As we customarily write about old school pop culture here, and my theoretical next book (a couple of years away) is about westerns, we felt obligated to see the new Lone Ranger reboot, as distasteful as the prospect seemed. There were no surprises in what I saw, but we’ll get to that.
First, as we’ve done with other such properties, such as The Bat, The Three Musketeers and The Great Gatsby, we offer a little historical backgrounder.
The Lone Ranger began as a radio series in 1933, which ran until the mid 1950s. The entire Lone Ranger mythos originated on the radio show, as did many other elements such as the use of the William Tell Overture as theme music, and the cry “Hi Yo, Silver!” You can hear several episodes here at the Lone Ranger Fan Club: http://www.lonerangerfanclub.com/radioepisodes.html
Next in 1938 and 1939 it was adapted into a couple of movie serials by Republic Pictures. Watch a chapter here:
Next came the version most people today know best, the television version which ran from 1949 through 1957, starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Moore is one of the most preposterously wooden actors I’ve ever seen — his line readings are almost like a gag. He makes Jack Webb seem like Olivier. Silverheels became one of America’s best known Native American actors, and is ironically credited with helping to improve the image of the Native American in pop culture, despite the fact that he is doing a “how, ugh” redface act. The positive aspect is that he is a “Noble savage”; he is loyal and heroic – – he doesn’t scalp people, for example. But he’s sort of the Indian equivalent of Uncle Tom. How little things change! Here’s a random episode:
The first reboot of the franchise came in 1981, and I remember it well. There was much public controversy at the time because Clayton Moore rather pathetically tried to sue the producers of the re-make over the rights to use the Lone Ranger mask. Where he got the idea that he “owned” the mask will forever be a mystery. Not only had it been worn by about a dozen Lone Rangers before him, but it had been worn by hundreds of other characters besides the Lone Ranger, starting probably with the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, etc. By the 1930s, it was a much overused trope in westerns, murder mysteries, science fiction, superhero stories. Sometimes villains wore them, sometimes heroes. Perhaps a class action suit would have been more appropriate! At any rate, the irony is it brought a whole bunch of publicity to a film that deserved to quickly disappear. Inspired by Star Wars’ revival of the retro science fiction serial idea, and the 1978 Superman reboot, this quickie/cheapie was spewed out, and it’s just atrocious. In fact, one of the few good things that can be said about the 2013 version is that at least it was better than the 1981 one.
We’ll get to the wrongness (on every level) of Johnny Depp as Tonto subsequently, but first its other virtues and flaws. First (since I have so much negative to say), something positive.
As directed by Gore Verbinski, I thought the film was beautifully shot and many of the action sequences were breath-takingly (and wittily) staged. Yet the director’s penchant for quotation is also a bit gobbledy gook. So, on the one hand, while I was extremely grateful for all that jaw dropping footage of Arizona’s Monument Valley (standing in for Texas), on the other hand, that region’s primary cinematic association is with John Ford, who made a VERY different type of Western from adventure serials like The Lone Ranger. (Likewise the use of some very Morricone-sounding music on the soundtrack. What do spaghetti westerns have to do with this?)
Serious issues, adult themes. Can the framework of this horse opera handle ’em? Well, the umpteen screenwriters apparently think so, and lard the jokey but joyless screenplay down with so much freight that the two and a half hour behemoth of a film fractures in several places under its own weight. There seem to be about ten plots; they do all interconnect, but that doesn’t make it any less rococo a contraption. Greed for silver, greed for railroads, revenge, romance, non-violence and the rule of law, war with the Indians: the thing has in it everything but the arrival of Santa Claus. Disney made this — have they forgotten the virtue of their own story template? SIMPLICITY, ladies and gentlemen! Snow White and the Seven Dwarves — 83 minutes and feels WAY shorter than that. Or (for God’s sake) the previous versions of The Lone Ranger. A half hour tv show–perfect! That’s all this thing was meant to bear.
And I’m sorry – -I keep having this argument with everybody these days it seems. It’s only okay to turn a comic book into Wagner if the writer is… Wagner. It’s a valid idea to expand a mythic tale to epic proportions. But Hollywood doesn’t value writers. It specializes in hackery. So all we get is epic length and epic pretension, and perhaps epic themes, but expressed with such puny and crabbed and intellectually impoverished language that it’s like a five year old wearing pa’s ten gallon hat. Though the visual element is often beautiful, the actors would be better off with potatoes shoved in their mouths than speaking their lines.
As in most contemporary films, the writers and producers have tweaked this time-honored warhorse in the wrong direction, taking larger-than-life 19th century characters and making them talk like contemporary Junior High School students. I really lost count of the cheeky anachronisms, which I guess are supposed to be cute or funny, but it is a cliche now, a cliche far worse than the ones from the 1930s which at least have the virtue of not having been used in a half a century.
And the cynicism and the nastiness! The story is ostensibly being told to a seven year old boy, presumably a stand-in for the film’s target audience. And the story we tell the boy is filled to the brim with graphic violence and occasional profanity. One man is gutted like a fish and chokes in his own blood. In reaction, another man vomits. A trans desperado expresses the slight hope that he’ll be raped by the lawmen. A train wreck comes to a skidding halt and one of its pistons comes lose and flies javelin-like through the air, landing between our heroes in the spitting image of an erect penis. For no reason at all (except I guess to amuse any mongolian idiots in the audience) a pile of manure plops out of a horse’s ass — in close-up. And a bunch of cute, sweet little bunnies turns out to be a pack of savage, meat-eating, fanged jackalopes. I assure you that Walt Disney is spinning in his grave.
As for Depp’s portrayal of Tonto? (Armie Hammer is a non-entity, at least in this film, so there’s no point in talking about him). But I was curious about Depp’s take on this thing and if his choice to go redface is somehow redeemed in the film. It is not. Granted, his character does not seem unintelligent (although he is crazy. That’s why he wears a dead bird on his head). But surely everyone connected with the project ought to realize that the absence of articles in his pidgin speech is LOADED territory. And ground had actually been gained in the movies’ depictions of Native Americans. This is post Pow Wow Highway (1989) and Smoke Signals (1998) and Geronimo (1993). If some sort of ironic joke is intended, it is weak and unappreciated. Hollywood has a lot of bad karma to work off in the Indian depiction business. It is an understatement to say that it is premature to declare that we’re already “All past that now” — not until there have been another 500 movies or so made that have squared the record somewhat. The Duchess and I watched They Died With Their Boots On the other day, in which Custer nobly “cleared the plains” to make room for the expanding white man. Contemplate the meaning of that. Does Depp humanize Tonto? Yes, he seems to have done some research. He chants in what sounds like genuine Comanche (I’m an expert, don’t you kn0w), and he channels some authentic looking folkways. But as has been said many times by now, almost every cracker with roots in the South has some Eastern Cherokee in him. I’m one of them: 1/64th on my maternal grandmother’s side. By the way, that’s the same percentage as Senator Warren. Something ironic in how people can choose to be an “Indian” when there is some advantage in it. And what I mean to say by that is, “Him go that way, Kemosabe!”
Does Depp intend it ironically? In a sense, I hope so, just as I hope the film-makers intended the scene where the Lone Ranger and Tonto outrun an exploding fireball ironically because I can’t possibly take anyone seriously who puts such a shot in a movie after it has been used 500,000 times. But on the other hand, I really don’t want irony in a movie like this, in an age when everyone from six to sixty seems hard-bitten, without hope or direction, cynical and world weary, when the Best Lack All Conviction, and the World is Too Much With Us. And now apparently even the Lone Ranger is a smart-ass.