30 August 2015

The West Re-Imagined...Again

It's 1933, at night. A boy in a brown cowboy hat wanders into a wild west show, part of a fair almost in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, which began construction Jan. 5 that year. 

An erie silence surrounds the stuffed bison and the grizzly bear.

When the Indian moves, the boy fires his cap gun repeatedly, startled by what he thought he understood but didn't expect. 

That's how we come to meet Tonto in Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger." And that's how Tonto comes to tell of Ke-mo sah-bee. 

Whether because we're seeing through the boy's imagination or through Tonto's memory, the story lurches along with the zaniness one might expect from a director (Verbinski), two writers (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio), and a leading actor (Johnny Depp) well known for their work on "Pirates of the Caribbean." 

It's not a formula that works for everybody. Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone wrote, "The fatal flaw in Jerry Bruckheimer's monumentally monotonous production is that it forgets it's duty to entertain."

And The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle wrote, "'The Lone Ranger' is a movie for the whole family...to avoid."

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, "'Who was that masked man?' is a less relevant question than 'What on earth were you thinking?'" 

Richard Brody, in The New Yorker comes closer to answering that question, seeing "The Lone Ranger" as a work of conceptual art: "...Armie Hammer, who specializes in the soul of the Wasp...offers just the right genteel naïveté to suffer the disillusionment that counteracts the popular Western myths of 1933 and their vestiges today.... For those who love Westerns (and I do), 'The Lone Ranger' winks at them consistently enough to elicit warm reminiscence of the moods, the gestures, the styles, and the themes, even as it averts the sense of time and place to convey a sturdy and generic substructure of modern storytelling akin to that of other superhero blockbusters."

In some sense, "The Lone Ranger" has always been about how we see the past rather than actual events. In the television series, first broadcast in 1949, Clayton Moore's Lone Ranger was less a character and more a symbol of American initiative, dedicated to justice, but always behind a mask.

Since George W. Trendle first broadcast "The Lone Ranger" in 1933, the Lone Ranger has encountered crooked businessmen and dirty sheriffs, but he encountered them as part of a west that was being won. There was always a federal judge, honest townspeople, or some other source of moral authority.

Lily Rothman examined the questions about a Native American character portrayed by a non-native actor for "Time."

But through Johnny Depp's Tonto, we feel the loss to our humanity as the light goes out of Chief Big Bear's eyes and machine guns mow down a generation of Native warriors. We see "the rule of law" can sometimes mean the rule of our tribe over others. 

In short, what makes this narrative startling, at least in part, are the things that make American history discomforting. And that makes this film worth watching.

Jay Silverheels, pictured here on the right next to costar Clayton Moore, played
Tonto in 217 of 
the 221 episodes of the "The Lone Ranger" television series.
Photo by 
ABC Television, 1956, Public Domain.

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