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

Jack Mathews is the film critic of Newsday

Geronimo, the legendary Chiricahua Apache leader whose name is on the tip of the tongue of every schoolboy about to try something daring, died on a reservation in Oklahoma in 1909. "Geronimo," the movie that director Walter Hill hoped would help set the record straight about the man behind the legend, died four years ago in Hollywood.

Or so it seemed.

"We had a really good script, but I couldn't make any headway with it," said Hill, whose association with the "Alien" and "48 HRS." franchises makes him one of the industry's most powerful producer/director combinations. "Finally, it went into development hell and stayed there for about three years."

Development hell is really Hollywood's purgatory, the place where rejected film projects go to be forgotten. But to Hill's great surprise, "Geronimo" was rescued and brought back to life . . . by colleagues Kevin Costner, Michael Mann and Clint Eastwood.

"There is no question about it, we're getting this movie made thanks to the success of 'Dances With Wolves,' 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Unforgiven,' " Hill said, during the shooting of "Geronimo" this summer. "All of these Westerns are riding the backs of those. Thank God."

"Geronimo: An American Legend," which opens nationally Friday, is the first of half a dozen films in the current, post-"Wolves" Western revival. Coming at Christmas is George Cosmatos' "Tombstone," which stars Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, the real-life lawman previously portrayed by such stars as Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Burt Lancaster and James Stewart. Next summer, Costner will add his name to the list as the star of Lawrence Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp."

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Other Westerns heading our way: Richard Donner's "Maverick," with Mel Gibson as the cardsharp hero made famous in the '60s TV series; Jonathan Kaplan's "Bad Girls," a sort of "Thelma & Louise" on the range; Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead," about a woman (Sharon Stone) seeking vengeance against her family's assassins, and Simon Wincer's "Lightning Jack," a comedy about an Australian (Paul Hogan) adrift in the American West.

Not all of these movies will offer revisionist looks at the Old West, or even of Hollywood's vision of the Old West. Talk to the filmmakers and they say they're following the traditional, epic style of John Ford, where a fact is never allowed to tarnish a legend.

But both Earp movies are downplaying the lawman's fabled gunplay and concentrating instead on the man and his love life, and how many traditional Westerns do you recall whose central figures were tough, independent women?

Hill, whose 1980 Jesse James saga "The Long Riders" was definitely in the John Ford tradition, is quick to say that "Geronimo" is intended as mainstream entertainment, and that it is not historically accurate in every detail. But Native Americans involved in the project say he is attempting the most honest look yet at their most feared fighter.

"We're telling the story of Geronimo the fighting man," said Wes Studi, the Cherokee actor playing Geronimo. "We're not putting him on a pedestal and saying he never did anything wrong. He was brutal, he did kill women and children. But he was reacting to the way his people were being treated by the U.S. government. He was a stubborn man trying to preserve a way of life."

"People will come away from the movie with some understanding of what happened to Indians at that time," said Sonny Skyhawk, one of the film's Native American consultants. "Is the film historically accurate? No, but it provides an accurate glimpse of what he went through."

"Geronimo" is a Western without conventional heroes and villains, said Hill. Though events covering several years are condensed into one, a series of violent conflicts and betrayals leading up to Geronimo's final surrender, the film attempts to show how the inevitable western migration of European descendants led to a form of cultural genocide, and to the loss of hundreds of innocent lives on both sides.

Dramatically, "Geronimo" follows the attempts by two sympathetic Army officers (Gene Hackman and Jason Patric) to track down Geronimo's elusive band and save them--if you consider reservation life being saved--from certain annihilation.

"It's like 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,' " said Hill. "These characters are real, but certainly we're allowing legend to serve the truth. If I was doing this as a PBS documentary, I would do it a lot differently."

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Hill credits "Dances With Wolves" for making it possible to do "Geronimo" with any credibility at all. When he was shopping the script around five years ago, he couldn't get past the argument from studio executives that he should cast a major action star in the title role.

"The first thing I heard was, 'Why can't we have X or Y Caucasian put on makeup and play Geronimo? If you do that, we'll make the movie.' I said, 'You can't do that.' They wouldn't think of having a Caucasian actor play a black leader. The implications are just staggering."

Tom Cruise as Malcolm X? Denzel Washington as Abraham Lincoln? No, never. But Sylvester Stallone as Geronimo, why not? After all, Jeff Chandler played Cochise three times.

"That kind of casting became unthinkable after 'Dances With Wolves,' " Hill said. "When the script got active again last fall, there was no question that we would have an Indian actor in the lead."

Not only in the lead, every Native American character in the film is played by a Native American. Skyhawk, a Sioux activist who convinced Columbia executives to let him represent the interests of Native Americans on the film, said that he verified the tribal affiliation of every actor who auditioned. If a person wasn't registered with a tribe, he couldn't work.

"We had people who said they were Indian, and they may have been," Skyhawk said. "But when I asked their affiliation, they didn't know. You ask them about their history, they don't know. I think it's the responsibility of every Indian to go back and get registered."

Though there are Apaches in the cast, there are no Chiricahuas. Only a few descendants of Geronimo's tribe survive. The language itself is virtually gone, said Skyhawk, replaced in the film with the dialect of the neighboring White Mountain Apaches.

That they were able to shoot those scenes in any Apache dialect is another thing attributable to "Dances With Wolves," whose authentic use of Lakota Sioux proved you could get away with subtitles in a major studio movie.

"I remember after 'Dances With Wolves' came out, people asked me, 'Did they do a credible job?,' " Skyhawk said. "I said, 'Yes, they did.' They may have fallen short in some ways, but they really tried, and that's the key."

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Skyhawk's own agenda is to sensitize modern filmmakers to the sins of their elders. He not only wants Native Americans portraying Native Americans, and some attempt at cultural accuracy, but to rid scripts of unthinking, racist vocabulary.

The original meaning of words like squaw , which comes from the French Algonquin colloquial for vagina , or redskins , which Skyhawk said refers to the practice of selling the skins of murdered Native Americans, are lost on writers cribbing cliches from old Westerns.

"We want to do away with misconceptions, talk to people about the truth of American Indian people and their history," Skyhawk said. "It's amazing how many movies have been made with Indians in them and how few stories about Indians themselves have been told."

Hill said that he wants to be as accurate as he can, but that the reality of today's political environment guarantees that he will offend someone.

"The dramatic license that has traditionally been the province of the novel, the play and the film . . . there are those out there who no longer will make any allowances in that area," Hill said. "No matter how sympathetic we are toward the Chiricahua, there will be those who say we weren't sensitive enough. And if we present Geronimo as anything other than a brutal savage, others will be upset.

"My own thing is I don't want to violate what seems to be a central truth about Geronimo, that he stood up heroically against a technically superior force that came in and threw his people off their land. At the very least, we should have grudging respect for that."

Skyhawk said he sees the political landscape just now opening up for serious dialogue about the history and heritage of Native Americans, and that he was heartened by the general reaction to "Dances With Wolves."

"After that movie came out, I can't tell you how many times somebody came up to me and said, 'You know, I'm part Sioux.' After 'Geronimo,' there will be all these people with Apache blood. And Wes will be meeting more Cherokees than he knew existed.

"I don't put it down," Skyhawk said. "If you want to say you're an Indian, that's fine. But from now on, if you want to play an Indian, you're going to have to prove it."*

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