Counterpoint: an appreciation of 'The Lone Ranger'

Why the long face? Silver (the horse) and Tonto (Johnny Depp) in "The Lone Ranger"
Photo: Peter Mountain

Warning: slight spoilers ahead.

I will say it and I will say it loudly: Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger is perhaps the most subversive Hollywood film since Paul Verhoeven's still misunderstood sci-fi masterpiece, Starship Troopers (1997).

Not only does this sneaky, revisionist epic attempt to recontextualize the history of Western films, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio — working directly from Zane Grey's 1915 novel The Lone Star Ranger — have designed an ambitious journey through America's tainted, tattered history. And like Starship Troopers, the combination of ruthless "all-American" violence, ironic historical references, and off-beat slapstick comedy give The Lone Ranger legs that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. (Sadly it will have to happen after the film leaves US theaters this week.)

I watched this uniquely uncompromising popcorn-pleaser three times. By my second viewing, I caught even more references to old Westerns, ranging from the countless scenes set in John Ford's Monument Valley to the ironic singing of the Christian hymn "Shall We Gather at the River" (as in Sam Peckinpah's 1969 The Wild Bunch). But what surprised me even more than the homages to, say, the beginning of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1966), or the train-chase climax of Buster Keaton's The General (1926), was the feeling that Verbinski and company were exploring not just the different styles from different decades, but the historical themes of those films.

Consider the nod to Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939): "Willet Creek" — the name of a corrupt government dam project in the Capra film — is hinted at as a conquest by the corrupt railroad boss played by Tom Wilkinson. Or, during a bank-robbing sequence that's reminscent of Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde (1967), the scene suddenly freeze-frames, challenging the morality of the heroes by even having a character in the film stating his own confusion.

Another consistent theme throughout The Lone Ranger's big-budget spectacle is "nature is out of balance."  A spirit horse drinks bottles of alcohol and chooses the "wrong" hero as its master, while innocent fluffy bunnies suddenly sprout fangs and launch attacks on scorpions. While these sudden shifts in tone may feel off-beat or random, I would argue that these screwball comedy moments are in fact motivated allegorical references to the traumatic events that coincided with the building of America's cross-country railroad.  The film rebounds from an horrific event — as when a very bad dude cuts the heart out of a character we're rooting for — by leaping right into the Buster Keaton-esque antics of Johnny Depp's surreally wacked-out Tonto, which are inevitably played for dark comedy laughs.

Consider also the scene in which Tonto and the Lone Ranger (played stupendously stupid by the subtly subdued Armie Hammer) follow a horse, presumably returning to its wanted-outlaw master, through miles of empty desert. At a crucial juncture, the horse suddenly keels over. The cruelty is purposeful, even relentless — and what does Tonto do? He shuffles up to it, gives it a knock (literally, kicking a dead horse), and states to his partner, "He's dead."

Another example comes when Tonto and the Lone Ranger have been buried neck-deep in sand. Suddenly, a potential rescuer appears on the horizon. "The US Army! Finally, someone who'll listen to reason!" our optimistic hero exclaims — only to barely avoid getting his skull hoof-clopped when the military men gallop right over them. The two feel like they are channelling Laurel and Hardy, or perhaps Jack and Wang from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

The film's unrelenting flair for layered irony regarding "How the West Was (Actually) Won" is solidified with its revisionist narrator in the form of an ancient Tonto, miraculously still alive in Depression-era San Francisco. The true complexity of The Lone Ranger is due to its frame story, in which Old Tonto spins his Wild West yarn for a wide-eyed youngster who represents the audience. Is he sharing truth, or are they all tall tales? Are Tonto's truth-stretching stories in fact emblematic of how America chooses to interpret its own history?

Often, when the film cuts from the 1860s to 1933, Tonto slips items between the eras: a rock, an arrow, a bag of peanuts. This sort of inconsistency is quite purposeful in its awareness of how often American history is re-written by its storyteller — it's also a bold attempt of this subversive masterpiece to undo as many of our history's inaccuracies as possible.

Though a common criticism of The Lone Ranger was its nearly two and a half hour running time, I'm actually curious to know what Verbinski cut from the film. There's a shocking amount of mindless bloodshed among the film's innocent bystanders: Chinese railroad workers, American Indians, random townsfolk. This is perfectly punctuated when digging beneath the seemingly irrelevant prostitute played by Helena Bonham Carter (who is cleverly named Red Harrington.) Her ivory leg (which conceals a lascivious leg-gun) is yet another bloodied byproduct of the men who are blazing their train-of-terror across America. Ironically, the train is named The Constitution.

At one point Tonto wonders, "What does the white man kill for?" The Lone Ranger makes it clear: in this case, heartless slaughter is a necessary step in acquiring as much silver as possible. This "gold rush" allegory is perhaps even unpleasant to consider, and even more so to watch on the big screen for 149 minutes. (Remember, The Lone Ranger wasn't exactly showered with glowing reviews.)

Which brings us to the final shot of this magnus opus of sorts. It arrives — in the fashion of other blockbuster-type movies these days — after the credits have started to roll. Tonto appears, all dressed up in a white-man's suit and heading back into Monument Valley. This melancholic, even transcendental sequence delivers a different kind of message as opposed to hinting at what characters will appear in the sequel. (Given the film's disastrous box-office take, Lone Ranger 2 seems nigh impossible, anyway.)

This meditative walk can be interpreted as history (represented by Tonto) slipping back into the past, or perhaps the truth leaving without anyone noticing. For me, it proved how intricately thoughtful The Lone Ranger truly is. Perhaps this film about two old-school heroes (who urge anyone who'd listen never take their own masks off) was a bit too modern for audiences in 2013. Hopefully, eventually, viewers will come to appreciate this inspired, unlikely, uncompromised, maniacal treasure.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks runs MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a series devoted to celebrating dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films. He is also the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

For further reading, check out Cheryl Eddy's Guardian review of The Lone Ranger here.