CINEMA / The last of the great Apache

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A FILM that rarely raises its voice is going to have trouble making itself heard in Hollywood. That seems to have been the problem with Walter Hill's Geronimo (12), a western that manages to be mellow as well as monumental. It is the story of the pursuit of the Apache, the last of the great tribes to defy the US Army, and of its leader, Geronimo (Wes Studi). The film has no big climax, not many shoot-outs (by Hill's standards) and few heroics - indeed, it casts a sceptical eye over what it meant to be a hero in the West. Geronimo has taken nearly a year to reach this country, after disappointing returns in America. That is a long time for a movie that has some of the ingredients of a masterpiece - if not in quite the right mix.

The action takes place between 1885-86, with the wounds of the Civil War still healing. The US Army was using 5,000 soldiers (a quarter of its men) to stamp out what little Indian resistance remained. It is clear that the time-honoured methods of attrition are wearing down the officers more than the enemy. Representing this decayed order are two great character actors, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. Hackman, as the US General, sports a flossy white beard and represents the sort of pampered paternalism that alienates the Indians. Duvall plays a scout who has spent years harrying Indians, and manages to make a brutish life seem honourable as well as futile. But the film is clear that it is the subtler approach of Jason Patric's lieutenant, borne of a Southern ambivalence towards the Union and based on respect, that will win Geronimo round with reason rather than force.

For a film that champions native Americans, Geronimo spends a disproportionate time on the US military. Yet when it focuses on the Indians it is deft in identifying their sense of grievance, and their nostalgia for a country that was once their own - their remembered happiness. Hill and his scriptwriters, John Milius and Larry Gross, do not flinch from showing the savagery of the Indian response to their pursuers - the most shocking violence is committed by Indians - but they also show the threat and oppression that governed the Indian life. Such hardships are written on the battered face of Wes Studi as Geronimo, which is scored with mistrust and a kind of contempt.

Hill's direction alternates between tight close-ups and epic long shots. We get to know Studi's craggy face as intimately as we do the Moab canyons. Hill and Lloyd Ahern, his photographer, have gone for a look both ravishing and authentic. Heavily filtered, the film feels hot and dusty, with a warm, burnished tone which makes it seem like an an heirloom, meticulously processed by methods very different from modern photography's antiseptic clarity. It is as if the film itself has been seduced by the Indians' nostalgia for primitivism. In one scene we see the Apache being posed by an early photographer. According to the film, the Apache were the only Indians to have been photographed while still free, before being captured. The resulting monochrome stills emasculate as well as immortalise them.

Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) was celebrated as a revisionist western, despite its bloody shoot-out, in which the hero who had found it so hard to kill regained his deadly ease. Geronimo is much more consistent and complex. At its heart is an argument about civilisation and savagery. 'We made something of this country - it was nothing before,' Hackman tells the Apache. But when the message is brought to him at a military ball that Geronimo has overturned Turkey Creek, the look of disquiet on his face suggests that his smart, goldtrimmed coat hides a breast as savage as that of any Indian. And after his boast about civilisation, we cut to an execution. America replaced the chaos of the wilderness with the efficiency of the gallows.

Geronimo has other arguments to air - tribalism against humanism, idealism against pragmatism. But the arguments never get heated. It is a resigned film - resigned, perhaps, even to its own failure. Though beautifully edited, it lacks dramatic momentum. But it deserves a better fate than it has had in America. There is so much to enjoy - including a wistful Ry Cooder score, and more intelligence and craft than any other current release can offer.

That includes Zhang Yimou's To Live (12), which shows a great director on good rather than towering form. Geronimo could learn, though, from Zhang's ability to ravel commonplace events into involving dramas. The plot of To Live, with its paradoxical view of fate and fortune, ripples out from the desolation of its opening scene, set around 1946, in which the hero (Ge You) loses his house as a gambling debt. Destitute, he is left by his wife (Gong Li), and goes to war, entertaining Nationalist troops with puppetry, before switching sides to the Communists. In peacetime, the loss of his house turns out to have saved his life - the new owner is executed. He settles with his returned wife to family life, buffeted by the squalls and tempests of Chinese history over the next decades.

As ever, Zhang's narrative is teeming, yet miraculously clear. What is different is the tone, which replaces the passionate melodrama of Zhang's masterpieces, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), with a dark irony that is able to embrace both tragedy and farce - sometimes in startling proximity. Zhang's people have always been overwhelmed yet defiant, and here he explores that resilience. Through one family we experience what in 20th-century China may

be an ordinary nightmare. Zhang's talent may be better suited to searing romance (and Gong Li to glamour rather than drudgery), but the movie adds a new shade to a palette whose range and delicacy few directors can match.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (15) is a road movie with a difference - or rather a deviance. It traces the journey of three Sydney showgirls - two drag queens and a transsexual (a gloriously sardonic, hag-like Terence Stamp) - to a resort in Alice Springs, in their bus, Priscilla. Director Stephan Elliott proved himself in his last film, Freaks, which starred Phil Collins as a demented toy manufacturer, to be a master of tacky design. Here he outdoes himself in gaudy magnificence, especially with the characters' frocks, whose giant trains trail in the wind as the girls stand on the roof of their bus. These willowy attention-seekers are an irresistible challenge to the dull conformity of the world. But they are not invulnerable. We see the pain of their defiance as well as its camp hilarity, and how, under attack, they are forced to fall back on masculinity. With the movie set in the imposing vastness of the red desert, it is as if the girls have realised humanity's futility up against nature. Their outrageousness is both a celebration and a mockery of it.

Threesome (18) is comedy of a crude, undergraduate sort, in keeping with its campus setting. A group of room-mates (two boys and a girl) bond so tightly that the world outside is reduced to a backdrop for their humour and intertwined passions. The script is sharp, and it's wonderfully acted by Stephen Baldwin, Josh Charles and Lara Flynn Boyle, who capture the self-love of studenthood.

In a week of sparky movies from the United States, China and Australia, it's sad to report lacklustre fare from Europe. The David Puttnam-produced War of the Buttons (PG) is a wan little tale about boyhood battles between youngsters in neighbouring Irish towns. It's sensitively directed by John Roberts, but a little com

placent in its charm, and too indulgent towards the venomous children - a rose-tinted Lord of the Flies.

Still, it could be a lot worse. It could be Sparrow (12), Franco Zeffirelli's ludicrous tale of a young nun and her flights of passion. You don't know whether to cringe or laugh.

In Monkey Business (U) Harvey Keitel plays a gypsy who trains a monkey to burgle. Keitel is always watchable, even when he's coasting, as here. The monkey is graceful, lithe and intelligent. In what looks a weak year, he may be a good outside bet for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Cinema details: Review, page 82.