Disney’s The Lone Ranger might have been a fairly credible revisionist Western were it not for its insistence on buffoonery, on postmodern smugness, the sense that “we know this is just a kiddie serial from the old days, so we’ll acknowledge how sophisticated you are, and throw in some political correctness in the bargain.” With Tonto/Johnny Depp the central figure rather than Armie Hammer’s nondescript Lone Ranger, we might think that the film is out to right past wrongs, telling the story of the genocide of Native Americans rather than the white man’s Winning of the West. This was key to the film’s pre-release publicity. But the film does nothing like this.
The Lone Ranger acknowledges the Western as so much cultural junk, nodding all over the place to Ford, Leone, Peckinpah, and others, dotting the score with passages from yesteryear’s film composers (Ennio Morricone may have grounds for a suit), with too-often use of Rossini’s William Tell Overture finale, forever associated with the title character, all of it to no good purpose other than reinforce a contract with the audience that this is camp fun for postmodern sophisticates. The film’s depiction of the destruction of Native American villages by whites, the collusion of the military with business (railroad) interests, the decision of the Lone Ranger to stay outside the law and, I suppose, against dominant interests, all mean little, since everyone is treated as a clown. Johnny Depp essentially does a minstrel/blackface routine as Tonto (borrowing from Little Big Man for the film’s framing device, which also references pop culture, cinema, and the storytelling process itself, more gestures to stroke the cognoscenti), always giving knowing glances meant to elicit chuckles.
During the marketing, Depp, perhaps the cinema’s most overrated performer, kept talking about his Native heritage—at one point he was Creek, then he was Cherokee (or Comanche?). Whatever the case may be (he seems bemused), why would a person supposedly empathetic with his/her ancestors represent them so badly (and we can’t overestimate Depp’s role in this film’s creation)? Granted that this is a child’s movie (the studios of course assume we are all permanently juvenile when it really gets down to cases), but aren’t children ready in this day and age for a reasonably truthful portrayal of the magnitude of the Native American genocide? Could one imagine a film about the Nazi annihilation of the European Jews filled with hip gags, and portrayals of the victims as joking fools doing comic sketches? There is the notion, just as the railroad tycoon may or may not be representative of American capitalism (it is to the film’s credit that one tycoon is quickly replaced by another), that the destruction of Tonto’s village during his youth was an aberration caused by two greedy white men portrayed as ugly ogres. The men who carried out genocide over two centuries were perfectly ordinary, their psychopathy part of the norm, an accepted aspect of the white social contract.
It would, of course, have been box office poison to cast a Native American actor like Adam Beach in the role of Tonto, but can’t we allow the character at least the dignity that Jay Silverheels brought to the part? A few Native American actors appear in the Disney film, conferring in a teepee, but they are offered in a manner close to Ford’s use of Chief John Big Tree, that is, as momentary exotica, except that Ford, however politically limited, was never disingenuous. Ford was so free with his slapstick Irish humor he ran the risk of sabotaging his own projects, but he was enough of a dramatist to keep the jokes separate from (or carefully integrated within) what was important. Disney’s The Lone Ranger, like so much cultural production, tells us that nothing is important, certainly not the Western as a means of understanding America and its delusions, and most certainly not a Saturday series designed for children.
As a child, I enjoyed the Lone Ranger serials, but quickly transferred my allegiance to the evening “adult” Westerns of the 1950s such as Trackdown, The Rifleman, and Have Gun, Will Travel. But I recall the series and its informing myth. The Lone Ranger transferred to the Western an old concept, best rendered in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, specifically, the support of the white man by the minority races he oppresses. Twain looked at the myth critically: Huck wants to be a rebel against the dominant order, not an abolitionist—so he befriends Jim. There is nothing that sophisticated in the original Lone Ranger films, and it is easy to make sport of the programs (the enduring joke that ends with the punchline “What you mean WE, white man!”), yet central to the Lone Ranger myth is a commendable part of its origin story: the Lone Ranger and Tonto were friends as children. As adults, Tonto was there for the Ranger when he needed help, and vice versa. Thus this little children’s program, for all its limitations, could imagine a utopian space beyond racism, something that perhaps informed the consciousness of the youth counterculture of the 1960s. I know there are cultural products that similarly inform the current youth generation, but after seeing Disney’s film, I forget entirely what they are.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.
For a different take on The Lone Ranger, see Cleaver Patterson’s review here.