Much of the thrill of watching The Lone Ranger comes from its death-defying ability not to fall.
The Lone RangerDirector: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Armie Hammer
Studio: Walt Disney
Other critics have already leaped on their white steeds and ridden to the defense of The Lone Ranger in the wake of the media coverage and online discussion of its negative US reviews. I will happily join the posse.
I saw the film in the northern Dutch city of Groningen on the inaugural outing of an American Studies faculty/graduate student film club. I went with some trepidation, lest all present would hate the movie (and me, for making them watch it). But we liked it, even admired it.
Just as the Hollywood directors originally lauded by French auteur theorists were not revered at home, we were primed to look for Verbinski’s aesthetic. On the issues surrounding the representation of Native Americans, our European nationalities and viewing context produced a different sensibility than has been evident in the US blogosphere.
The plot is simple. At a Wild West exhibition in San Francisco in 1933, a young boy in lone ranger costume encounters an elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp), who tells him the prequel to the legend of the Lone Ranger. Many years before, while returning to his frontier hometown, virtuous lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) finds himself chained, quite literally, to Tonto, while the bad guy Butch Cavendish (William Fitchtner) escapes. A whole load of Texas Rangers, including John’s older brother (who is married to the woman John loves) get killed in pursuit of said baddy; John survives, dons the mask (“never take off the mask”) and joins forces with Tonto to seek justice, or in Tonto’s case, revenge, for the massacre of his people years earlier.
Butch turns out to be the collaborator of capitalist railroad entrepreneur Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). A self-interested army captain joins ranks with the baddies. A war with the Cherokee nation is plotted as part of their master plan to make off with a fortune in silver that’s in Cherokee country. The dynamic duo win out in the end, and almost all the villains meet their deaths in satisfying ways.
That a blockbuster has a plot is worth noting, and its simplicity, satisfying in its own right, gives director Gore Verbinksi a solid frame for other complexities. As practically every critic has noted, the film is a bricolage of allusions to other movies. We had fun picking out the pre-texts: Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, especially How the West was Won (iconic images and music); The Wild Wild West (tonal shifts, the mismatched buddies, the brothel); Buster Keaton’s The General (a fabulous scene as Tonto sways on a ladder above a train); the general feel and train fetishism of the Indiana Jones movies, and Verbinski and Depp’s previous collaboration on the Pirates franchise (Depp’s mannerisms and the cross-dressed gang member, amongst others). The Searchers is in there too, as is Little Big Man (the narrative frame), and Verbinski’s animated Rango.
Depp’s Tonto is part Jack Sparrow (especially in the film’s final manic section), but also part aging Edward Scissorhands, and the opium-addicted police inspector of From Hell. And the whole thing is a role reversal of his role as a white man helped by a Native American in the Jim Jarmusch western, Dead Man, down to the repetition of the phrase “stupid white man” (as observed by Cynthia Fuchs in PopMatters, 3 July 2013). For those who could remember re-runs of the ‘50s TV series, Hans Zimmer supplied an energetic revision of its theme tune, the William Tell Overture.
On one level, all these quotations from other films are purely postmodern, just randomly cannibalized fragments of past styles. In this sense, The Lone Ranger is all about surface and spectacle. It’s a visual feast of lovingly detailed locomotive interiors, mission impossible train sequences, and breathtaking mountain and desert vistas, which feed the pastiche sensibility.
But the movie’s style is also what gives it depth. The Lone Ranger encodes a history of the Western genre, and a history of the stories it had told. Embedded between the action scenes is a critique of American expansionism, the destruction of the environment, and the genocide of Native Americans. The jarring juxtapositions of tone and style are both arbitrary and motivated.
The film invests in and debunks clichés with an engaging literalism. The cavalry does not ride to the rescue—they gallop over our heroes’ heads; a horse drops down dead, and Tonto kicks it. In a paradigmatic scene, some ordinary-looking rabbits transform into vampire bunnies, prompting Tonto’s observation, repeated throughout the movie, that “Nature is out of balance.” The camera cross-cuts from a horrific massacre of Native Americans to a cartoonish shot of Silver in a cowboy hat. Viewers are left unsure how to emotionally respond to a scene, much as they are with Lynch and Tarantino films. I’d speculate that at least some measure of the critical malevolence directed at The Lone Ranger stems from a residual suspicion of commercial auterism.
None of this is to say that The Lone Ranger is not without its problems. Shackled to its obscene and well-publicized budget, it’s hard to take it seriously as a critique of American greed. Helena Bonham-Carter’s presence is predictable in a Depp movie. Contrary to Liberace’s opinion, too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. The hero rides into town on a train bearing a copy of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Clearly he has not read the first treatise, which might have mitigated his patriarchal attitude towards Rebecca (Ruth Wilson).
Some in our group found the movie too long (contributing predictable quips to the post-screening discussion—“The Long Ranger”). And what of Depp’s Tonto, framed as the performance has been by accusations of racism? Like the Slavic-looking Native American with the odd headdress in Welcome to Night Vale, this Tonto comes with a grotesque black bird on his head, as well as thickly-caked and cracked white makeup.
As is well known, Depp’s vision is based on the Kirby Sattler painting, I Am Crow, a white man’s interpretation of an imaginary Native American. Rather than pantomime or the equivalent of blackface, as some critics have described it, I found the whole thing both kitschy and poignant, enriched by the Buster Keaton quotations and haunted by Depp’s previous roles. It made me think of Native American artists like James Luna and Jimmie Durham, who have enacted performative modes of ethnicity in their works. It seems counterproductive to undermine their undermining of essentialism by demanding that Tonto should be played by a Native American actor (the logical corollary of which would be that Native Americans could never play any other parts).
It’s not that we were insensitive to issues of authenticity and inauthenticity (most of us had taught or taken courses on issues of identity and ideology), but our empathy for Tonto felt like a valid emotional response. That it was not our history being played out on screen, of course, made a difference.
I fear I have made the film sound pretentiously postmodern: it’s not. It’s campy, violent, self-reflexive, spectacular, treading a wobbly line between creative mash-up and confused mix-up. Much of the thrill comes from its death-defying ability not to fall. Like the wide-eyed child, the audience surrogate in the frame narrative, we keep listening, watching, and asking questions.
I will end with Silver, the Lone Ranger’s iconic white horse, who perhaps best encapsulates the movie’s shifting aesthetic. Sometimes Silver acts like a real horse, sometimes he is a cartoon horse doing amazing stunts, and sometimes he is a Mr. Ed style humanized horse, drinking whiskey from the bottle. The camera loves him (or more accurately, the four horses who play Silver) and clearly, he loves the camera. Tonto theorizes that in times past horses could talk, and Silver’s expressive face suggests that at any moment he may do so. All of which confirms what I knew long ago as a horse-mad girl consuming the TV re-runs: Silver is the real star of The Lone Ranger.
Amanda Gilroy is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Groningen, where she teaches media studies and popular culture. Her areas of interest include: aesthetics and affect; TV audiences and fandoms; equine research.