“In Defense of…”is a series of articles meant to examine and re-evaluate films that opened to poor critical or box office reception. This article may contain SPOILERS.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 30% (Critics), 54% (Audience)
Box Office: $260 million worldwide/$215 million production budget
Is eight months too soon to start a revival movement for The Lone Ranger?
Released by Walt Disney Pictures on July 3, 2013, the film was preceded by over two years worth of budget and production woes, only to be proclaimed DOA by critics and box office analysts, leading many to ask: what went wrong? Bad publicity or marketing? A crowded summer release? Johnny Depp fatigue? Or are people really just not into westerns anymore?
None of those questions matter anymore. The film has been out of theaters and on DVD for months now. Everyone who was going to be fired over its failure probably has been and the cast and crew are already onto the next thing. All that matters now is the movie itself. Removed from the controversy and failure, is The Lone Ranger a good movie, unfairly judged and maligned upon its release? Or is it just as bad as its critics would like you to believe?
Let me get this out of the way first. My favorite film genre is the western, something I was practically raised on. Rio Bravo is my “favorite movie that isn’t Star Wars,” and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly isn’t that far behind. To me, it’s the mythology of America. So to see a western made with the budget of a big summer blockbuster was a real treat for me. That being said, I’ve never been a huge Lone Ranger fan. I’ve got nothing against the guy, he’s just a blind spot in my cinematic history (as far as 1950’s television heroes go, Robin Hood and Davy Crockett were always more my thing).
But for my money’s worth, The Lone Ranger was the only blockbuster that stood out in a summer crowded with superheroes, robots, and animated characters. It’s also the only one I’ve chosen to revisit multiple times in the months since its release (the majority of this article was written during a fourth viewing of the film). That’s not to say the movie is perfect. It has its fair share of problems, but the fact that I was able to overlook these says a lot about the film. It’s pretty dark for a Disney movie (but really no more so than the Pirates of the Caribbean films are) and is a bit long and complicated in the middle, but it acts as an homage to the greatest westerns of all time, and features some great visuals and action set pieces from director Gore Verbinski and his creative team. It’s also got some bigger ideas on its mind, something not a lot of people are willing to give it credit for (and certainly something not a lot of blockbusters can be credited with).
But to understand The Lone Ranger, one must first understand its true cinematic author: Gore Verbinski. Despite not being a writer on any of his films (he has a ‘Story By’ credit on Rango, but otherwise nothing), Verbinski is one of the few Hollywood directors who have successfully integrated auteur cinema into a commercial formula (Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder being two other examples). He’s got a great sense of visual style and comedic timing that I think people tend to overlook because the majority of his work for the past decade has been in blockbusters. But most importantly of all, a Gore Verbinski film is weird.
Now I’m not talking Tim Burton weird here (although their mutual, frequent use of Johnny Depp is interesting), but rather a type of subversion that looks to disrupt our perceptions of genre, story, and the worlds in which his characters live. Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t just a pirate film. It’s a reflection on life, death, and immortality disguised as a Ray Harryhausen fantasy. Rango isn’t just an animated adventure film: it’s about the art of pretend and the question of identity. Likewise,The Lone Ranger isn’t just a western. It’s a deconstruction not only of genre, but of American history and folk-lore as well.
In this regard, The Lone Ranger bears a strong resemblance to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford’s film is about legends, their value, and how the truth can sometimes deflate them. It’s also about a pacifist lawyer from back east who becomes an archetype of Western ideals based on an image his best friend helps him create, which just so happens to also be the plot of The Long Ranger.
As one character in Liberty Valance puts it, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” ButThe Lone Ranger isn’t interested in fact. Rather, the film’s thesis seems to be that essentially all history is legend anyway. Truth lies with the storyteller and how he tells it, and this is the Lone Ranger story as Tonto remembers: fanged rabbits and all. The ending takes this concept of myth one step further. In a bit that’s reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Tonto finishes his tale and is asked, “It’s just a story, right?” His response: “Up to you, kemosabe.”
The film opens in San Francisco, 1933 (the year The Lone Ranger debuted on radio). A young boy dressed as the Ranger enters a Wild West exhibit and becomes fascinated by a diorama labeled “The Noble Savage.” The old native on display comes to life, revealing himself to be the legendary Tonto (Johnny Depp), and proceeds to indulge the boy in his tales of the Lone Ranger.
The basic premise is what we’ve come to expect from Lone Ranger stories. A band of Texas Rangers rides into a canyon and is ambushed, leaving only one survivor, a lone ranger. Brought back to health by the native Tonto, the two men set out across the west upholding justice and righting wrongs wherever they find them. But as we watch this story unfold, we realize that we are not seeing reality, but rather, a lively counter myth created by Tonto. This is a story of American myths, why they’re fabricated and who benefits from them.
As a narrator, Tonto is of the unreliable sort. The boy interrupts the story more than once to question his account, but is rarely given a straight answer (a plot hole involving how Tonto got out of jail is brought up, but promptly ignored). The reason behind this is not fully understood until about halfway through the film, where we are treated to a flashback in which a young Tonto finds himself unintentionally responsible for the slaughter of his tribe, motivating his quest for revenge and scarring his mind the process. The men who did this were monsters, and yet the only monsters young Tonto knows are the wendigos, the cannibalistic half-beasts that his people used to tell stories of. Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), the outlaw Tonto is tracking at the beginning of the film, is also rumored to be a cannibal (although there is little evidence to support that he is a literal monster). Tonto’s story is tinged with Native American creatures and superstitions. This is still the world of the Lone Ranger, but one as seen through the eyes of Tonto.
If this version of The Lone Ranger is a riff on Liberty Valance, then Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard is the Ranger and Tonto is John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon. Except in this film their fates are reversed. Tonto is the one alive at the end, left to carry on the Ranger’s legend, but only as it allows him to earn his rightful place in the story, or at least one of equal footing.
In their initial pairing, it becomes clear that Tonto, for all his eccentricities, is the more competent of the two. While their bickering and hatred towards each other may not be everyone’s idea of entertainment, it does provide more than a few moments of odd couple comedy. Their relationship is like a subversive take on the Disney classic Dumbo. The Ranger is Dumbo, Tonto is Timothy Mouse, and the hero’s superstitious invincibility is the Magic Feather that finally allows him to become a man of action (as Tonto puts it, “A man who has been to the other side and returned… cannot be killed”).
As stated before, the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) is basically Jimmy Stewart from Liberty Valance, a lawyer from the east who comes to realize that the law isn’t everything he thinks it’s cracked up to be. He’s a good man, but he’s serving a corrupt power without even knowing it. By the end, the Ranger has become an outlaw, but one who understands the difference between brute force and true moral authority.
But the Lone Ranger is an artifact of a simpler time. Compared to most big screen heroes, he’s still an innocent guy. So why does the Lone Ranger need to be complicated? In an era of dark and tormented heroes, why can’t he stand for simple, old-fashioned values like he used to? That’s a good question, but that would make for a different movie, and Verbinski is up to something a little different here.
This Ranger is idealistic to a fault, never wavering in his belief in justice, but gradually realizing the system he’s sworn to protect is as corrupt as the criminals he pursues. It’s the expansive, industrial system that emerges as the film’s true villain, with those in power excusing their greed and violence simply by manipulating the law to their own ends. A scene in which the US Cavalry is pitted against the native tribe warriors is played without giving you a side to root for. Instead, it’s presented as destructive, needless violence with no winners, and the only villains being those master manipulators who push their agendas in the name of progress and manifest destiny. The Lone Ranger ends the same man as he was before, but now with a healthy distrust of institutionalized authority.
Lone Ranger fans who express outrage over the liberties the film takes with this iteration of the source material miss the point. This isn’t some studio mandated decision to make it more “Dark Knight,” but rather, it’s a creative one that allows Verbinski and his team to subvert the western mythology. Would I have preferred a Lone Ranger who acted more like the Lone Ranger closer to the middle of the movie instead of waiting until the third act? Maybe. But is that the take Verbinski is going for here? No.
It’s not fair to Verbinski to say he ruined a classic character so that he could make his own big screen western, when in fact his use of the character is such an integral part of the film’s thesis. The Lone Ranger himself is a product of the American myth, it’s only fitting that he be the lead in a film whose purpose is to subvert those myths. Whether you like it or not, it’s an offbeat take on a classic property that has already alienated viewers and will continue to do so for years to come.
The Lone Ranger is an anomaly of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s experimental and weird, featuring thoughtful character and genre deconstruction. But it never forgets that at its heat it’s still a big budget action film. Maybe it was never meant to be a hit. Maybe audiences were never going to embrace such a film on a first viewing. But maybe that’s okay. Gore Verbinski got to make an experimental western funded by major studio, and he got to make it his way.
Nick van Lieshout is an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter. You can follow him on Twitter @Shout92.
You can learn more about The Lone Ranger at its IMDB page and is available to rent through Amazon, iTunes, and Redbox.