There has always been something more than a little bit nelly about the Lone Ranger. He’s a bachelor hero who rides around the Wild West with his Native American companion, dispensing justice with a single silver bullet. No matter what happens, he always keeps his powder blue cowboy outfit immaculate. So fastidious, such a drama queen.
It’s no wonder the mythic figure found easy transformation into any number of flamboyant, crooning cowboys in the past. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles clearly plays up the queer ethos epitomized in the Lone Ranger. Like many Brooks films, Blazing Saddles parodies the tropes of its genre, and stages it here as an excessively campy quasi-musical. This past February, Marvel comics released a new treatment of 1950s’ Western superhero series, “The Rawhide Kid.” He comes roaring out of the closet in issue #1, and makes a number of lewd insinuations about the Lone Ranger along the way.
Which brings us to the WB’s original movie The Lone Ranger, also potentially the pilot of a new series. Apparently, its fate hasn’t been decided yet, as the network waits to see how the movie event is received. Following the rather unexpected success of Smallville, The WB is trying to cash in again on the retelling of a classic story, from a younger “perspective.”
Following Smallville‘s focus on a teenaged Clark Kent, The Lone Ranger introduces us to a young Luke Hartman (Chad Michael Murray), a 20-year-old Bostonian who has come to Dallas to visit his brother, Harmon (Sebastian Spence), before he starts Harvard Law School. What puts Luke on the road to his transformation into the Lone Ranger is his survival of an ambush by a band of outlaws called “The Regulators” that leaves his brother dead.
Led by the villainous Kansas City Haas (Dylan Walsh), the Regulators are in cahoots with Dallas businessman James Landry (Jeffrey Nordling) to put down local resistance to the expansion of the Union Pacific railroad. Unfortunately, Harmon and his party of Texas Rangers happened to be in the way. The desire to avenge his murdered brother then is what brings Luke, with the help of Tonto (Nathaniel Arcand), to become the mysterious masked man of legend.
The The Lone Ranger does attempt to butch up the story, or at least make it less corny for a younger generation, but it can’t quite escape all of the queer connotations mentioned above. Most obviously, it alters the costume, offering a more deconstructed, messier version. Yes, the Ranger must have his mask, but here it’s paired with jeans and a chambray shirt, or some other, less “uniformy” combo.
By the end of the movie, when the Legend of the Lone Ranger is beginning to take, his official costume evolves into an all-black affair. Apparently, this is more masculine, even more “threatening,” than the Ranger’s trademark costumes. But how seriously (or perhaps, how straight) can we take this? Put any man, but especially a pretty man-boy, in a stylized cowboy suit and he’s bound to come off looking like one of the Village People. And he does.
Then there’s the Ranger’s relationship to Tonto, which further queers the deal. In the classic telling of the story, the early black and white tv show featuring Clayton Moore, this relationship was depicted as a stoic and somewhat distant camaraderie between the taciturn Tonto and the extravagant Lone Ranger. Here, it becomes more explicitly “intimate.”
Their friendship develops immediately, upon Luke’s arrival in the frontier era Dallas. Exiting his stagecoach, Luke notices some ruffians, who turn out to be some of Haas’s boys, harassing a Native girl and steps in before it can turn into rape. Unfortunately, Luke lacks a weapon. Enter Tonto, soaring down the alley in a flying kick. It turns out the girl is his sister, Alope (Anita Brown), and after some confusion, Tonto is assured that the “white eye” actually tried to help her, despite the fact that Tonto did all the saving. And now, a debt is owed.
Tonto soon gets the chance to repay it when Luke tags along with his brother and the Rangers for some Wild West adventure, and becomes caught up in the Regulators’ ambush. Tonto is first to arrive at the scene of the massacre, where he finds Luke wounded and takes him home to his village. Here he nurses his new buddy back to health. Tonto is more than willing to break tribal protocols in his relationship with Luke, not to mention teach him the ways of Apache fighting.
This leads, inevitably, to a series of scenes in which Luke and Tonto engage in sparring, wrestling, bow and arrow shooting, running, etc. Beefcake abounds, as the young men’s shirts are always wide open, about to fall off, or missing altogether. When we finally get to the part where their “sacred bond” is secured, and Tonto allows Luke to call him “Kemo Sabe” and vice versa, it plays like a romantic denouement and the only thing missing from the scene is their first kiss. To be honest, it’s quite a bit of campy good fun. But even these queer undercurrents can’t make up for The Lone Ranger‘s silly plotting, atrocious acting, and general racism.
Though The Lone Ranger tries to tell its familiar story from a new point of view (that of the Lone Ranger “before he became a legend”), it can’t escape repeating the same old racist stereotypes of Native and African Americans that have cluttered U. S. folklore and history. Try as it might to represent the Native Americans sympathetically, and as victims of the white man, The Lone Ranger still replicates stereotypes of “noble savages,” in particular as linguistically challenged.
The Apache here speak in a truncated English that is probably supposed to sound “wise,” but ends up sounding hackneyed, even simple-minded. It’s uncertain why the Natives even speak English at all, especially as several early scenes subtitle their dialogue with one another. In having them change over to English, The Lone Ranger repeats racist stereotypes in which failing to master “proper” English attests to their “natural” inferiority. The only white folks who don’t speak “properly” are the outlaws, but their badness is the mark of their own inferiority.
The Lone Ranger fails similarly in its representation of African Americans. Some credit should be given to the movie for trying to incorporate black settlers into its frontier vision, as they have been traditionally written out of the history of Westward expansion. But The Lone Ranger doesn’t open the revisionist history door very far, offering a single black couple in a single scene.
After this black couple refuses to abandon their homestead to the expanding railroad, Haas and his boys burn the settlement and its inhabitants to the ground. The woman puts up some resistance, even picking off one of the attackers with her shotgun. But her verbal self-defense is limited. When she tells Haas, “I didn’t wanna shoot ‘em, but he was on our property,” her speech pattern sounds like a conventionally racist “I’s-a-coming,” shuckin’ and jivin’ argot.
What makes these overt stereotypes of Native and African Americans even worse is that the film aired and might become its own series on The WB, a network that aggressively markets and skews to a pre-teen, teen, and ‘tween audience. While the queer tensions circulating between the Lone Ranger and Tonto might help to breakdown homophobic prejudice, do we really want yet another generation of young people to absorb these racial caricatures? Hey, WB, if you are going to offer an “updated classic” for a new generation, take the time to “update” it all.