Geronimo: An American Legend

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Geronimo: An American Legend
Geronimo film.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Walter Hill
Produced by Neil Canton
Walter Hill
Written by John Milius
Narrated by Matt Damon[1]
Music by Ry Cooder
Cinematography Lloyd Ahern
Edited by Donn Aron
Carmel Davies
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date
  • December 10, 1993 (1993-12-10)
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $35 million
Box office $18.6 million[2]

Geronimo: An American Legend is a 1993 film, directed by Walter Hill from a screenplay by John Milius, and stars Wes Studi, Jason Patric, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Matt Damon. It was released on December 10, 1993 by Columbia Pictures.


The film loosely follows the events leading up to the surrender of Geronimo in 1886. The Apache Indians have reluctantly agreed to settle on a U.S. government approved reservation. Not all the Apaches are able to adapt to the life of corn farmers, and one in particular, Geronimo (Wes Studi), is restless.

Pushed over the edge by broken promises and unnecessary actions by the government, Geronimo and 30 other warriors form an attack team which humiliates the government by evading capture, while reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. The plot centers upon Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric), the U.S. cavalry lieutenant charged with capturing the elusive Apache leader with the assistance of a scout leader Al Sieber (Robert Duvall) and a young graduate Britton Davis (Matt Damon).

Gatewood is torn by a grudging respect for Geronimo and his people, and his duty to his country. Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman), charged with overseeing the forced settlement of the Apaches on reservations has nothing but admiration for Geronimo.

Geronimo surrenders to Crook but later escapes, taking half of the reservation with him. Gatewood, Sieber, Davis and a group of soldiers set out to capture Geronimo. Crook later resigns from the army and is replaced by General Nelson Miles. The next day Gatewood Sieber Davis and Apache Chato come across some slaughtered Indians. then they stop at a bar but there are bounty hunters there and they threaten to kill Chato for money which results in a shootout in which Sieber is shot and mortally wounded.

Gatewood, Davis and Chato carry on to capture Geronimo. Geronimo makes peace with Gatewood and surrenders along with the other Apache to General Miles. Gatewood is transferred to a remote garrison in North Wyoming while Davis resigns from the army and Chato is shipped off to Florida with the rest of the renegades.




Walter Hill had a development deal at Carolco. They approached him wanting to make a Western that focused on an Indian and Hill was enthusiastic. He initially considering doing a movie on Crazy Horse "but for various reasons I thought it was a little too difficult."[6] Eventually Geronimo was selected. ""I've been reading the history of the West for my entire life," Hill says, "and I felt the Geronimo story had never really been told."[7]

John Milius was hired to write a draft. He was working on it in 1989.[8]

"I like Geronimo just as he was, a human predator," said Milius.[9]

"Geronimo was a man who saw the history of his people wiped out," added Milius. "I love the Apaches and Geronimo was the ultimate Apache. But Geronimo was more than an Apache he was the essence of a misfit rebel and he would never give up. He was a troublemaker and I understand that. Even among his own people he was a trouble maker."[10]

Hill said the title of the film should have been The Geronimo War. "The conception was you make the film from the last time he came in and broke off and was sent away," he said. "The last time he broke off the reservations. This had been a recurring pattern. I thought that would be more accurate."[6]

According to Hill, Milius' screenplay was more inclusive of Geronimo's early years and Milius was reluctant to revise it so he had it rewritten by himself and Larry Gross.[6] "This movie certainly presents a heroic view of Geronimo," said Hill. "At the same time, it suggests that the times were complicated.... The audience doesn't go to a movie for a history lesson; it wants entertainment. At the same time, they don't want something that trashes history; so it's a delicate line."[9]

"Movies tend to develop a life of their own," added Hill. "We had to deal with Geronimo a lot better than what our original intention was. The more we found out, the more interesting the story became."[7]

Among the changes were removing a sequence (based on historical fact) where Geromino surrendered to General Crook in Mexico in March 1886, pledging to return under escort to Arizona, where he would be disarmed and sent to exile in Florida; two nights later Geronimo got drunk and took off into the mountains again, going on a five month rampage until he surrendered once more. Milius said he thought the script was changed because "We don't want to see our heroes getting drunk and running off. We want to see them as wonderful freedom fighters."[9] "History is fascinating, but history is not a good dramatist," said Hill.[9]

The film's narrator, Second Lt. Britton Davis, was a real officer who participated in these events. In 1929 he published a memoir of the time called The Truth About Geronimo. The narration uses many quotations from Davis that featured in his memoir, like his description of the endless search for Geronimo's camp: "At times it seemed we were chasing a spirit more than a man." However it did not include Davis's personal assessment of Geronimo: "This Indian was a thoroughly vicious, intractable and treacherous man. His only redeeming traits were courage and determination. His word, no matter how earnestly pledged, was worthless." [9]

Hill thought the cavalry officers "were the most sympathetic to the Indians of the Southwest. They knew them and understood that what was happening was a tragedy. They understood that the imposition of the reserve system was going to have tragic consequences. Yet, they were the ones being asked to carry out this policy. They were the ones being asked to fight, so there was this kind of conflict between feelings and duty."[7]

The movie was eventually transferred from Carolco to Columbia.[11] It was greenlit by Mark Canton, whose brother Neil was the producer.


Wes Studi was cast in the lead after impressing in The Last of the Mohicans (1992).

The part of Al Sieber was expanded when Robert Duvall was cast in the role.[12] Under the deal, Duvall's production company, Butcher's Run Films, signed an arrangement with Columbia.[13]


The film was shot in Utah, Tucson, Arizona, and Culver City, California.[6]

The character of Sieber was meant to ride off into the sunset at the end of the movie but during filming Hill felt that the running time was going to be too long and so decided to kill off the character. "If I'd known I was going to die I might not have done the movie," said Duvall. "I've died nine times in films." [13]

Another film on Geronimo came out around the same time, a made-for-TV movie show on Ted Turner's movie channel.[9]


Walter Hill later expressed dissatisfaction with the title:

It’s not about Geronimo. It should have been called The Geronimo War... It’s as much about the Army as it is Geronimo. That came out of my reading of historical accounts, and realizing that so much of what we think we know about the Indian campaigns is wrong. The Army is generally depicted as the enemy of the Apache, but in many cases, the people who were most sympathetic to their plight were those soldiers.[14]


The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound (Chris Carpenter, Doug Hemphill, Bill W. Benton and Lee Orloff).[15]


The film had a mixed reception from critics[16][17][18] but was praised by Native American groups.[19] Philip French of London's Observer called it one of the greatest Westerns of all time.[20]

Box office[edit]

The film was a box office bomb. Earning only $18 million on a $35 million budget .[21] The movie dropped to number 7 the following week.[22]

According to one pair of writers:

The film was no Dances with Wolves. It cost about $50 million, boasted no major stars, no love story, and a meandering storyline. It was hard to see how the studio ever expected to make its money back - and it didn't come close. Columbia had not shown Geronimo to Jason Patric... before the premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Theater in Beverly Hills. That turned out to be a mistake. Patric was so dismayed by the way the film turned out that he ran out of the theater and into his limo. He had himself driven around for a while as he raged abot the sheer awfulness of the movie. Then he pulled himself together and went back to the premiere. Geronimo lost $40 million - far more than Last Action Hero - without a fraction of the fanfare.[23]

Hill blamed this poor reception on the screening of the TV movie. Hill said, "I don't think there are a hell of a lot of movies where you can take basically the same story, show it to 50 million people and bring yours out a week later and think that you're going to do great. What can you say, `My Geronimo has better locations?' "[24]

The film was admired by Quentin Tarantino who said "I thought with Geronimo he [Hill] went to a really fantastic place. Everybody talked about how boring it was. But I didn't. I thought he made a really great classic Western and America just wasn't worthy of the privilege."[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Geronimo Doesn't Bow To Stereotypes". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  2. ^ "Geronimo: An American Legend". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-01-12. 
  3. ^ Galbraith, Jane (1993-12-14). "Q&A WITH WES STUDI : 'I Came Into the Business at the Right Time'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-30. 
  4. ^ "Wes `Geronimo') Studi Wary Of Political Correctness". Chicago Tribune. 1993-12-16. Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  5. ^ "Geronimo' Co-star Keeps A Low Profile". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 8", Directors Guild of America accessed 12 June 2014
  7. ^ a b c Portman, Jamie (11 Dec 1993). "Not just another Western Actors, director say they were determined to be true to the story of Geronimo". The Hamilton Spectator. p. 7. 
  8. ^ Thompson, Anne (16 Feb 1989). "A rebel adapts John Milius will meet Hollywood halfway". Chicago Tribune. p. 12. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Eckholm, Erik (5 Dec 1993). "Geronimo, Still With a Few Rough Edges: It's Still Geronimo, But With Edges". New York Times. p. H19. 
  10. ^ "A gifted barbarian in the hills". The Observer. 20 Mar 1994. p. C14_15. 
  11. ^ The View From the Top: Why 'Lethal Weapon 3' Should Outlast 'Alien3' Pond, Steve. The Washington Post (1974-Current file) [Washington, D.C] 29 May 1992: D6.
  12. ^ Kubrick's 'Wartime' Odyssey Pond, Steve. The Washington Post (1974-Current file) [Washington, D.C] 16 Apr 1993: B7.
  13. ^ a b Robert Duvall Strikes Sweet Deal: 'Geronimo' lands him lead role in his own production company INTERVIEW Bonnie Churchill Special to The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 11 Jan 1994: 15.
  14. ^ Jon Zelazny, 'Kicking Ass with Walter Hill', The Hollywood Interview, 8 Sept 2009 accessed 12 Jan 2012
  15. ^ "The 66th Academy Awards (1994) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-22. 
  16. ^ McCarthy, Todd (1993-12-12). "Geronimo: An American Legend". Variety. Retrieved 2010-11-30. 
  17. ^ "Geronimo: An American Legend". Washington Post. 1993-12-10. Retrieved 2010-11-30. 
  18. ^ "Geronimo: An American Legend". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 2010-11-30. 
  19. ^ Mathews, Jack (1993-12-05). "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". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  20. ^ CINEMA Hill's warrior charge The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 16 Oct 1994: C9
  21. ^ Pristin, Terry (1993-12-14). "Weekend Box Office : Sequels Take 2 of Top 3 Spots". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-12. 
  22. ^ Fox, David J. (1993-12-20). "Pelican' Soars at the Box Office Movies: The mystery, with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, takes in more than $16 million. `Mrs. Doubtfire,' `Schindler's List' also do well.". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-30. 
  23. ^ Griffin, Nancy; Masters, Kim (1997). Hit and Run: How John Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood. Touchstone. p. 409. 
  24. ^ Lacher, Irene (3 Jan 1995). "Walter Hill Rides Again `Wild Bill,' the action director's latest effort, breaks out of saloon territory to explore the fields of moral ambiguity". Los Angeles Times. p. 1. 

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