Geronimo: Hollywood's Favorite Native for Over 100 Years

William A. Clements
July 04, 2013

His compelling story, his enduring reputation and even his physical appearance make Geronimo ideal for film treatment. As a wire service item that was making the rounds in 1939 with the showing of the film Geronimo! noted, “There certainly was never a more appalling one [figure from the Southwest] than Geronimo, arch fiend and war lord of the Apache Indian tribe which fought the United States to the death for the arid wasteland they know as home.”

Geronimo’s first cinematic appearance occurred only three years after his death in 1909. Now lost to the disintegrating effects of time, Geronimo’s Last Raid came out in 1912. But Geronimo has enjoyed considerable subsequent screen exposure, usually in secondary roles. He has also been a character in episodes of several television series, especially those broadcast during the heyday of the Western in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He even inspired a cartoon character, Geronimoo, in an ABC-TV offering, The C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa. In fact, Geronimo has probably appeared in more “Hollywood oaters,” as one historian calls Westerns, than any other American Indian, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

[SEE ALSO: "13 Depictions of Geronimo in Hollywood Movies"]

Early in his cinematic career, Geronimo took the role of what Michael T. Marsden and Jack Nachbar call the “Savage Reactionary,” a stereotypical villain. Of the two dimensions the “Hollywood Indian” was capable of representing—“the old bloodthirsty savage and his alter ego, the noble savage”—Geronimo usually assumed the role of the former. For example, he is the principal menace threatening the passengers in John Ford’s classic Stagecoach (1939).

Victor Daniels (using the performance name Chief Thundercloud) took the title role in Geronimo!, the film that reintroduced the figure to American popular culture and is generally credited with inspiring World War II military paratroopers to yell “Geronimo!” as they leaped from airborne troop carriers, along with the many children who continue to yell his name as they jump from lesser heights. Daniels was born in 1899 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and may have been a member of the Cherokee Nation. His looks guaranteed him roles among the extras in many western films during the 1930s. He also originated the role of Tonto in the first Lone Ranger films.

Advertising billed Geronimo! as the story of “The Most Feared Warrior That Ever Ravaged The West!” Among the titillating scenes the audience could expect to view were “10,000 Indians roar[ing] into battle against a whole U. S. Cavalry regiment” and “the fiendish torture den of the ruthless Geronimo.” However, the film reviewer for the New York Times was not as impressed by the violence and action as by the taciturnity of the title character, who was characterized as “a remarkably genuine redskin with a vocabulary of one grunt and a histrionic repertoire of two expressions: grim, and very grim.” The Times wondered whether the part could even be considered a “speaking role.” A rough count indicates that Daniels had less than a dozen lines—all delivered in a taut version of what was meant to be the Apache language. Instead, he makes his dramatic point—Geronimo is, as the film’s opening caption states, “a great enemy”—by staring balefully and menacingly into the camera. In terms of plot, the Times awarded the film “one faint whoop.”

Like most such productions, the film departs significantly from the historical record. In its April 1940 issue, Winners of the West reprinted a review of the film from the Chicago Tribune that held that Geronimo! “gives an exaggerated idea of that celebrated Indian’s importance, while considerably underrating his abilities.” The paper’s edition for July 1940 included a letter from Western writer E. A. Brininstool, who characterized the film as “absolutely the rawest and rottenest thing ever thrown on the screen… There was not one single thing in that film that was right.”

Daniels portrayed Geronimo a couple more times. In I Killed Geronimo (1950), an army officer assigned to kill Geronimo in 1882 is ultimately successful when he stabs the Apache during an attack on a stagecoach. Daniels reassumed his role as Geronimo very briefly in an episode of the television series Buffalo Bill Jr. in 1955, the year of the actor’s death.

Another performer who portrayed Geronimo several times was the Mohawk Harold J. Smith (as Jay Silverheels), best known, of course, for his recurring role as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto. Smith first played Geronimo in Broken Arrow (1950), which deals with the process by which Cochise (played by Brooklyn-born actor Jeff Chandler) and General O. O. Howard forged a peace agreement through the intermediation of Tom Jeffords (James Stewart). At a conference among Chiricahua leaders discussing Howard’s proposal for a reservation in southeastern Arizona, Geronimo declares, “I trust none of it. Four days ago we were given our own country on a piece of paper. Today we cannot go into Mexico. The American general says ‘No.’ Already our territory is smaller. Where will we get corn, blankets, horses if not by taking them from the Mexicans as we always have?”

When Cochise replies that the U.S. government will provide for their needs, Geronimo is scornful: “The answer of a woman! I am not afraid. I speak from my heart. It is not the Apache way to be grandmother to cattle. Cochise has lost his taste for battle, and so he is ready to surrender. He throws away our victories.”

Cochise, in turn, stresses the importance of change and flexibility, breaks the symbolic arrow, and declares, “I will try this way of peace.”

Geronimo is having none of this peacemaking and asserts, “I will walk away.” When Cochise declares his enmity for Geronimo and those who endorse his obstructionist position, Geronimo responds, “I leave you my name also. Now I am ashamed of your Chiricahua. I will take the name Mexican enemies have given me. The whites will learn it and you will learn it. From now on I am Geronimo!”

The screenplay for Broken Arrow was by Albert Maltz, one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10. Maltz had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, and the film’s positive take on Native American issues may reflect his progressive ideals. The film is often regarded as a primary influence on the new image for Indians in post-1950 films.

Geronimo, though, did not benefit from this improvement until a decade later. In fact, he emerges as the principal villain in both the prequel and sequel to Broken Arrow. The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), casts the volatile Geronimo (Silverheels) in direct opposition to Cochise (Chandler). The setting is about a decade before that of Broken Arrow and deals with the events that led to the long conflict between Cochise’s Chiricahuas and the United States. The event that turns the conciliatory Cochise into a hostile is a staging of the Bascom Affair, which results in the capture of his wife and three of his warriors. The latter are executed, and these killings precipitate the battle that provides the film’s title. As in Broken Arrow, Geronimo remains the principal hindrance to civilized progress, the ultimate recalcitrant savage who dares to challenge the highly respected Cochise.

Broken Arrow’s sequel, Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), seems ahead of its time by focusing on the intra-Chiricahua power struggle between Cochise’s sons Taza and Naiche following the chief’s death. Very few scenes in the film do not have at least one American Indian character, and most present Indians exclusively. However, the major characters are played by Euro-American actors. Historically minded viewers will recoil at the film’s revision of history. Set in the 1870s, it concludes with Taza (who, according to historical records, perished from illness during a trip to Washington after a couple of years as the Chiricahua leader) and his philosophy of peace triumphant, Naiche (who lived well into the 20th century) dead, and Geronimo (who did not surrender until 1886) on his way to exile in Florida. Nevertheless, the film continues to promote the image of Geronimo as the “bad” Indian who epitomized savage resistance to inevitable and beneficial progress.

Following The Battle at Apache Pass, Silverheels appeared as Geronimo once more. In 1956—by which time he had firmly established himself as Tonto—he was the recalcitrant Geronimo in Walk the Proud Land.

Other actors who portrayed Geronimo included Miguel Inclan, Daniel Simmons as Chief Yowlachie, Pat Hogan and Monte Blue. The first, a Mexican actor known for his villainous roles in Mexican films of the 1930s and 1940s, appeared in Indian Uprising (1952) and The Great Indian Wars, 1840–1890 (1991). Simmons, a Yakama Indian, assumed the role of Geronimo in Son of Geronimo: Apache Avenger, a 15-episode serial (1952), and in one episode of the television series Stories of the Century (1954). Hogan appeared as the Chiricahua in three episodes of Texas John Slaughter, a recurring series in 1960 and 1961. Blue had appeared as Geronimo’s interpreter in Geronimo!… and had a larger speaking role than Victor Daniels. He assumed the small role of Geronimo in Apache (1954), an account of Massai, an Apache who escaped from one of the trains carrying the Chiricahuas to Florida and managed to make it back to the Southwest, where he survived for several years.

Meanwhile, Geronimo was appearing as a supporting character in vehicles for well-known actors. For example, Tom Tyler is Geronimo in Valley of the Sun (1942), which features Lucille Ball. Although he makes only a brief appearance on screen, Geronimo (played by Lakota actor John War Eagle) is an important focus in the 1951 film The Last Outpost. This was a vehicle for Ronald Reagan, who portrayed Vance Britton, a Confederate officer who is trying to ensure that the Apaches remain neutral in the Civil War. Geronimo, who has only a few lines in the film, justifies killing a trader whose wagons he had destroyed to Britton: “He sold my men bad whiskey and bad guns. The whiskey poisoned them, and the guns blew the heads off many Indians. He deserved to die.” Geronimo crosses his arms and turns away, disdaining further dialogue.

Geronimo was an occasional presence in television Westerns during their height of popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. One notable instance is an episode of Stories of the Century. Among other television series that featured Geronimo as a character in at least one episode were Annie Oakley (1956), Broken Arrow (1956, 1957), Casey Jones (1957), Tombstone Territory (1958), Death Valley Days (1960), Zane Grey Theater (1960), F Troop (1966), and Bret Maverick (1982).

Called by one writer a “masterpiece of unwise casting,” the selection of Chuck Connors—familiar to audiences for his role in television Westerns—to portray the title character in Arnold Laven’s Geronimo in 1962 has elicited virtually unanimous disdain. The film’s cast includes other non-Indians in Indian roles: Ross Martin as Mangus, Armando Silvestre (a Mexican American actor) as Naiche, and Kamala Devi (an Asian Indian actor) as Teela, a reservation schoolteacher whom Geronimo marries. The film begins shortly after Geronimo’s surrender to General Crook in the Sierra Madre in 1883. Conditions on the San Carlos Reservation, to which Geronimo’s band returns, are worsened by the chicanery of the whites who oversee it and mitigated only by Teela, who tries to convince Geronimo to learn Euro-American ways so that he can share in the new way of life that is inevitably coming to his homeland. When conditions at San Carlos become unbearable, Geronimo escapes, taking Teela with him. He hopes that his actions will bring national attention and sympathy to
the Apaches’ plight. He is so successful in attracting attention back east that on the brink of his community being annihilated by U.S. forces, a senator arrives to convince Geronimo to agree to surrender again.

While the film’s casting deserves scorn, it is a watershed in the screen image of Geronimo, since he does not come across as the mindless force of savagism. In fact, upon learning that Teela has become pregnant, Geronimo expresses the hope not only that his son will become a “fine warrior” but that he will also know how to read. Moreover, the principal negative force in the film is not Geronimo, but the disdainful Indian-hating army officer Captain Maynard. Though its recognition of the legitimacy of Geronimo’s cause had been anticipated somewhat in Indian Uprising (1952), this 1962 film was the earliest thorough screen presentation of Geronimo as a positive figure. Characterized by critics at the time of its release as “pro-Indian in an uncontroversial way,” the film was regarded at best as unexciting: “a Western suitable for those with weak hearts or high blood pressure.”

A couple of somewhat notable television movies featured Geronimo in supporting roles. Mr. Horn (1979) stars David Carradine in the title role as Tom Horn, scout and interpreter in the Apache wars who was later hanged for murder in Wyoming in 1903. The historical Horn had some contact with Geronimo and had been present at some of the major turning points during the Apache wars, including the killing of Captain Emmet Crawford by Mexican soldiers early in 1886.

Another appearance of Geronimo in a made-for-television movie allowed James Arness, who is usually identified with the character Marshal Matt Dillon in the very successful dramatic television series Gunsmoke, to assume the role again. In Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990), Arness’s character has retired and come to Arizona Territory to reconnect with a woman he had known before his Dodge City days. He had not realized that their relationship had yielded a daughter, who has been taken captive by a hot-headed Apache named Wolf. Dillon has an important bargaining chip: two sons of Geronimo held prisoner by the U.S. Army. Played by Joaquin Martinez, another Mexican actor, Geronimo appears as a peaceful, perhaps superannuated leader of his people who is willing to treat with Dillon. This is not the savagely intransigent Geronimo at all, but an old man who has accepted the inevitable disappearance of his way of life.

Another more ambitious made-for-television film, Geronimo (1993), is the only fictional film dealing with this historical figure that attempts to provide an overview of his life before the dramatic events of the 1880s. Like most biopics, it oversimplifies both its central character and the events that it recounts. The film skims over those aspects of his life that have become the focus of most biographical depictions of him, fictional and nonfictional. We do not see him gallantly thwarting the might of the U.S. and Mexican militaries with a small band of warriors. Nor do we witness his surrender to General Miles and his exile from the Southwest. Instead, we encounter an old man who accepts the necessity of assimilation and congratulates his nephew (who is wearing a cadet’s uniform) for his pursuit of a Euro-American education. When Geronimo meets with President Roosevelt, he makes no abject plea to be returned to Arizona (though he does correct an introduction that designates him as “Mr. Geronimo from Oklahoma”). Instead he declares, “The Apaches will fight no more, but they will never surrender. And they will always be.” While Geronimo literally walks into the sunset as he exits the front door of the White House, Roosevelt remarks to an aide in the film’s final bit of dialogue, “The irony is I
would have done exactly the same as he.”

Despite its tendency to oversimplify the historical record, this fictionalized cinematic biography of Geronimo effectively tells its story from what seems to be a Native point of view. The point of the film, according to its director, was to put a human face on Geronimo, and it sought to achieve that goal by using a Native American cast not only for the principals but for the many extras. Not only Herman and Runningfox, but Ryan Black, who plays the youthful Geronimo, as well as the actors who portrayed Alope, Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, and many others have American Indian heritage. Of all the fictional Geronimo movies, this one probably is the most effective in presenting an Indian perspective.

Five days after Geronimo (later subtitled The Untold Story) was initially broadcast, another Geronimo film came out—this one released theatrically: Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). Perhaps as a result of the “seismic shift in popular culture’s depiction of Native Americans” occasioned by the release of Dances With Wolves in 1990, the most celebrated realization of Geronimo as a character in theatrical film has been his portrayal by Wes Studi in this movie. Larry Gross, who assisted in writing the final version of the film script, noted that director Walter Hill intended the film to be “implicitly critical of all previous depictions of white/Native American relations,” but he also asserted that no attempt was made to whitewash Apache violence even in the response to contemporary positive attitudes toward Indians: “The Apaches are highly violent in the film and that may not be in some political interests.” Some critics, though, saw the film as too reverent in its depiction of Geronimo, turning the career of the historical figure into a “patriotic scheme of things in which he represents all that is best and most enduring in the American spirit.”

“From his first appearance in a sound film,” Edward Bunscombe notes, “Geronimo more than any other historical figure came to represent the intractable, rejectionist Indian.” While Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull enjoyed their sympathetic though admittedly ill-conceived treatments in films from the 1950s, Geronimo had to await the Chuck Connors vehicle from 1962, and that film had to revise his story considerably to make it positive from the perspective of Hollywood. In fact, one technique of the “sympathetic” cinema that has characterized fiction films featuring Indian characters involves making a distinction between good Indians and their counterparts (for example, the Lakotas versus Pawnees in Dances With Wolves). Having Geronimo as a character in a film has meant that one could treat other Indians with special sympathy. Not only did Cochise and other “good” Indians have to contend with the hostile forces of invading Euro-American civilization, but they had to confront the unyielding savagery of Geronimo as well. As Ted Jojola has lamented, “Because Geronimo has been cast in so many fierce roles, everyone has genuinely forgotten how to deal with the humanization of such a legend. In spite of all their efforts, Geronimo remains, well, Geronimo.”

Geronimo may remain Geronimo, but exactly what that means has not been static. Coming into public consciousness at a time when the printed word could, within 24 hours, spread reports of his “heinous misdeeds” to readers throughout the continent and abroad, surviving the late 19th and early 20th century exposition culture that exploited him for his entertainment and propaganda values, coexisting with the emergence of popular photography that perceived him as an especially appealing subject, and dying just as films were beginning to assert themselves in popular culture, Geronimo attained a celebrity status that has not vanished in the least, while the depictions of him have varied between overly simplistic extremes of demonization and canonization.

The practice of imagining Geronimo has endured beyond the centennial of his death and continues to flourish as the bicentennial of his birth approaches. While variations in the resulting images suggest that the “real” Geronimo may not ever be fully understood, the process shows us that the allure of the Native American continues to affect the postcolonial imagination.

This excerpt was taken from Imagining Geronimo: An Apache Icon in Popular Culture, by William A. Clements, 2013, and is being reprinted with permission from the University of New Mexico Press.



chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on

from aiahninchi ohoyo....uh, i hate to rain on your parade, but how about quanah parker, tshunka witko, etc..etc...kind of a shame to marginalize all our other native heroes...just because white folk didnt take up their banners and make big bucks!!!