Kind of a long story. I've been trying to watch more movies lately (I'm sort of videophobic), and I have not been having good luck where westerns are concerned—first I watched "Once Upon a Time in the West," which seems to me a clear artistic failure unless you like symbolism, and then I found something called "Geronimo: An American Legend." Made in 1993, it seemed like a sure thing. Name writer (John Milius, who wrote "Dirty Harry" and co-wrote "Apocalypse Now"), name director (Walter Hill, who directed "The Long Riders"), and a cast that included Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman...how could it miss?
Well, it missed, all right. It's wretched. A politically correct movie about Apaches? I always find a disturbing dissonance in films that try for "historical accuracy" where things like props, costumes, and details are concerned but that impose a thoroughly contemporary interpretation on historical reality. The film is a conceptual mess, and slow-paced and even badly acted to boot, with lots of labored, sanctimonious speeches and an actor who actually does a bad Clint Eastwood impression throughout. Save me.
However, it had a kernel of redemption. At one point as the film wends its slow way towards its unsatisfactory (and historically inaccurate) conclusion, it depicts a photographer called C. S. Fly solemnly documenting a negotiation session between Geronimo and General Crook. "They remain the only known photographs ever taken of the American Indian as an enemy in the field," intones the narrator (Matt Damon).
I don't know about that claim—I wouldn't take the movie's word for it—but it turns out there was indeed a photographer named Camillus Sydney Fly. He ran a photography studio in Tombstone, Arizona, beginning in 1879 or '80 with his wife Mary, who was also a photographer, and he really did photograph Geronimo and a small band of Chiricahua Apache with General Crook's party before Geronimo's surrender.
The Fly studio in Tombstone happened to be adjacent to the O.K. Corral, where the famous gunfight between the Earp brothers and the Clanton gang took place and in which Fly himself played a bit part (he disarmed the dying Billy Clanton after the battle). Although he took no pictures immediately after the gunfight, he later made the famous shot of Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton in their caskets in Tombstone that is reproduced in so many books about the Old West.
As has happened to so many photographers, much of his and Mary's archive was destroyed by catastrophe—in their case, when the studio burned to the ground in 1912, eleven years after the death of Camillus. Mary, who on the evidence must have been a true pro ("first, get the shot"), took a picture.
Today, a modern replica of the studio is a tourist attraction in downtown Tombstone.
I wouldn't recommend that movie, but I am glad to have learned about C. S. and Mary Fly.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
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