A good Western makes me want to pull on my cowboy boots, squeeze into a pair of spandex-relaxed tight jeans and mount up a trusty stead and feel the wind in my hair. Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” doesn’t just resurrect the legend of the lonely only Texas Ranger, but injects it with snappy dialogue, tongue-in-cheek humor and fantastical fight and flight sequences.
Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s screenplay manages to be amusing to parents and entertaining for kids and respectful to minorities. Get ready for a flood of requests for masks and white hats. “The Lone Ranger” gives respectful nods to many Westerns and, as can be expected from the two men (Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski) who gave us the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series, has enough thrills for a roller coaster ride and while respecting the past with attention to detail still remains fashion-forward (Lots of steampunk inspiration).
Let me make a statement of full disclosure. I was born in the West and was told that one of my grandfathers worked on the Transcontinental railroad. That would have been the first transcontinental railroad which was completed in 1869 that linked the San Francisco (and Sacramento) to Council Bluffs Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska. The line when through Salt Lake City, Utah and Virginia City, Nevada but not through Texas or New Mexico.
The plot of this movie is about the Southern Pacific Railroad that connected New Orleans with Los Angeles and crosses through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. What passes for Texas in the movie, is really mostly New Mexico (Angel Fire for exterior scenes). New Mexico was established as a territory in 1850. Hurley, Puerco Valley and Abiquiu, New Mexico were used as locations as well as Durango, Colorado for the train scenes and the recognizable scenes for many Westerns (and “Back to the Future”), Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona.
“The Lone Ranger” begins in San Francisco (1933) with a little boy in a cowboy boots, toy gun and holster, black mask and a white hat going into a curiosity tent at a carnival. Inside the tent are museum-quality exhibits of the old West such as a grizzly bear and “The Noble Savage.” The bear is presented in his full majestic glory. The “savage” is old and very wrinkled, but he is Tonto (Johnny Depp), now on tour not unlike Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had included Chief Sitting Bull (as well as Chief Joseph, Geronimo and Rains in Face) during its run from 1883-1913.
Obviously a little befuddled, the aged Tonto recounts, with a little prompting from the young boy, the origins of “The Lone Ranger.” Both the boy’s and Tonto’s age and Tonto’s questionable personality give the writers plenty of license to make this adventure fantastical from the impossible feats of the spirit horse Silver to the action-packed gun fights. Tonto flashes back to 1869–four full years after the end of the American Civil War. In his pre-Lone Ranger life, John Reid (Armie Hammer) was overshadowed by his more rugged and practical older brother Dan Reid (James Badge Dale). Dan got the girl that John loved, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), while John was back East getting a law degree from Harvard. Dan got married and became sheriff; John became excessively citified.
John doesn’t believe in God so much as book-learned theories of justice as he tells his religiously uptight fellow train passengers on his journey back to the small Western town, Colby, Texas he calls home. John Locke’s book “Two Treatises of Government” is his bible he declares.
Also on the train bringing John home, is the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who is scheduled to hang. Butch is less friendly and much more blood-thirsty than Paul Newman’s character in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Cavendish is a truly hiss-able villain–dirty, snarling and unkind to all. Butch’s gang attack the train and Butch gets away.
In town, Dan Reid greets his brother and forms a posse to follow Butch, but the seven men ride straight into an ambush that leaves all dead. Tonto appears and digs graves for all the men, but the mysterious white stallion Silver (a true white Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred) shows up, standing before John. The horse knows that John isn’t dead but will come back from the other side and do great things. Tonto disagrees, but finally permits the horse to have his way and becomes John’s caretaker. This is the beginning of an unlikely partnership of two men who aren’t really friends and don’t really trust each other but both want justice.
John is a man of principle and not one of good common sense, something that both Tonto and the Chinese railroad labor crew note during the film. He’s not unlike the late Jimmy Stewart’s character in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?” That 1962 black and white John Ford movie was a drama that pitted James Stewart as the “pilgrim” against the more experienced local rancher played by John Wayne as they vied for the romantic attention of the same women. Hammer’s John is a humorous character who has lost his true love to his brother but has the chance to regain her.
The premise of an old man remembering legendary adventures might remind you of the 1970 “Little Big Man” which featured Dustin Hoffman as a Caucasian boy adopted by the Cheyenne nation. That movie begins with his character, the 121-year-old Jack Crabb recounting his life to a historian (William Hickey). The side of the Native American was observed by an outsider to both the white and Native American cultures.
While the original Lone Ranger elevated the Native American Tonto as a good Indian, his story was so secondary in some ways it was a mere afterthought. Watching a few episodes of the original “The Lone Ranger” TV series (1949-1957) which is available on Hulu reminds me just how far we’ve come in terms of TV plotting, characterization and cinematography. Tonto’s tribe was nebulous, meaning his language and costuming wasn’t given much thought. Yet the Lone Ranger began as a character on a Detroit radio in the 1930s but didn’t appear until about the 11th episode. In the radio series he was identified as Potawatomi.
This version of “The Lone Ranger” clearly gives Tonto a back story and a tribe within the Comanche nation. Tonto’s makeup is drawn for a portrait “I Am Crow” and Depp’s characterization has depth rooted in Tonto’s tragic background. The production also had a Comanche Nation adviser and Depp was adopted into the Comanche Nation by a LaDonna Harris, the president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. Depp has long claimed that he had Native American ancestry, most likely Cherokee or Creek, but this has not been verified. Have no doubt: This version of the Lone Ranger is much better than the original series.
So if your political correctness requirements have been satisfied, then by all means see this rollicking cinematic roller coast ride through the West and Westerns. Using the device of adventures based on two untrustworthy narrators (the boy and an elderly Tonto), allows Verbinski (the same man who directed Depp the 2011 computer-animated comedy “Rango”) free rein for the chase, train wreck and shoot-out scenes and if you are willing to leave reality behind, you’ll have fun as well. You’ll go home with Gioachino Rossi’s “William Tell Overture” running through your mind, a desire to pull on cowboys boot and maybe do some real horseback riding. The Western is back and in fine form thanks to Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and director Gore Verbinski.