Geronimo
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Geronimo

Like most kids in the fifties my initial view of American history, particularly the Old West was filtered through the movies and television shows of the time. Every boy I knew, as well as a couple of the girls, had a cowboy outfit model after media icons like Roy Rogers or ‘The Lone Ranger’. It had the hat, toy six shooter and were appropriate, a tin sheriff’s badge. The purpose of these highly coveted accoutrements was primary to play the most popular game found in playgrounds, Backyards and vacant lots in every town in the country; Cowboys and Indians. Right up front it bears mentioning that those days were long before the politically correct term of "Native American’ was ever uttered by the general population. All we knew was the cowboys wore hats, hade hand guns and were the good guys. The Indians or more derogatory ‘Injuns’ had feathers in their headbands and used bows and arrows. The one aspect of this viewpoint that offered a modicum of factual foundation was the odds were overwhelmingly staked in favor of the ‘Cowboys’ resulting in a disproportionate number of victories for them. This is one instance in history were the home field advantage did not offer much comfort. Our horrendously inaccurate view of this portion of American history was, as noted, fostered largely by Hollywood. With the History Channel many decades in the future kids had little in the way or reliable information as to how those people were mistreated. Once in a great while a film would attempt to depict something a bit closer to the truth but even then the degree of truthfulness was sorely lacking. One film that was upfront about the use of dramatic license was the 1962 United Artist flick ‘Geronimo. The movie opens with a notice about facts and legend openly stating that the story told in the following film was a mélange of both. There were still many glaring errors but I do respect the producers for being up front about the imprecise nature of what was depicted. Instead of showing a biography of this frequently overlooked historical figure the filmmaker sought to capture the essence of the man as the basis for his enduing legend.

The Native America called Geronimo played here by a man usually on the other side of the arrow, Chuck Connors, was a prime example of how history labels a figure based on general consensus or political expediency. There is an old saying that if a band of men wage war against the establishment they are freedom fighters if we support them, terrorist if we don’t and guerillas if we are uncertain. At the time he lived Geronimo was considered a terrorist but if reevaluated through an unbiased consideration made possible by the passage of time a reasonable case can be made that he was a freedom fighter. This film goes as far as to depict him as a rather extremely proactive advocate of human rights. The film does demonstrate a bias in favor of the Chieftain that is impossible to overlook, not that you should. It has to be kept in mind that 1962 was a year that stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement that would address the injustices perpetrated against African Americans. This was a time when the political new guard led by the election of President John Kennedy resulting in looking back at the post Civil War years with a more liberal eye. This change in social imperatives clashed with the traditional Hollywood portrayal of Native Americas that are extremely evident in this film. First of all Connors was exceptionally tall and had piercing blue eyes, two genetic traits not commonly found in the Native American phenotype. Usually Movies and television utilized Italian and Jewish actors to play Indians partly due to the lack of ethically accurate members of SAG and AFTRA. For example Geronimo’s lieutenant, Natchez , was portrayed by Armando Silvestre and his respected best friend and fellow chief, Mangus was wonderfully played by one of cinemas’ best character actors, Ross Martin. Geronimo’s wife Teela was played by a pretty young actress, Kamala Devi who hailed from the India sub-continent and would marry Connor shortly after the filming for the movie wrapped.

Even though the film still bought into the old school Hollywood prejudices and stereotypes but it did break from tradition in several important ways. First of all was the establishment of four relatively new tropes to drive the story. The first and most important was held by Geronimo himself; the proud leader of his people. Geronimo deeply resented the demeaning way the white man treated his people either as children in constant need of supervision or worse, as animals that need to be herded and controlled. This leads to the next two archetypes. Army captain William Maynard (Pat Conway) viewed the Apache as a pest that needed to be contained in order to allow the settlers an unobstructed access to the land and their manifest destiny. For him Geronimo was little more than an alpha steer, break him and the rest will meekly follow. Then there is the Indian agent in charge of their assigned reservation, Jeremiah Burns (John Anderson). In some ways he was worse than Maynard since Burns hides his distaste for the Indian by hiding behind a condescending religious dogma needing to ‘save’ the poor, doomed savage’. Lastly the final trope employed here was historically present but in the minority, the army officer who felt the Native American was being systematically abused by official policy. This point of view was provided by the sympatric Lt. John Delahay played by a very young Adam West.

Arnold Laven both provided the direction and co-created the story used here. His style is exceptionally fast paced with most shots lasting only a matter of seconds. This resulted in a disquieting feel for the film that heightens the moral outages that it depicted. This movie is part of a recent series of classic older films produced by MGM and United Artist that are being released on DVD. this gives collectors an opportunity to pick up little finds like this.

Posted 05/23/11

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