Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer define justice as they gallop, bicker, bond and are propelled by explosions into Western movie history in the 2013 Disney/Verbinski production of The Lone Ranger. This movie is exhilarating, entertaining, thought-provoking, terrifying, repulsive and hilarious. It may be the best Western I’ve ever seen, and I say that as someone who grew up when TV was wall-to-wall Westerns. My sister and I watched every one of them from the time we got our first B&W TV in the early fifties and all the way through high school in the mid-sixties. This Lone Ranger and Tonto are everything we remember – and more. In fact, this movie is so good we saw it four times in one week, so I didn’t understand the overwhelmingly negative reviews.
The critics were confused, bored, disgusted, insulted by Depp’s portrayal of Tonto, worried that the film distorted history, disappointed that Hammer doesn’t put on the mask ’til an hour into the film, etc. What were these people watching?
The Lone Ranger really begins with a disconcerting (because it’s unbelievable out of context) flash forward to a point later in the story when John Reid has already put on the mask, trying the role of the Lone Ranger on for size, but he has not yet fully committed to his destiny.. We hear a snippet of the William Tell Overture simply to tantalize those of us who know what’s to come. Then we go back to the main story, told by an incredibly old Tonto, who has become a living statue in a Wild West Exhibit at a 1933 San Francisco carnival. And of course the critics find this storytelling vehicle unnecessary. To who? The screenwriter (Haythe) gets to decide how and by whom his story is told. And the studio buys it. This is what happened according to Tonto, who tells the story to Will (Mason Elston Cook), a skeptical young boy, dressed as…The Lone Ranger.
And set against the stark and haunting beauty of the American West/Southwest in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California, the Lone Ranger rides again. The sweeping panoramas of swirling sands and rock castles left behind by time are alone worth the price of admission.
Armie Hammer is a standout as idealistic, hometown boy John Reid, who went off to law school, and left the girl he loved behind – to marry his older brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), now a Texas Ranger like their father. When John returns as a District Attorney, he sees Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), his long lost love, and gets that old feeling. For the critic who complains that this subplot should have been cut, this goes not only to reveal John Reid’s sterling silver character, it begins to unveil the nasty side of Brit character actor Dan Wilkenson’s “Latham Cole,” manager of the Transcontinental Railroad corporation, one of the movie’s two villains. That’s why its there, “pardner.” In addition, she’s the reason Reid, the man who doesn’t believe in guns, comes face-to-face with his spotless ethics when he’s finally reduced to the point of taking justice into his own hands, as he gets the opportunity to kill Butch Cavendish, the man who killed his brother.
Hammer is a tall drink of water at six-foot-five, and his easy, relaxed manner is reminiscent of Tom Selleck, also six-foot-five, who I always admired for being a big enough man, both literally and figuratively, to be willingly and unselfconsciously silly, with no one daring to say a word. Hammer exhibits that same secure masculinity. And for the critic who was upset because he didn’t put on the mask ’til an hour into the film, it’s called a “character arc,” son.
This movie is the story of how John Reid became the Lone Ranger, not an installment in an ongoing series. He doesn’t want to put on the mask. He doesn’t want to become the Lone Ranger. In fact, he puts on and takes off the mask several times. He goes from believing that “Civilized society has no place for a masked man” to realizing that “If men like him (Cole) represent justice, I’d rather be an outlaw.” To which Tonto replies, “That is why you wear the mask.” Reid is forced to change. Again, it’s called a character arc.
And now let’s get to Mr. Depp, who never disappoints. Damn the critics. His Tonto is urbane, comedic, witty, poignant and as determined in his quest for justice as is Reid. For those who whine that Tonto is nothing more than the white man’s sidekick – not in this movie. Tonto is Reid’s mentor, however impatient and constantly conscious of the fact that the “Spirit Horse” has chosen to give him the “wrong brother” to help him in his quest for the “wendigo” that massacred his tribe. In fact, Tonto is one of the main “circumstances” that causes Reid to change his mind about what constitutes justice. Tonto makes Reid the Lone Ranger. And it’s hard to believe critics saw Tonto whap Reid hard in the face – more than once, throw him to the ground over and over, and drag his head through horse dung and still say Tonto is not portrayed as Reid’s equal.
The majority of these particular “critics” are academics (e.g. college professors), mostly non-Indians, who are worried that Depp is taking a role away from an Indian actor. Do they really think that this movie would have been made without Depp? As far as I know, there are no Indian actors who can open a movie. The producers paid $250,000,000 to showcase and profit from Depp’s star power. He’s been more or less attached to the script since 2008 not because the producers couldn’t find an Indian actor for the role, but because they were looking for a known and profitable commodity.
And as for respectful portrayals, the Commanches in this film are sophisticated, intelligent and well aware that they are doomed by, as Saginaw Grant’s Chief Big Bear says “progress.”
The openly evil, as opposed to covertly evil, villain of the piece is Butch Cavendish (William Fitchner), who’s been arrested by Dan Reid, John’s brother, and is being brought into Colby to be hanged under the beneficence of the Transcontinental Railroad corporation. For the critics who object to the “golden spike,” which united the eastern and western railways, being moved to Texas, grow up. It’s a movie. And how many Americans could tell you where that happened anyway? Again, the screenwriter gets to make stuff up. It’s not a documentary. You can set the story any time, any place and change the facts to suit yourself when you write the script. Ever hear “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” or read Stephen King’s novel about what happened when JFK recovered from the attempt on his life?
Back to Butch. Cavendish may be the greasiest, sleaziest, most repellent villain in Westerns. His face is as twisted as his character. He terrorizes even the members of his gang. He’s completely vile, cannibalistic and, like a swaying cobra, impossible to ignore on the screen.
Railroad manager Latham Cole is the movie’s covert villain, the one in the good suit pretending to be working to bring progress to the masses, but in reality bringing profit to himself. The way he and Butch are tied together forms the undercurrent of the story. Both Cole and Butch will casually shoot a man in the back – or the front – as easily as flipping open a cellphone, just to make a point. They are two sides of an evil coin, the obvious blunt instrument of violence and the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, perhaps even more evil because people are so easily taken in by such B.S. Cole is the civilized mask, Butch the lawless enforcer.
But Butch moves like Mikail Baryshnikov. In fact, all the outlaws and the rangers do, especially when they move en masse. It’s like Martha Graham choreographed it. Watch the as the grizzled and greasy Texas Rangers in their long riders roll/stride/swagger on to the train station, big spurs jangling, to await Butch Cavendish. And be held spellbound by the poetic slink of Butch Cavendish’s men easing up on an ore car pushed out of a mine at them. It’s gorgeous. They move like snakes on velvet wires, stepping sideways, left ankle over right ankle over left like Fred Astaire. Butch, particularly, is poetry in motion, albeit repellent, vicious poetry, but beautiful to see. Fitchner’s moves are sensuous, hypnotic and showcased in all his character’s body language. If you never believed bunches of dusty, dirty, sweaty, greasy men could move gracefully, this will change your mind.
And while Silver didn’t get a lot of star time on the TV series, he’s one of the leads in this movie. From his digitized stunts to his quirky sense of humor to his stubborn insistence on turning John Reid, not his brother Dan, into the “spirit walker” who will help Tonto in his quest, every time the situation seems impossible to resolve, Silver is there to resolve it. In fact, he almost steals the show. Watch especially for the shot of him wearing Reid’s white ranger hat.
There were probably more stuntmen on this picture than there were people in my home town. One of them died during the filming of the spectacular underwater sequences. While you can ride a horse fast down a steep hill, I wouldn’t advise it. Galloping full speed down a hill in a herd of other riders will put your heart in your throat and perhaps break your neck. Galloping along a runaway train, standing up atop your saddle and flinging yourself aboard could stop your heart permanently. The stunts come fast and furious, and it’s probably a good thing, because one at a time they seem so impossible they’d be terrifying.
And as for the critics who were confused, yes, there’s a lot going on, but all of it means something. But you don’t have to get every bit of it to “get it.” It reminded me of Miami Vice, which always flung itself headlong through the story and really didn’t care if you picked up every piece of it or not. And like Miami Vice, this movie’s bits of evidence/clues are all right out there in plain sight. Which parts you choose to look at is up to you – every time you see it. And the more you see it, the richer you realize it is. If you don’t pick up all the clues the first time, see it again and pick up some more. The movie is completely logical, and the story unfolds in plain sight. However, it’s so fully locked and loaded with interesting facts/clues, it may be hard to take it all in at once, so in case you still don’t get it, the little boy listening to Tonto’s story acts like a Greek chorus and runs it down for you.
The first time I saw the movie I was shocked that a major studio would greenlight a script that so clearly illustrates what we did to the Indians, our tendency to fight only those we know we outgun, our rationalizations for invasion and occupation, and the blueprint of the power structure that controls both our economy and our government. But I was not at all surprised that the corporate media would put a hit on the film, critics acting like snipers lying in wait, the way Butch Cavendish’s gang ambushed the Texas Rangers from atop the walls of a deep, narrow canyon.
As Bob Patterson, self-billed “world’s laziest journalist,” wrote in his take on the film, since Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer have made “bankers, railroad builders, and the American military look like a gang of outlaws in disguise…the owners of the major media have (apparently) required their reviewers to pan this attempt to besmirch the reputation of the capitalists who built America and provided jobs and prosperity for all the citizens. All the major reviewers who are pounding this new release with a relentless stream of invective are to be commended by their bosses.” and “The visionary capitalists who built America are depicted in this film as being the Doppelganger equivalent of the barbarian Cavendish gang of outlaws.” (Read Patterson’s piece, “Dalton Trumbo Rides Again” at The Smirking Chimp.)
None of these critic/snipers bothers to mention the triumph of good, of which the Lone Ranger is an exemplar, over evil. Nor do they mention the gruesomely real depiction of our slaughter of outgunned Indian nations, the massacre of an entire Indian village in order to keep a secret, or the murder of white settlers while in disguise as Commanches in order to start a war for profit. Can you say “false flag?” (The Pirates of the Caribbean would be familiar with this concept.) Could the movie be any more relevant?! And, in addition, it provides the clearest explanation of a “hostile takeover” I’ve yet seen.
The extended action scene near the end of the movie is framed – finally! – by the William Tell Overture. It’s absolute thrilling all by itself, not just because it’s the original Lone Ranger’s theme, but because it signals the definitive arrival of The Lone Ranger. Reid will not take off the mask again. He’s lost his innocence and found his purpose – all without betraying his principles, which he displays again at the long-postponed celebratory joining of the eastern and western rail lines, where he refuses to take off the mask and refuses to be bought by the chairman of the Transcontinental Railroad corporation.
He rides out of town and meets Tonto. Then he does something that gives Depp the best line in the film. “Don’t ever do that again!”
One critic said “It’s impossible to call it good” He’s right. You have to call it amazing. See it for yourself – again and again and again.
Vi Ransel is New York writer and poet, who has been contributing to Shared Media projects for about a million years.