Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner
The Lone Ranger, a borderline comic book film infused with outrageous action and dry humor, is good summer fun with a fresh mythic twist, courtesy of the filmmaking team behind the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The titular masked hero is brought to life through the eyes of his old sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has been transformed, for the purposes of the film, from caricature to a Native American spirit warrior with equal – and at times top – billing. The story begins as Tonto recounts to a young boy in 1933 – and us, an audience in 2013 — the untold tale of John Reid (Armie Hammer), a district attorney, and his passage into legend. Behind the well-written, well-acted and expertly-directed film lie dark references to the rise of warfare between the white settlers and the Indian nations. Politics and business colluded to create terrible, inevitable incidents of history as America expanded westward in the 1800s. For modern audiences, Tonto and the Lone Ranger put their legendary heads and hearts together to lead a spirited fight for justice and the rule of law against greed, stupidity and corruption. Two unlikely heroes make for a dynamite duo.
I love the new rendition of The Lone Ranger — but that could be because I am over 70, a longtime Johnny Depp fan and a proponent of contemporary films revamping outdated cultural mythology for the greater good. For those who remember the original legend of a masked man in a white hat who rode into town and set folks straight in the wild west, the emergence of a 21st century Lone Ranger with Tonto now a full blown equal is sheer pleasure. Depp does a respectful turn as an American Indian who lives in sync with nature, thriving before the age of the machine; Depp, with help from some very smart writing, helps the visionary spirit of the west live on. The humor and wild acts of Good triumphing over Arch-evil in The Lone Ranger draws forth audience participation in the best way.
As the new story begins in a 1933 San Francisco carnival, a boy masked and garbed in the Lone Ranger’s likeness wanders into a natural history sideshow, where a life-size buffalo and brown bear loom, mounted in displays next to an aged American Indian standing before a painted Monument Valley backdrop. The Indian’s diorama is called ‘The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat,” and the Indian wears a dead crow on his head.
For the cognoscenti, The Lone Ranger made his first appearance on radio in 1933. He was the last of an elite band of Texas Rangers ambushed by bandits and restored to life by Tonto, who became his faithful companion. His image ushered in look-alike post-WWII boys and girls who rode imaginary horses and longed to be the masked Ranger, with cap guns and silver bullets that never missed.
Now the story comes alive again as an old Indian who calls himself Tonto begins to tell a young boy the story of the Lone Ranger and to appropriate his legend for modern times. As if to keep a boy from 2013 as fascinated as the boy from 1933, Tonto tells his story so loosely, with shifts in time and space and special effects, that he seems to perform the magic of time travel. In seconds, he steps back and forth from diorama to the past, where all the action takes place. This version of the Lone Ranger mimes iconic scenes from past and present western moviemaking, wreaking havoc on any viewer’s effort to reference actual history.
What is clear is the film’s invitation to shift the singular image of hero in our minds. Tonto begins as a prisoner in a boxcar on a train sitting next to Butch Cavenish (William Fichtner), who’s being transported for trial. But Cavenish’s gang rides up along the train and boards with guns blazing to free their boss.
When the man who will become the Lone Ranger leaves his passenger seat and attempts to save the folks on the train by taking charge of Cavendish, an auspicious meeting with Tonto quickly puts the two men on equal footing. From here on out, these two men from very different backgrounds become reliant on one another to create vision, not destruction for the future.
Once upon a time, the Lone Ranger was “lone.” He was the old-fashioned, outsider hero much revered and admired. I listened to him on the radio, followed him on TV and occasionally caught him at the movie theater in Saturday afternoon serials. It was a time when girls learned a social identity from male heroes. He took his place in society as “the Masked Man (with) his Faithful Indian companion” in feature films, newspaper comics and comic books.
His image rearing high on his white horse, shouting out “Hi Ho Silver, Away” is seared into the cultural psyche, forever merged with the William Tell Overture — and now includes Depp’s startled eyes and an indelible comment that says ‘hey, buddy, you’re not up there by yourself anymore.’ Look at the new film poster and compare it to an old one for confirmation of two heroes becoming one as the new legend unfolds.
Johnny Depp’s exemplary characterization of Tonto is seeding the image of a “brother hero.” To wit, here is a quote from a previous piece I wrote about the emerging double-hero archetype in Master and Commander for The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal: “In Master and Commander, duty is wedded to compassion as both friend and opposite, as separable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.” Together, Tonto and the Lone Ranger create a similar dynamic duo of interdependence and reversibility, a “brother hero” with two faces – one quite erudite and one quite ready to smite – who burst forth from literary folklore to cope with an encroaching imbalance in nature. Each becomes more the man he is in the presence of the other.
I don’t remember a woman, saloon-keeper or wife in the early radio or film presentations of the Lone Ranger, so I’m left with Miss Kitty fromGun Smoke. In today’s version, however, the wife and the saloon-keeper madam are both colorful, independent women who are worthy of being identified with by a new generation of young girls. Wife and mother Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson) is married to the Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), the ranger who apprehended Cavendish and was subsequently killed in the ambush, his heart torn out and eaten by the bandit. Reid’s younger brother is the up-and-coming legend who’s been sweet on Rebecca since they were kids. Red Harrington (Helen Bonham Carter) sports a tattooed, ivory false leg that doubles as a shotgun and an erotic art object for those moments in a madam’s life when her authority is in jeopardy. Rebecca is no victim when the bad guys capture her; she protects her son and escapes. And, in the end, when the Lone Ranger (her husband’s younger brother) goes back on the trail, she leaves him with a seductive smile that will, for sure, bring him back to the gate of her ranch.
In The Lone Ranger, the last Texas Ranger, the one who didn’t die in the ambush, gains a star-powered equal, Tonto. Greed, pride and ruthless exploitation give rise to two men of opposite persuasions who carve out principled relations with each other. Tonto anoints the surviving Ranger a spirit walker – “one who has crossed over to the other side and returned.” He gives him a name, Kemosabe. In the old legend, Kemosabe meant “man of wisdom.” But when the Ranger asks this Tonto what Kemosabe means, he answers flatly, “wrong brother.” Tonto – like the rest of us when we entered the theater — reckoned for the heroically recognizable ranger, the older brother who put Cavendish in cuffs but was killed in the famous ambush.
The film brings forth a timely heroic image of two men, flipsides of one another who are brought together to meet a grievous outcome of progress — a nature out of balance. Rabbits have become fierce, and horses stand atop tall trees and gulp liquor. C.G. Jung speaks of two forces governing our actions as human beings. One lies within, the other is the spirit of the times. When times call for men and women to cope with nature out of balance, learning to live with paradox is required. To counter bad guys who exist on both sides of the law, the Ranger calls upon the intellect of a dead philosopher (Thomas Paine) while Tonto calls upon the spirit of a dead bird. Together they function comically and effectively within a world driven by progress and leavened with absurdity.
The interaction between the Lone Ranger and Tonto functions as an alchemical symbol of opposites in motion. Visual imaging of the two men in action invites audiences to feel the underlying unification of opposites. The whole beneath promotes a new level of understanding. Neither man stays good for long, nor bad.
Tonto and the Lone Ranger regularly surprise one another as they see themselves mirrored in each other’s behavior; when Cavendish is cornered in the middle of the film, Tonto seizes Reid’s gun, not keen on Reid’s intent to bring Cavendish “to justice” via the courts, only to be smacked on the back of the head by a shovel. In another instance, Reid is dragged from an impromptu burial up to his neck by his horse, leaving Tonto behind only to return moments later to inquire the way to the river where Cavendish and his boys are hiding. The man who lives by the book of principles readily abandons the man relying on a dead bird when he’s buried to his neck in sand until he can’t move forward without him. The man of instincts with a bird on his head readily turns an agreement to his own purposes – until his purpose goes asunder.
Good and bad go hand in hand with these two, in clear sight unified within and between them. One is as certain to bonk the other with a shovel to get his way as the other is sure to save the day when all is lost. It’s pretty hilarious, and pretty sophisticated humor.
Don’t slide toward an easy resolution of The Lone Ranger. It’s meant to move in the psyche. The film is easy to dismiss as wrong, wrong-headed and wrongly directed. Monument Valley, for instance, isn’t in Texas where the railroad is being built. The characters and conflicts are ones you’ve seen so many times – all the usual players are there: greedy corporates, mangy outlaws, savvy saloon madam, good wife, dead lawmen and dead natives, etcetera. And yet all the action — ambush, trickery, train robbery and massacres – are all shenanigans of the first, the second and the third order of Westerns everyone wants to see. A few shocking scenes are included, perhaps to avoid boredom for the jaded under-twenty-somethings. Don’t dismiss the film, or you’ll miss the seesaw motion of Tonto and Reid as they become a double-hero archetype and the ‘every-man-out-for-himself’ myth bites the dust.
After the masked boy of 1933 leaves the carnival tent, resolved to wear his mask forever, the old Indian leaves the diorama, having changed his buckskin for a suit, and a real crow flies forward out of the historically dusty remnants of Monument Valley. I felt its whistling wings pass my ears, a courier of “the spirit walker” opening the way between then and now…and a then to come. Bring it on, I say. Bring on the mythology that meets the challenges of our day. See this film.