Traveling through the picturesque desolation of the Southwest United States, it’s easy to understand why Congress saw fit to push what was left of the Native American population into this region. Nobody else wanted it. The Apache people had the unenviable position as the last hold-outs against settlement on reservations. Their story is most often told through the legend of the last hero of the resistance, Geronimo.

Apache (1954)

In May 2010, TCM ran a series of films showing the ways Native Americans have been portrayed by Hollywood. As a demonstration of the sometimes ludicrous casting of white actors in Indian roles, they aired Apache (1954), starring Burt Lancaster. Paradoxically, this film has the distinction of being among the first to depict an Indian as a heroic figure deserving of respect. It opens with the 1886 surrender of Geronimo (played by Native American actor Monte Blue, who was often cast in white roles). The ceremony of surrender is disrupted by Massai (sic), Lancaster’s character, a renegade warrior. He is captured and put on the prison train to Florida with Geronimo. Acting as a surrogate for Geronimo, he escapes from the train and carries on with Apache resistance to the U.S. Army. His Indian love interest is played by Jean Peters.

Geronimo (1962)

Chuck Connors takes the title role.  This early attempt at a revisionist Western sought to portray the Apache renegade in a sympathetic light, but it was undermined by the lack of Native American actors in a cast led by Connors in redskin make up. The lovely Indian maiden provided as a respite from the Apache wars was played by Kamala Devi, born in Bombay.

Geronimo (1993)

This made-for-TV movie gets very little attention from Wikipedia. It appears to be known, if at all, for having appeared on TNT five days before the debut of Geronimo: An American Legend. Featuring predominately First Nations actors from Canada, this story is framed with a trip to Washington by the elderly Geronimo (Jimmy Herman) to speak with the president (Teddy Roosevelt). The lead actor in this film is Joseph Runningfox who plays the young man, not yet called Geronimo. He courts a pretty girl for his wife and later finds her and their baby massacred by Mexican soldiers. The bulk of the film concentrates on the arc of his radicalization and his emergence as the legendary last holdout against those who would confine the Indians to bleak reservations. It is set primarily in Arizona and Mexico. The ending comes with the old man participating in the Roosevelt inaugural parade and taking occasion to give the President a brief lecture on Indian values. No trailer is available.

Geronimo: An American Legend  (1993)

There are several important stars in this movie but the one that gives a fine authenticity to the picture is Wes Studi in the title role, despite his almost Hollywood good looks.  Matt Damon does not have star billing but he provides the framing narrative and the conscience of youthful idealism.  He is a second lieutenant reporting to a fort in Arizona after graduating from West Point.  The mission of this detachment is to oversee the peaceful surrender of the last Apaches to resist the reservation system in the Southwest.  Damon meets another idealist played by Jason Patric and these two are determined to do the right thing.  The commander of the post (Gene Hackman) has the respect of the Indians but cannot bring about an accommodation.  Geronimo has presented himself at the fort and surrendered his rifle but the arrangement does not last.  The resulting forays of angry Indians, blue-coated troops, bounty hunters and local lawmen produce a great deal of carnage.

When conventional methods fail, Patric is sent out into the land of red rocks to find Geronimo and persuade him to cooperate.  Geronimo sees that his world is dying and his people are suffering. He surrenders a second time.  The Army breaks its trust with the Indians and puts them on a train to a prison in Florida.  Damon resigns his commission in protest.  The general says he “hates an idealist” and advises the young man not to worry about the savages and accept the inevitabilities of history.  On the sad train, Geronimo and other prisoners wonder why the One God allowed this to happen.  Geronimo lived another 22 years as a prisoner of war, until 1909.  Ironically, he became an American folk hero, appearing in Wild West shows, and even in the inauguration parade of Teddy Roosevelt.

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