By William A. Clements
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.
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.
For more on Geronimo, see Code Name: Geronimo to Be Released and Beyond Geronimo at the Heard.
Below: "This excerpt was taken from Imagining Geronimo: An Apache Icon in Popular Culture, by William A. Clements, 2013."