So, it’s time to admit something of my age and say that I grew up during the great Nostalgia Craze of the 1970s. The Marx Brothers were heroes on college campuses around the country, W.C. Fields was cultural touchstone, interest in vintage films and television seemed inexhaustible, and people reconnected with the glories of the Golden Age of Radio.
And not just adults! No, in the 1970s just as many teenagers could identify Bela Lugosi or Myrna Loy as could hum lyrics from The Rolling Stones or The Bay City Rollers. This sense that Pop Americana was a smorgasbord from which we could pick the most tasty morsels is all but dead – many of my students would rather be skinned alive than watch a black-and-white film, and the current zeitgeist demands that anything “old” (that is, prior to about 1980) is somehow “camp.”
The one anomaly to this current dismissal of Pop Culture Past is the fetishizing of superheroes – figures that actually pre-date the grandfathers of most contemporary film-goers. So it is completely understandable that Disney would bankroll a big-budget retelling of one of the grandest myths of the Great American Century, The Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger was created by writer Fran Striker (1903-1962), first appearing in 1933 on radio station WXYZ, owned by George W. Trendle (1884-1972). Trendle later claimed credit for creating the Ranger, which is not surprising considering how successful the program became. The show was an enormous hit – it was geared towards kids, but more than half of the audience was made up of adults. The radio show would last until 1954, and moved to television show from 1949 to 1957. The Lone Ranger was also the subject of two movie serials, three motion pictures, and one execrable TV movie. He was also fodder for writers and marketing-empire-builders, with eight novels by Striker, countless comic books and Big-Little-Books, and toys and games beyond number.
These fueled the daydreams of countless boys. I came across the Ranger myself when I was 10 or so and the local radio station, WRVR.FM, started a series of weekly radio rebroadcast five nights a week: Gangbusters, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. I loved them all – and was hooked on the Ranger for life.
Though the mythos has often been tweaked over the past 80 years, the basic origin of the Lone Ranger remains the same. He was one of a band of Texas Rangers who were ambushed in Bryant’s Gap by the notorious Butch Cavendish gang. All the other rangers died in the attack; their bodies found by an American Indian named Tonto.
Tonto buried all of the rangers, and also made a fake grave for the surviving ranger, so that Butch and other bad men of the West would not seek him out and finish the job. As Tonto said, “you only ranger left; you Lone Ranger.”
This is – essentially – the story that the new Lone Ranger film sets out to tell. As my readers probably know by now, the film has been a colossal bomb for Disney, rivaling last year’s disaster that was John Carter (based on the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs).
However, we here at The Jade Sphinx (let me break this gently) absolutely loved John Carter. It was a thrilling evocation of all that was great about American pulp fiction. Surely the Disney’s Long Ranger could not be all bad?
In short, it’s not. It is something of a glorious mess; there is so much going on, and it is a rich and interesting film, asking more questions and demanding more imagination than the average summer junk film. If anything, it’s a film crammed with too many ideas rather than just bland CGI action effects. It is faithful to the overall ideals of the Lone Ranger mythos, but also effectively transgressive. Though it will not be to everyone’s taste, I recommend it highly, despite its many failings.
Where to begin? The film opens in 1933 at a carnival, where a child obsessed with the radio Lone Ranger finds the now-ancient Tonto (Johnny Depp, in the most interesting performance of his career) in the sideshow. Tonto, in his dotage, initially thinks the boy is the Ranger himself, but, once he is set right, tells the boy the story of how he and the Lone Ranger came to be.
However, the story, in the telling, is full of holes and frankly incredible incidents of Native American mysticism. Is the old Indian lying…? Or is this how he remembers it? Or does he simply imagine it all? The film never fully answers these questions, and the viewer is invited to decide for himself.
In this telling, Cavendish (a vile-looking William Fitchner) is not only an outlaw, he’s in the pay of an unscrupulous railroad executive. These Big Business interests are supported by the US military, and the whole fetid stew of corporatism, the military and organized crime connive to blame the Indians for various depredations as an excuse for moving them from their land to make way for the railroad. (As one of the chief tells the Ranger before his group is decimated by a Gatling gun, “we are ghosts already.”)
Before John Reid (Armie Hammer) becomes the Lone Ranger, he is a young district attorney, ready to bring the rule of law to the West. His brother (a convincing James Badge Dale) is a Texas Ranger on the trail of Cavendish, and the brothers are together during a horrific ambush, leaving all the rangers dead, except for our hero. In an especially gruesome touch, Cavendish is part cannibal, eating a piece of his victims. He munches on the heart of the Lone Ranger’s brother before making his escape.
Much of the humor of the film is found in how the Ranger and Tonto learn to work as a team – yes, it is a buddy movie, as well, with all that entails. Hammer’s Ranger is the ultimate square – like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he’s a by-the-book law-and-order type, who believes that law and justice are the same things. He is uncomfortable outside of his frame of reference, and he is all too often incompetent at heroics. In fact, Tonto thinks that the Ranger’s brother would’ve been much more effective as an avenger, and claims that kemo sabe means “the wrong brother.” Hammer and Depp work wonderfully well together, but the comedy is too forced, and the jokey banter between the two of them hurts the overall tone of the film.
In fact, tone seems to be the main problem of The Lone Ranger. By turns The Lone Ranger is a serious revenge picture, buddy comedy, meditation on the corrupt complicity of the military and Big Business, an action spectacle and a damnation of this nation’s treatment of its indigenous peoples. There are needless plot points (there are two sequences with Helena Bonham Carter as a wooden-legged madam with a gun in her heel that can excised without notice, saving perhaps 20 minutes of running time), and sometimes the sense of overkill boarders on the grotesque. But there cannot be bounty without excess, and our unreliable narrator somehow makes these disparate parts work as a whole.
The screenplay, by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is an intentional funhouse mirror of our cinematic Western tradition. The movie has echoes of everything from One Upon a Time in the West to The Searchers to Little Big Man to They Died With Their Boots On to The Iron Horse – taking images, ideas and concepts from all of these films and throwing them back at us in a purposely distorted vision.
It is only in the film’s final act, as the Lone Ranger and Tonto hijack a train under the control of railroad magnate Latham Cole (the excellent Tom Wilkinson) to the stirring strains of The William Tell Overture that we have standard Lone Ranger heroics, as the duo ride horses atop the train, dangle from couplings and perform stunts that would do Buster Keaton proud.
Just as science fiction is always about the present and never really about the future, the Western film is always about the modern world and not our mythic past. Each generation gets the Western it deserves, and The Lone Ranger does not paint a pretty picture of America in 2013. The Ranger comes to learn that the rule of law does not hold for Big Business or the military, and that the lives of the poor or disenfranchised are considered exploitable and expendable by the establishment. Tonto presses the mask upon the Ranger throughout the film, but it’s only when the Ranger realizes that there is plenty of law but very little justice that he decides to embrace it. “If this is the law,” he says, “then I guess I’ll be an outlaw.”
The Lone Ranger is a film, I think, that the viewer takes con amore or not at all. I was hooked in the opening moments – director Gore Verbinski creates images in the carnival (and throughout the film) of remarkable beauty and richness. Sadly, when I saw the film at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater, we were two of perhaps 12 patrons for the evening show. The film is flop of monumental proportions and, if you will, I have a thought on that as well.
It’s not that The Lone Ranger is a bad film – perhaps not a coherent action picture, but it’s an elusive and subtle pastiche that is satisfying on many, many levels. The real problem, in terms of box office, is simply that people don’t want it. The West is not part of our increasingly urban zeitgeist, and, to it’s credit, The Lone Ranger even tries to address past political injustices by making Tonto the most important and complex character. True to his code (and unlike the current Superman), the Ranger never deliberately takes a life, strives for a high standard and believes in the rule of law. Perhaps, there is just no place for the Lone Ranger in contemporary America.
One last parting note – readers interested in Western films from the 1950s (and there were two Long Ranger films that decade) could do no better than visiting Toby Roan’s indispensable blog 50 Westerns From the 50s. You can find it here: http://fiftieswesterns.wordpress.com/. It’s a treasure trove of information for the Western film buff.