Geronimo: An American Legend directed by Walter Hill "History is written by the conquerors," Braveheart's narrator announced, but how many Mel Gibson lovers took full measure of that privileged boast? In the past decade, whenever nonwinners tried to rewrite history at the movies (Spielberg's Amistad, Melvin Van Peebles' script for Panther and now Norman Jewison's The Hurricane), they caught hell from status-quo conservators. So when asked to select a neglected film for the American Museum of the Moving Image's "The New York Film Critics Circle Looks at the Nineties" series, I chose Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend (and will introduce it at AMMI on Feb. 13, 2 p.m.). Hill's elegy reviews American history with a rich appreciation for ongoing, personal, even spiritual, conflict. And, not incidentally, it is the most visually astonishing western since the days of John Ford.
Geronimo was overshadowed in late 1993 by its release opposite Schindler's List. But largely due to Hill's postmodern sophistication, people confuse his work in movie genres with the conventions of the genres themselves. Primed by Clint Eastwood's fine but utterly conventional Unforgiven (1992), reviewers couldn't see how Hill investigated/subverted familiar western codes. They failed to appreciate both the formal elegance of his filmmaking and the seriousness that makes Geronimo as conscientious and daring an historical interpretation as Schindler's List. It's about the American holocaust as played out in the U.S. Army's Indian wars. Stars Wes Studi, Jason Patric, Matt Damon, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman dramatize Hill's historical recall as the clash of vision, politics, faith and experience.
Hill's combination of perspicacity and high style (his politicized esthetics) confounds conventional film enthusiasms. In Film Forum's upcoming "Neo-Noir" series, the spotlight is on the latest wrinkles in the noir movement, but its grievous lack of Hill entries (only one) proves how notions about noir are tied to popularity, more than the psychological consciousness and technical mastery that had always defined the best noirs. You can't get an adequate sense of how noir has developed without paying attention to films like The Warriors, Red Heat, Johnny Handsome, Another 48 Hrs., Last Man Standing. It's inconceivable that anyone would even think neo-noir without those landmarks?Hill's committed application of contemporary social consciousness to genre?taking precedence. More than a noir western, Geronimo itself is as rich as the enhancements Anthony Mann contributed to the genre with The Far Country and The Man From Laramie.
Hill's plangency in Geronimo is similar to his great The Long Riders?a self-consciously cinematic, yet poignant rendering of American folk and urban history. Its effect is enhanced by the look Hill has achieved with cinematographer Lloyd Ahern, whose work on Geronimo makes it one of the prime visual achievements of the 1990s. The western landscape on which the Indian wars were fought is shown as a great, bewildering expanse. Home for the Apache but coveted by white American government, it is often golden or red?a place of desire or scorn, a natural wilderness but also a stolen habitat. One of the most extraordinary scenes of cultural confrontation occurs as Geronimo (Studi) gives Lieut. Gatewood (Patric) a turquoise stone that seems iridescent amidst the shimmering amber rocks. Critic Gregory Solman's definitive essay on Geronimo for Film Comment described the gift as manifesting a piece of the sky?a symbol of perishable trust. The artistry of that imagery confirms Hill's emotional investment in symbols and gestures that genre filmmakers usually make mundane. In Geronimo, everything you ever thought about westerns or America's political past is made unexpectedly vivid and memorable. It has two endings?first dramatic (with Matt Damon's unforgettable contrition) and the second (a breathtakingly sustained wide shot) that is purely visual, purely emotional. The chance to see Geronimo: An American Legend on the big screen and get its full magnificence is rare. Don't miss it.
"To live in a land where justice is a game" goes Bob Dylan's 1975 "Hurricane" (a point relevant to Geronimo). The song accompanies Norman Jewison's movie but it hasn't reignited the culture the way forgotten pop sometimes gets rejuvenated at the movies (as, for instance, Stand By Me revived "Stand By Me," Ghost brought back "Unchained Melody" or Wayne's World brought back "Bohemian Rhapsody"). But "Hurricane" hasn't held up?somehow it sounds more embarrassingly sincere than it did in the 70s. Dylan's sentiments (questioning American justice) have not withstood the test of Reaganomics or Clintoningus. All sorts of prevarication and selfishness have taken social prominence in place of Dylan's old, radio-ready liberal compassion. Naysayers busily attacked The Hurricane as if they and Jewison (and Dylan) were not on the same team, as though the film's depiction of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's ordeal went against their principles.
When political fashion changes we see how deep or shallow people's passions run. Recent rejoinders to The Hurricane make the ghost of liberalism seem winded indeed. In publications as varied as The New Yorker, the New York Post and The Nation, old lefties don't seem to be arguing morality, legality or fairness, but stating their own egotistical claim on the interpretation of history. Once again, the conquerors are doing the rewriting?this time in movie reviews. The New Yorker started with the worst claim that The Hurricane was "a square inspirational movie," implying that inspiration was the wrong answer to social apathy?somehow out of fashion, corny. The reviewer's detachment is certainly au courant and?something more hideous?insensitive. Reducing the film's themes to "the black male's self-creation," David Denby opined, "One could make the case that many people, white and black, still need to hear about it." But Denby closes that case; he's heard it enough already, adding, "Many of us have learned these lessons before, and perhaps we can now pray for a time when we no longer need to learn them again." This sly hostile expression of boredom (an effete "basta!") shows how much liberalism has changed since Dylan's tune of unembarrassed solidarity.
The once-liberal press doesn't want inspiration. Unwilling to hear about black grievance, it besmirches Jewison's artful empathy (one of the first such articles was by Jack Newfield in the New York Post). Denby makes it plain that white liberals currently long for an image of black depravity by which they can feel hip and, simultaneously, superior. He praises only "a sequence so good that it makes this rather clumpy and untrustworthy exercise in righteousness worth the trouble." That scene is Jewison's one literal-minded trope: a demonstration of Carter's schizophrenic prison experience. It geeks Denby; he gets high on the notion of black madness, missing the film's later, best moment of simple, pure communication between the adult Carter and Lesra, the teenager who connects to his sense of imprisonment and need for release. Though it's one of the most subtly persuasive exchanges in current cinema, Denby ignores it?despite Vicellous Reon Shannon's boyish resolve sparking Denzel Washington's quiet humility. (It's the only moment I didn't think Wesley Snipes would have played Carter better.) Denby argues: "Since Washington can be wickedly funny [Where? When?], I'd love to see him play a wider range of roles?a real sleaze, a song-and-dance man, a Johnnie Cochran smarty-pants." In other words, Denby, like a lot of exhausted liberals, would be more comfortable with dismissible cliches of triviality rather than a dramatization of black sincerity and brotherhood.
Former liberals now sunder brotherhood itself. Carter's former attorney Lewis M. Steel split hairs for the Nation audience. He blasts the film as "heartwarming," "a cinematic crime," complaining that it "buries the truth in a false Hollywood concoction that blames Rubin's wrongful conviction on one rogue cop who is eventually undone by a group of outside heroes." Strange that once-liberal advocates miss the metaphorical significance of an artist's fabrication. In The Hurricane storytelling is an exciting mode of political argument. It uses facts not to distort history through prevarication but to animate history. Jewison's up-front mythmaking (what all filmmaking comes down) has an undisguised intent to assert Carter's humanity and portray, in graspable terms, the corruption of police and courts that Steel once was committed to exposing. Steel's gripe that Jewison "does not even attempt to reveal the contours of how the police authorities manufactured their case and how the state court trial judge gave the prosecutor free rein to pander to the bias of the jury" is pretty startling when you remember how critics almost universally complained that Amistad spent too much time on "the contours" of its court case. What do "right-thinking" people want movies to be? Frivolous or serious?
It's funny when white folks argue among themselves, debating predominant versions of history, fighting over gravy. These current disputes about The Hurricane recall how Oliver Stone took hits for JFK and Nixon while, ironically, Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Summer of Sam (the most fraudulent historical films of the past decade) were well-received. Malcolm X's and Summer of Sam's distortions mean less to white liberal journalists than claiming provenance over Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's legacy. This isn't a war of concern and conscience, as in the case of the JFK and Nixon controversies; it's a turf war. They're claiming their own preferred version of history rather than committing to the protection of an individual life and civil rights principles.
A New York Times book review also sniped at The Hurricane's "vastly simplified film version" of Carter's life. But when do Americans ever accept complexity in art? One of the film's marvelous aspects is the way it quite complexly shows the effect of media expression on the young generation. It also conveys convoluted criminal justice corruption in plain terms and human effort in memorable ones. The white Canadians who befriend the young Lesra and help Carter win his acquittal are rejected by columnists who don't see the fair and symbolic effect of those characters. In one of Jewison's finest moments, the Canadians and Lesra wave to the jailed Carter from a hotel window a thousand feet away?caring but distant, humanism turned into torture. It's a brilliant scene that old-time liberals resent as maybe too true to how their best efforts might have affected the individuals who were their elected causes. Their noble gestures are given humble perspective. Now, turning that embarrassment against the very people and causes represented by The Hurricane has not yet produced a strong esthetic or political argument; it only shows liberalism's tired, frightened death gulp.
Remember the Public Enemy rap that claimed, "History shouldn't be a mystery/Our story's real history/ Not his story!" P.E.'s call for a new sense of history is what's obscured by these fights about The Hurricane. (And if you think there isn't indeed a turf war combining art and politics, look to recent music polls that tout Nirvana's Nevermind as the 90s' best pop album over P.E.'s Fear of a Black Planet. That album's first single, "Welcome to the Terrordome," pumped big; it meant more to black America and to hiphop culture than "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ever could. There is no contest against P.E.'s superior musicality and ideational brilliance, yet white escapism rules the polls.)
History isn't a subject that a bourgeois art form like the movies handles without controversy?especially when depicting morally reprehensible civics, or institutions defiled by racist self-interest. One reason Dylan's tune was so charming (yes, charming) was that it opposed the post-60s notion that self-questioning art about American race politics was, necessarily, works of white self-hatred. That always seemed to me a panicky, defensive argument. The Hurricane is one of the few recent films to portray moral sympathy and moral outrage regarding politics and yet many commentators act as if the film committed a disgrace. David Lean's A Passage to India is the only movie by a major filmmaker to win praise for coming to grips with society's emotional investment in racist institutions (although the praise was not in those terms). Both Geronimo: An American Legend and The Hurricane are in that tradition (and The Hurricane is almost in that class; Geronimo probably transcends it). Maybe, as Braveheart implicitly proved, pop histories all do come down to movie star charisma?with Denzel on his way to a second Oscar?in the end belittling political necessity. Well, if you want charisma and insight, come to Geronimo. It's got plenty of both.
Clipped Hot Off the (Re)Press. Just came across a Feb. 3 Daily News column in which a colleague retroactively "TKO'd" The Hurricane from his 1999 10-Best list because he felt it "violates the privileges of creative license." This wincing conveys some unacknowledged grievance?as if liberals' vanity had been abused. Citing "the myth of the Canadian rescue," the reviewer seems offended that someone else gets credit for freedom-fighting. Critics had no such problem with Mississippi Burning, which absurdly reserved valor for white American FBI agents. The Village Voice of all places vented similar spite over Melvin Van Peebles' 1995 Panther. The real issue here is not "accuracy" but control of history?recalling late-60s resentment that The Movement had become ungrateful. As P.E. rapped, "Beware of the hand when it's coming from the Left."