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Leo Zelig


How the west was wrecked

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dir: Walter Hill

The Apache leader Geronimo was pursued in 1886 by a quarter of the American army. In its attempt to expand westward the army fought to subdue and conquer native American territory. This film of Goyahkla – or Geronimo as he was renamed by the Mexicans because of his bravery – tells of the heroic resistance of the great Apache chief and his people who faced an army that was determined to crush all resistance.

The US government pursued a brutal and successful policy of forcing native Americans onto reservations. As Gene Hackman’s character General George Cook explained, ‘We want them to learn to be farmers’. But they were expected to farm on lands that suffered from lack of water and poor soil, a way of life that was totally alien to the freedom to roam and hunt buffalo.

The Chiricahuan Apaches of the desertlands of Southern Arizona resisted the expansion of the American state. By 1876 the US government was forced to contain the Apaches within the San Carlos reservations. Geronimo fought against such captivity and led a group to Mexico. For ten years, until his final surrender in 1886, he kept the American army on the run.

Far too many films that claim to depict the plight of the native Americans descend into cliches. This tradition of film making – epitomised in the western, where cowboys struggle to cultivate a piece of land while fighting painted and frenzied ‘hostiles’ – has even influenced Kevin Kostner’s Dances with Wolves. Geronimo, however, is a film of unprecedented power and force. It doesn’t shrink from the violence of the Apaches as they are forced to fight for their very survival.

General George Cook has been given the unenviable task of bringing Geronimo in. He is a principled man who is eventually forced to resign after failing to convince Geronimo to surrender and is replaced by General Nelson Miles who has his own, more ruthless, methods of fighting native Americans.

Robert Duvall is superb as Al Sieber, the chief scout for the American army whose simple analysis of the situation, ‘it’s either us or them’, contains a powerful irony when he defends an Apache scout against bounty hunters (who were paid a few pesetas by the Mexican government for each Apache ‘scalp’). Wes Studi, himself a native American, gives a fine performance as Geronimo and depicts the very human rage of a people that America tried to cage. It was this human fury that had to be stopped.

Against the crimson canyons of Utah, captured magnificently by director Walter Hill, the narrative of a young officer, Davis (played by Matt Damon) takes us through his experience of the ‘Geronimo Campaign’ (as the American army called it) and his emergence from naivety that culminates in his resignation from the army as he awakes to the reality of the US government reneging on their promises to the Apaches.

What emerges in this film is a real sense of the spirit of native American resistance. When Geronimo confronts an Apache, working as a scout for the army tracking other Apaches, he calls out, ‘Where is your heart?’ The final insult to those who crossed sides and aided the army in their hunt for the Apaches comes as General Miles orders that all Apache scouts turn over their arms. They too are forced into years of captivity with Geronimo and the few other remaining Apaches.

Much of the dialogue is based upon the true accounts of the Geronimo campaign – including Geronimo’s biography. His tales of resistance so worried the US government that only following prolonged appeals from Geronimo did they allow him to give his own account after 27 years in captivity. This film documents the relentless and brutal attack on the Apaches who were the last to resist.

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