNT in ’93, I watched last night and can tell you about now, if you haven’t seen it.

It’s surprisingly good, in fact. Oh, don’t get me wrong: it’s not a great Western or a leader in the genre. But it is done from the Indians’ point of view, which is refreshing, Native American actors are used largely and there is a ring of authenticity to it. Compared with much of the sugary pap that passed for Western movies on fin de siècle and noughties TV, Hallmark stuff and so on, it has quality. It’s not HBO or Lonesome Dove, we’re not in that league, but it’s not bad.
Worth a look
Geronimo stories tend to be shown from the white point of view. They are usually about how brave yet sympathetic white scouts or (US) Army officers bring about his surrender. So it’s refreshing to have one which tells the tale from the Apache perspective, and includes the famous chief’s youth and old age. Of course that doesn’t mean that it’s correct in every detail or even necessarily broadly true to the spirit of the man and his people. Geronimo seems, certainly in old age anyway, to have been a rather poisonous old man whose word was unreliable and who was disliked by many of his own as well as by Mexicans and Anglos who had suffered at his hands. Inevitably, this Geronimo, played mostly by Joseph Runningfox, a Pueblo, with Jimmy Herman, a Canadian of Indian descent, excellent as the older man and Ryan Black, another Canadian, of Anishanabe (Ojibwe) ancestry, playing the youth, is a bold hero with no failings. But maybe that’s fair enough as a valuable corrective.
Goyaałé, known as Geronimo, 1829 - 1909

In the movie Geronimo is called by his usual Apache name of Goyaałé, ‘He Who Yawns’, though he is not shown yawning. This may anyway have been a mistranslation or misapprehension. ‘Geronimo’ was of course the name the hated Mexicans gave him, either by the soldiers calling on St Jerome to help them combat the warrior or simply as their mispronunciation of his name.

There are weaknesses. Geronimo is shown as a strategic general, disposing ‘his’ troops and giving commands as to when and where to attack. Apache warfare was more individualistic than that and Geronimo seems to have had a more advisory role. The Indians are all very well washed and have Daz-white clothes, gleaming teeth and very clean hair. I also think that Geronimo’s role as a medicine man and prophesier is underplayed, to make him ‘only’ a warrior. I suppose they had to speak English, not Apache; subtitles might have put some viewers off. 

Joseph Running Fox as Goyaałé

A fine portrayal of Mangas Coloradas

Ray Geer as Teddy Roosevelt
But much is got right. Turner used knowledgeable consultants, “Native American advisor” Michael Darrow and “Historical and cultural advisors” Scott Rushforth, Berle Kanseah and Evelyn Brueninger. Also credited are leading members of various Apache tribes. I’m no expert but I suspect that the costumes were authentic. The characters avoid using each other’s true names, employing that oblique terminology such as “the sister of the one who was your wife” and so on. This is convincing.
Schellenberg suitably august as Cochise
Noteworthy actors were August Schellenberg as Cochise, Brian Frejo as Geronimo’s nephew Daklugie and the person unnamed in the credits but very good, I thought, the one who played Mangas Coloradas. In his short part Ray Geer was also an impressive Theodore Roosevelt. The greatest honors go to Jimmy Herman for his portrayal of the great chief in the last year of his life.
Jimmy Herman superb as the older Geronimo
A pity there was no Tom Horn or Al Sieber but there we are!

Worth a look for anyone interested in the history of the Apaches and the life of Geronimo – indeed, I would say essential viewing.

That's a rather comprehensive disclaimer!
Geronimo dictating his autobiography to SM Barrett (left)
with Geronimo's nephew Daklugie interpreting


  1. Saw this back when it premiered. As is the case with many Frontier Partisans, we tend to get movies about ones whose names we recognize at the expense of sometimes more deserving figures. Geronimo was no hero. He was reviled by many of his own people, who blamed him for their troubles. I wish we could get a really good bio -pic on Cochise — or maybe a modern remake of Broken Arrow. THAT was a man among men.

    Jim Cornelius

    1. Yes, indeed. 'Hollywood' (a rather outdated concept, so let's say the movie industry) has definitely got better at portraying the Native American side of the story of the West (and Broken Arrow was a milestone along that road) but they still often show Indians in white terms, e.g. Apache 'big chiefs' disposing armies like white generals.
      Geronimo was certainly a poisonous old man disliked by many of his own people. At the same time he had reason to be bitter and though he was a word-breaker, the whites ranged against him elevated breaking their word into national policy!

  2. Just read the TNT Geronimo review. I agree with the take you have on Geronimo and it is interesting to compare him to say Black Kettle or Sitting Bull. He comes off I think as more a renegade even among his kinsman than those men. Even a leader like Buffalo Hump in the warrior culture of the Comanche seemed more a man of his people. We still seem to try to categorize Indian nations by the political classifications that feel familiar to us such as a single leader rather than leading by status and influence.

    Liked your Owen Wister post too. I took him on as the letter W in the A-Z challenge for April. I will have a copy of my novel sent to you and thanks

    1. Thanks for the comment and for suggesting sending your novel. I'm afraid I have decided I can't get on with e-books (odd maybe for a blogger but there we are!) so if you want to send an old-fashioned paper version you can e-mail me at westblogger@gmail.com and I'll let you have my postal address. I will be delighted to review it.
      Best wishes,

  3. Where did you find the Joseph Runningfox Version to watch. The only version I can find is in a foreign language.

    1. It came on TV here in France where I live.
      Don't know if it's available on DVD.
      Worth the search, though, even if it's not top-notch.