‘Heigh-ho, where’s the silver?’ the producers of THE LONE RANGER must have thought when it opened to a dismal $29 million at the 4th July weekend. The answer is overseas. Just as PACIFIC RIM fared better in Asian markets than in the US, so THE LONE RANGER is likely to receive a more friendly reception in Europe. Heigh-ho silver lining indeed.
The reason is that THE LONE RANGER makes Americans deeply uncomfortable about its plundering past. It is a Western where the Cavalry are responsible for the massacre of Comanche innocents, where they don’t ride to the rescue but find themselves on the wrong side of justice for taking orders. One man can make a difference and you might be forgiven for thinking his name is Edward Snowdon (though he does sport eyewear).
THE LONE RANGER is about the value of fair trade. I know what you’re thinking: all that commercial diplomacy stuff in STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE was a real turn off. Also, I don’t care whether audio-visual is included in negotiations for the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the European Union. ‘These French, what have they got to defend? Gerard Depardieu has defected to Russia like Snowden albeit for very different reasons.’
But enough about leakers of classified information, and for that matters those who take a leak in their aircraft seat. (Look that one up for Monsieur Depardieu, though as an older person I can sympathise; how long do these planes have to taxi?) Let’s get back to 1933 San Francisco. At a Wild West exhibition a young boy wearing a cowboy outfit and a mask (‘why the mask?’ is the film’s refrain) looks at an exhibition of western relics. The grazing bison, the grizzly bear, the town drunk – well maybe not the town drunk – and the noble savage. The latter is an aged Tonto (Johnny Depp) who sports a dead crow on his head (wow, look at that taxidermy) and mistakes the boy for ‘kemo sabay’ or ‘wrong brother’ (as opposed to chemotherapy or ‘wrong treatment’). He then tells the story about how in 1869, he and the lawyer formerly known as John Reid (Armie Hammer) became bank robbers.
Wait a minute, that’s not right! Director Gore Verbinski and his writers, Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott and Justin Haythe play with THE LONE RANGER mythology in a new way, perhaps not intended by its creator, George W. Trendle. I remember as a boy playing with my Lone Ranger action figure in the bath – I never had a Stingray model (sniff) – so I could relate. The film is doubly revisionist. First, it portrays Native Americans not as savages but as traders, who if they take something will always give something back in return; we are invited to think of trade as civilization, the bedrock of democracy and manifest destiny. Secondly, it has to posit The Lone Ranger as a masked vigilante with red lines to distinguish him from the cavalry: he doesn’t kill people. So how does he dispense justice? He blows up bridges? (Well, the Republicans are difficult to work with – what about gun control.)
As we know from President Obama’s second term efforts, Americans are very reluctant to give up the gun; so why should they warm to a hero who doesn’t use a gun for killing people either? Why is Tonto allowed to throw his axe? Reid’s nemesis is nominally Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), the outlaw freed by his gang in the opening sequence who subsequently organises the murder of John Reid’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale) and five other Texas Rangers. John almost dies too but he is revived partly by a white ‘spirit horse’ who chooses its rider and partly by Tonto who miraculously escaped from jail and tracked Cavendish’s gang down. (The pair has form.)
Tonto attempts to convince Reid that he is a ‘spirit walker’ (I thought that was another term for lobbyist). Spirit walkers are revived from the dead and cannot be killed by another man. They can take a bullet but not die. (That’s reassuring.) Reid doesn’t want to work with Tonto so the film follows the trusted route of mismatched partners who finally get along and who do have cause to rob a bank.
The middle section takes Reid and Tonto into Indian Territory, after Reid is struck by an arrow – one of the film’s truly unexpected moments, but he doesn’t die. Reid learns all about Tonto’s past, the bad bargain that got his family killed. In trade you need an agreed set of standards that can be legally enforced. Tonto and Reid are outcasts and in the last third of the movie there is another spectacular train set piece in which they thwart a hostile takeout, rescue Dan Reid’s widow (Ruth Wilson) and young son, with the aid of Helena Bonham Carter and her lethal ivory leg. (Did I say Butch Cavendish was a cannibal who eats human body parts?)
One of Cavendish’s clan is a hick cross-dresser presented as a figure of fun. This too may have turned Depp’s traditional audience in America against him. Audiences may have been insulted by the leaps in logic. They are missing the point. I’m sure the writers could solve the plot problems but we’d end up with a much longer movie and it might be slightly less fun.
I do wish the makers had put the ravenous rabbits that flank Tonto and Reid’s camp fire to better use – I was expecting a homage to MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL but it didn’t materialise. The lead performances are likeable. Depp is slightly crazed, slightly stoned as Tonto who feeds the dead bird on his head out of hope rather than expectation and trades his way to a good denouement. Hammer presents Reid as a naive firebrand who won’t take his brother’s widow even though convention demands it but has other things on his mind: the desert and spending time with another, more exotic man. (So you see Depp didn’t forget his core audience.) The railroad is a metaphor for trade routes and it is worth noting that the Chinese are presented as hard working sceptics who receive rough treatment from Americans – well, the railroad company.
What we learn from THE LONE RANGER is that America isn’t quite sure what sort of hero it would like. American audiences did not root for the Jaeger Programme in PACIFIC RIM either. IRON MAN THREE is the only hero movie that has broadly performed to expectations; one senses a wind of change, but in what direction?
Reviewed at Screen 10, Cineworld Wood Green (10:30am, Saturday 10 August 2013). Ten minutes before the end, two young female ushers sat in the front section and checked their mobile phones. Not cool.