Recently, one of my college-age relatives observed that most Hollywood films these days can be divided into two types: “The Shawshank Redemption” or “The Transformers.” Some films encourage moviegoers to explore dramatic human conflicts and achievements, while others only claim to offer viewers an opportunity to be entertained while talking to their movie-going companions and witnessing some impressive technical wizardry. The Disney studio’s latest summer epic, “The Lone Ranger” does not seem to decide which of those two types it wants to be.
Whatever was intended, the movie has been a box-office disaster. Released for the July 4th weekend, it has lagged far behind other summer movies such as “Monsters University,” “Despicable Me 2” and “Iron Man 3.” Why? Critics have suggested that there is no audience for standard Wild West movies anymore; the farmers and the cowboys have morphed into extraterrestrials or vampires. They remind us that, since the television series ended its run more than fifty years ago, the vast majority of moviegoers these days actually have no memory of or attachment to “The Lone Ranger.” Some observers dare to propose that Johnny Depp is no longer the star who can “open” a film to guaranteed success. They also point to the film’s “grab-bag” of plots and themes and the confusion about what the director and writers intended the movie to be. The last point touches on the essential problem with “The Lone Ranger.”
On the one hand, it claims to re-interpret the classic story, especially in its revisionist view of the “faithful Indian companion,” Tonto, while touching on some other social and ethical issues. Or it wants to be an action film, offering some awesome stunts and special effects, especially, near the end of the film, in a thrilling train ride to the tune of the William Tell Overture, the theme music of the radio and television shows. With more than a hundred stunt-persons and another hundred special-effects artists listed in the film’s credits, the director Gore Verbinsky and the writers Ted Elliott and Jerry Rossio show little interest in character development or credibility. Why should they? The formula worked pretty well in the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies that the team created.
The story of the Lone Ranger first appeared as a radio series in 1933, and went on to great popularity, showing up in no less than 18 novels, a comic book series, a film–short series, and a popular television show from 1949 to 1957. This latest version of the legend begins in 1933—the very year that the radio series began—as a tale told by a very old Tonto, who has ended up posing as “The Noble Savage” in a diorama of the Wild West at an amusement park in San Francisco, to a boy dressed in a Lone Ranger costume. This particular framing of the story might even suggest another direction that the film means to take, as something of a spoof of the stereotypes and clichés of the B-movie Hollywood Westerns of mid-century America.
Tonto’s story takes us back to the Texas of 1869 where a young idealist named John Reid is riding a train back to his home town after graduation from law school. When Reid visits the train’s prison car, he encounters a Comanche fellow named Tonto, who is being held for the crime of, as he puts it, “being an Indian.” Already the dynamic of the law vs. the outlaw is introduced. Upon Reid’s arrival in town, he is deputized as a Texas Ranger by his brother. They both head out with a posse in pursuit of Butch Cavendish, an infamous criminal who has escaped from that same prison car. Within a short time, unfortunately, all the members of the search party are ambushed and killed by Cavendish and his gang. However, Tonto having also escaped from the prison car, comes upon the dead bodies, and, with the help of a white stallion whom he recognizes as a “spirit horse,” Tonto revives John Reid, who may or may not have really died, and together they continue in pursuit of Cavendish. Tonto suggests that Reid, who is considered to have expired with the rest of the search party, should wear a mask to keep his identity hidden from those who might still wish to kill him. (Are you still with me, or am I going too fast for you?)
All of this occurs within the first fifteen minutes of the film. The adventures continue for more than two hours, with more elaborate schemes to capture Cavendish, more dangers and more narrow escapes than one can count. It certainly is fun, especially since Tonto tends to take a somewhat cynical and condescending attitude towards this White man’s naïve interest in “justice” as an alternative to the Wild West’s law of the gun, providing numerous wisecracks and put-downs with a Buster Keaton stone-face.
The film touches on major themes in the mythology of the Wild West: the railroad as a means of both uniting the American continent and enriching 19th century tycoons; the lure of the precious deposits of silver in the West; the magical connection between the indigenous people and the animal world; the White people’s betrayal of Native Americans in broken treaties; the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers; the threat to the peace-loving settlers by the “savagery” of the displaced tribal population; the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry to rescue the citizens; and—dominating every scenario—the use and abuse of firearms. However, none of these issues is explored with any depth of historical or symbolic meaning.
The contemporary twist in the Lone Ranger mythology is the prominence of the sidekick, Tonto, in the latest of a series of quirky comic performances by Johnny Depp. His appearance as Tonto may be his most outlandish mask yet. His face is covered by a white make-up that is dried and cracked and lined with dark black markings, and on the top of his head he wears the body of a large black crow, which may or may not be dead. This mask is said to be based on a painting, “I am Crow,” by the Native American artist, Kirby Sattler, but it seems a bit elaborate for a character who has been ostracized by his own people and therefore uninvolved in any tribal warfare or ceremony that might require such facial decoration. In any case, it’s unpleasant to look at for two hours.
Meanwhile, Army Hammer appears as the classically handsome Lone Ranger, who never seems to need to take a bath or change his clothes or allow his bright white hat to get smudged, while performing incredible physical feats that display his power as the “spirit warrior,” which Tonto recognizes and occasionally even admires.
The screenplay and the characters might remind movie fans of some far better examples of the genre over the years: the posse-journeys of “The Searchers” and “Unforgiven”; the gunslinger vs. the lawyer in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”; the fascination with tribal culture in “Dances with Wolves” “Little Big Man,” and “A Man Called Horse”; and, in its last scenes, the exit of the cowboy-hero in “Shane.” These classics, however, chose to focus on a particular struggle and a limited scope of action. “The Lone Ranger” does not.
The setting of much of the action in Utah’s Monument Valley, the favorite locale of John Ford, is the one feature of the film that does not disappoint. The spectacular shots of the scenery surpass even Ford’s cinematography with views of the imposing desert cliffs rising in the vast and barren landscape and dwarfing the human inhabitants and visitors.
The musical background composed by Hans Zimmer enhances the excitement considerably. However, there should have had a music-history consultant on hand. In one scene, in the ceremony honoring the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad to the town, the band plays a rousing version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Nice trick, since it would be another twenty-five years or so before John Phillip Sousa would compose that march in 1895.
After all the action has calmed down, there is a final moment when the Lone Ranger’s magnificent white stallion rears up on his hind legs as his rider waves his white hat and shouts, “Hiyo Silver,” away!” This iconic sequence is familiar to those who followed “The Lone Ranger” stories many years ago, but Tonto is appalled and shouts, “Don’t ever do that again!” Maybe the people at Disney might heed that advice as well.