This is Not the Lone Ranger You’re Looking For
Lindsay Marshall | On Jul 08, 2013
The Lone Ranger opens on the unfinished Golden Gate Bridge and pans to a floating red balloon, then to the child seated in a Ferris wheel, arms reaching for the toy. A woman in silhouette beside him pulls his arms down and turns him to face forward again, and we zip down to a carnival in full swing (and an odd frame story). It’s as if he’s the ghost of children who loved the Lone Ranger, and children who came expecting a story for children. They reach for that story, while the adult audience and filmmakers bat their arms down and ask them to watch a very different film. If they didn’t want to invite the comparison, maybe they shouldn’t have made it a red balloon.
Or maybe the boy is the filmmakers. Critics have panned The Lone Ranger as mindless blockbuster fodder, even anti-American screed. It is neither. The filmmakers know they’re dealing with American mythos, and they’re trying to tell a classic story in a post-9/11 anti-hero culture with a more complex (though still highly inaccurate) view of the history of the American West than the Lone Ranger’s original audience held. But like the balloon, the film they seem to want to make floats away as they reach, and the drive of the box office (and perhaps Depp’s deep love of Jack Sparrow) pulls them back into the realm of burping horses and dragging Reid’s head through Silver’s poop.
For what we’ve come to expect from a summer blockbuster, The Lone Ranger is in the middle of the pack. Comedic moments, sweeping scenery, and some incredible action set pieces make it worth the diversion of a summer afternoon. Armie Hammer acts his heart out, and though other critics found him uncharismatic, I liked his John Reid and saw him as a man wrestling with tragedy and thinking he had to let go of his ideals to seek justice. Though he was the slowest of anyone on screen or in the seats to figure out who the bad guys were, it was his blind trust in the system that endeared him to me.
Reid’s journey into skepticism mirrors our own. He starts, clean cut and suited up, thumping John Locke as his Bible refusing to wield a weapon under any circumstances (more on that later), convinced that if Tonto was chained in a train car, he was “there for a reason.” Over the course of the film, he abandons each illusion. It’s not unlike the average student’s journey through the study of American history (though thankfully the students face much lower stakes than Reid). We start with George Washington and the cherry tree, then slip in offhand references to slavery, ending with (if we’re lucky and have a good teacher) acknowledgement of the attempted genocide of the native tribes of the frontier, among other things.
There is real tension between American history as mythic exceptionalism and American history as rise of the evil empire. Like all countries, we carry both within us. As I often tell my AP US History students, in studying American history we must sail between Scylla and Charybdis, avoiding being duped by a history of heroes and villains on the one hand, and being sucked into hopeless cynicism on the other.
A charitable viewing of this film must recognize that someone in the storytelling chain was trying to acknowledge that tension. They failed miserably to be sure, but in a fascinating way. Maybe the need to put butts in seats overwhelmed the vision (hence the Jack Sparrow Tonto and burping, pooping Silver), or maybe the storytellers themselves didn’t quite figure out that balance between the two views was necessary to make a grittier Lone Ranger believable.
The film went off the rails in a number of ways. First and foremost (to my current research obsession at least) was the depiction of Comanche people and by extension, natives in general. I won’t even address the farce of Johnny Depp’s “native heritage” and “honorary membership.” Whole volumes could be written on the political, financial, and cultural motives on all sides of that ridiculous marketing scheme. The bottom line is that Disney took a role that was groundbreaking in the mid century with the casting of Jay Silverheels and backtracked, doing backflips to justify casting a white A-lister in a farcical costume to be the comic relief. Add to that the screenwriters’ choice to make Tonto an idiot savant whose religious beliefs are mocked by his fellow Comanche and who has been kicked out of his tribe for a childhood “crime.” Native communities, almost across the board, were notoriously kind to people within the group with physical or mental disorders. The scene where the Comanche elders ridiculed the concept of evil spirits and left Tonto buried up to his neck to die had me cringing. Gil Birmingham looked like he was in physical pain just having to listen to the lines.
Leaving aside the fact that the entire portrayal of native peoples in the film is historically inaccurate (almost every single account of a tiny contingent of soldiers with a Gatling gun taking on massive numbers of Plains Indians ended in bloody defeat for the soldiers), the darker implications of the film’s worldview are deeply racist. The Comanche leadership becomes trustworthy, both to Reid and his brother (and the audience) when they offer materialistic explanations for Tonto’s “otherness.” Ah, we can like these Indians. They think like us westerners. They nobly go to their deaths like lambs to slaughter, not having provoked the war, but unwilling to shrink from it even though they were set up. They couldn’t possibly attempt a negotiation, or wield the press for their own story to be told. Never mind that the history of the latter years of the Indian Wars (a time in which this film claims to be set) is teeming with precisely those kinds of stories.
But this film is, oddly enough, trying with all its might not to buy into the worldview of cowboys v. Indians, or America right or wrong. It just doesn’t quite make it to the other side because it’s unwilling to do the heavy lifting required, and it’s certainly not going to ask its audience to think about anything too hard.
The biggest problem with the film is the mismatch between its source material and the tone of the film. This is not a problem unique to The Lone Ranger. Someday I’ll sort my thoughts on this phenomenon enough to be able to write something coherent, but there’s a very odd appropriation of children’s literature/entertainment by adult audiences that isn’t entirely motivated by the need studios have for branded material. Maybe we’re getting dumber and having a hard time with grown up stories as a culture (Shakespeare was meant for commoners, after all), or maybe we just can’t stomach the grown up stories we tell ourselves and seek solace in characters from our childhood who might still understand us today, but we can’t seem to leave them as we found them. We insist they speak like we do now, engage in violence we find cathartic, tell dirty jokes and have sexual histories we envy.
I have no particular loyalty to the character of the Lone Ranger. The closest I get to a personal connection is the fact that my great x 3 uncle, Asa Collingsworth Hill, was a captain of spies for the Texas Rangers just before the Civil War. But there’s something charming about a hero who was invented to instill virtues in an audience of children, some of which were far ahead of their time (the Lone Ranger would never shoot to kill, for example, and the bad guys would rarely if ever be non-white Americans to avoid instilling racist tendencies). Those ideals were so important to the team that brought the Lone Ranger to television that Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels felt compelled to live by the Long Ranger’s creed on and off set. It takes a despicable level of callousness to sweep that all aside in favor Tonto visiting a whorehouse and Reid shooting to kill the baddie.
More than that, the violence in this film is, even in a high body count blockbuster season, shocking. A bad guy who cuts the heart out of a living character and eats it, a maid shot to death as an afterthought after being threatened with a particularly kinky rape – come to think of it, I lost count of the number of rape threats that occurred over the course of the film. It’s one thing to revamp the blind optimism of mid-century westerns. It’s quite another to drag a story based on wisely opposing empowered injustice into the realm of cynical amorality.
Which brings me to the arc about Reid’s distaste for firearms. This might be the biggest missed opportunity in the film. The Lone Ranger is famous for shooting only to disarm, never to kill, and he shoots silver bullets to remind him to measure his shots, for each one is precious. In the new adaptation, the only silver bullet is the one Tonto wants to use to kill the evil spirited baddie. Reid is a bad shot at first who, in his first encounter, accidentally smashes outlaws’ heads in while trying to disarm them. He gets better as a shot, but never once attempts to use his gun to disarm. Instead he tries to kill bad guys during a spectacular train sequence in the finale.
That’s not just a missed moral opportunity, it’s lazy ass storytelling. How much better would it be to use Reid’s aversion to weapons, counter it against Tonto’s bloodthirsty revenge, and use the tension between the two to give us the Long Ranger’s famous battle tactics? Alas, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio couldn’t be bothered to be so creative (not a shock from the crack team that brought us Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides).
Ultimately, the failure to think creatively through the tension of a wide-eyed mid-century western and the expectations of a post-9/11 audience who knows Wounded Knee as a massacre rather than a battle and Little Bighorn as a battle rather than a massacre proves to be too much for The Lone Ranger. It has breathtaking action sequences and genuinely funny moments, but they’re paired with brutal violence and sexual threat that jars so badly it’s hard to imagine that the team that wrote and edited the film ever spoke to the various units that shot its sequences.
Like with Star Trek: Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, and Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger has a body count problem that’s worth much further examination. My favorite articles on the phenomenon so far are Matt Singer’s take at Criticwire, and Kyle Buchanan’s from Vulture. But unlike the other films’ heroes, the Lone Ranger was created for the sole purpose of instructing children in noble action. To twist the story to include whorehouses, eating living hearts, and smashing in heads may bring the Long Ranger into the realm of entertainment for grown ups, but it does a massive disservice to the children he exists to inspire. The trouble is, the stories we tell about ourselves shape who we become. There’s danger in making children’s films full of unrepented, even unacknowledged death and destruction. As that other great role model, Jean-Luc Picard once said, “When children learn to devalue others, they can learn to devalue anyone.”
Find more of Lindsay’s writing at The Narrow Gait.
Lindsay Marshall is a high school history teacher, lifelong student, intermittent writer, and avid horseback rider. You can find her thoughts on politics, history, film, and whatever else catches her attention at The Narrow Gait or Wheatstone Academy’s The Examined Life.