A Word from the King #2 by John King
Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is a Postmodern Masterpiece
For what is perhaps the hundredth time, I’ve heard someone casually bash last summer’s film of The Lone Ranger. Most memorable among these instances: Gregg Proops, the host of The Smartest Man in the World podcast, said he wouldn’t see it because “I like movies.” Based upon the trailers, many people thought it would be the epitome of the Big Dumb Summer American Movie. Perhaps I am guiltier than most of being contrarian, but I want to let you know that although the movie didn’t find much of an audience last summer, The Long Ranger was actually not just good, but great.
It might be the first postmodern epic.
I don’t mean the term epic loosely, as in the grand exploits of a generic, steroidal hero. The Macintosh dictionary app offers an admirably succinct definition: “a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.” Apart from being a movie rather than a poem, Gore Verbinski’s film meets all of the other requirements. It is even a story about the creation of America, in terms of that geographically symbolic moment of an epoch, the transcontinental railroad.
The film begins not by establishing the innocence of the pure hero, but rather with a peculiar framing device. A boy, dressed in the absurd gear of the Hollywood coyboy, wanders unsupervised through a carnival where he happens upon a sideshow with something like a natural history museum exhibit. He munches popcorn in a slightly bored state as he passes dioramas for “The Mighty Buffalo” and “The Grizzly Bear” until he comes to a display for “The Noble Savage.” A mannequin of an elderly, emaciated Native American, holding a tomahawk aloft, stands before a teepee.
When the eyes of this Indian move, the child drops his popcorn and fires off every cap in his cap gun at him. Tonto, near moribund with age, stares at him.
This is The Lone Ranger as Samuel Beckett might have written it.
Part of the collective national groan that accompanied the idea of a new Lone Ranger was based upon several generations of wariness over its unconsciously racist political subtext. In 1964, Bill Cosby pointed out that Tonto was generally sent on errands just to be beaten up for pathos’ sake, and in an especially wicked satirical routine in 1968, Lenny Bruce suggested that if The Lone Ranger had his way, Tonto would be turned into the masked man’s sex slave. (When Johnny Depp watched The Lone Ranger as a child, he asked himself, “Why the fuck is The Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?”)
The gross political stupidities of this former mainstream thoroughbred of entertainment seemed to take a fatal blow from Sherman Alexie, whose short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, managed to demolish The Lone Ranger without ever addressing the show directly. The short story, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” is narrated by Victor, a Native American who has a fraught relationship with his white girlfriend. He endures insomnia, as his sleep is always tormented with nightmares of genocide, as he wrestles with his anger to find something like normal human acceptance under the hideous weight of American history and contemporary American racism.
The famous, racially complacent prologue to The Lone Ranger (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear”) would, I imagine, have a poisonously bitter meaning for Victor. What Alexie’s story suggests about The Lone Ranger is that the obscenity of the story hinges upon Tonto, a Native American who—during the time of the genocide of his people—can find nothing better to do than help white people solve their problems in acquiring the western lands.
The latest incarnation of The Lone Ranger is a much different narrative. I cannot blame the Native American critics of the film (or, to be fair and more accurate, the idea of the film, since the complaints started over a year before the film’s release), for their wariness. But the racism (and later the genocide) of the frontier are an essential part of this narrative, at least.
Early in the film, as the contract with the viewer is still being negotiated: a Texas Ranger asks what Tonto did wrong to become a prisoner, and he responds: “Indian.”
Much has been made of the crow headgear Johnny Depp chose for the film, an imaginative appropriation from a white artist who in turn was romanticizing Native American culture in a ludicrous way.
The narrative, however, makes clear that Tonto is not a stand-in for Native American culture. He is described by a chieftain as having no tribe. And the symbolism of the bird is earned by Depp’s characterization. It works. As Henry James said, “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”
The way that The Lone Ranger tells the story of the west is both Postmodern, in terms of casting doubt upon the authority of the narrative itself, as well as politically revisionist, in a way that Howard Zinn might (almost) approve of. Manifest destiny is an ugly business in this movie, and the peculiar tension that should be in this story—an honest lawman who must wear a mask because otherwise his society will kill him—is the crux of the story in this version, and the masked man’s adventure is tied, complexly, to Tonto’s own.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto do, in fact, fight each other. The Lone Ranger didn’t have a chance in a straight fight. And as a team, they consistently undercut one another.
But in this version, the story is Tonto’s. He narrates the epic to that little boy in cowboy gear, in a pattern like that of The Princess Bride. And in Tonto’s storytelling, the story is both compelling and comically goofy. The hyperbole of the action sequences gallops between delightful campiness and occasional poetic earnestness that demonstrates its awareness of the general meaninglessness of most action movies (consider the dumb seriousness of the nearly impossible action sequences of Die Hard sequels or Mission Impossible movies).
And the final action sequence is an amazing set piece that should please fans of action films. The William Tell Overture that began the television show begins that sequence, in the adrenaline rush that begins the movie’s third act. The overture is expanded into its own extended, manic piece, somehow realizing something sublime in the weird appropriation from opera, for a Western.
The overture was written by Rossini (Italian), in service of an operatic adaptation of the play by Schiller (German) about the legend from the Swiss Confederacy. The cruelty of William Tell being forced to shoot an arrow into an apple atop his own son’s head carries with it odd semiotic resonances into the old west, as is the cruelty of the Tell’s political situation. The West is made to seem just as politically menacing. In this version of The Lone Ranger, the music is both rousing and almost comically atavistic in a scene that goes on seemingly forever, but, to my taste, without the sense of eyeball-numbing relentlessness of the late sequences in The Matrix Revolutions and Man of Steel. It is more like Buster Keaton’s The General mixed with the chase scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark mixed with The Lone Ranger. And all rather coherent, in terms of cinematography.
Did I mention Helena Bonham Carter plays a brothel madam with a leg made of ivory?
Did I mention that the opening sequence has an homage to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch?
Or that Quentin Tarantino named it one of his favorite movies of 2013?
Also, this movie—which mocks American exceptionalism—opened on July 4th.
If my reference to Henry James above seems pretentious to you, either in itself or in reference to a crazy action movie, let me remind you that James wrote that statement after hearing a lifetime of criticism that he wasn’t telling traditional stories properly, when in fact he was America’s first Modernist who would forever being among the best at telling psychologically nuanced stories over morality tales. The Lone Ranger, too, has been misunderstood, judged primarily for not being the kind of movie the audience expected to watch rather than for what it was attempting.
William Bibbiani, reviewing for craveonline, is a clear example. He complained that “Gore Verbinski … seems to be rebelling against the very concept of a feel-good family epic,” and that The Lone Ranger is “a blockbuster that punishes you for wanting it.” That is true: if you want a feel-good family epic set in the Western frontier, this movie is not for you, and if you crave a movie of such excess that casts no shadows upon the meaning of that spectacular excess, then The Lone Ranger forces you to make too many moral, political, and epistemological choices as a viewer. If you like the Crank films, though, or Samuel Beckett, or Buster Keaton, then watching The Lone Ranger can be a deeply satisfying experience.
 This is about the racial controversy in TLR: In 2012, all it took was one image with Johnny Depp as Tonto (streaking white face paint and a headdress of a taxidermied crow) to spur accusations from non-Native American critics like Paul Constant and Dodai Stewart that what Depp was doing was “red-face” racism.
Such accusations either minimized or ignored Depp’s own assertions of his Native American ancestry. Stewart, of Jezebel.com, seemed to relent a little when members of the Navajo nation were on The Lone Ranger set, and actually gave Depp their blessing, and Depp participated in an induction ceremony to officially join the Comanche Nation.
Adrienne K, a native American blogger, offered a more sarcastic, yet nuanced evaluation of Depp’s still-more-than-a-year-away-from-being-shown portrayal of Tonto. On the Native Appropriations blog, she noted (as others had) that the inspiration for Depp’s look comes from the artwork of Kirby Sattler, who happens to be non-Native.
K argued that Sattler “relies heavily on stereotypes of Native people as mystical-connected-to-nature-ancient-spiritual-creatures, with little regard for any type of historical accuracy.”
Adrienne K has chronicled the controversy that her own criticisms of Depp has caused among some Native Americans, especially the actor Saginaw Grant, who is actually in the film. Adrienne K’s very identity as a Native American has been called into question, for her questioning Johnny Depp’s ancestral identity, for questioning the wisdom of a Sac/Fox nation elder (Saginaw), for not toeing an ethnic line with Native Americans elders (Saginaw) who claimed that the film would offer a positive, empathetic portrayal of their people. Politically, this is impossibly messy, which does not mean, I think, that the question is moot or pointless, but rather that one can watch the movie and keep the question open.
In depicting genocide, The Lone Ranger tries to let one tribe’s self-determined decimation (and the symbolic, impressionistic scene of the murdering of Tonto’s tribe) stand in for so much more atrocity, and the synecdoche isn’t enough, one suspects, to do justice to that history. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is a historical epic (infinitely superior to its source material in the James Fenimore Cooper novel) that shows nuance amongst Native American tribes, and that treats Native American characters as equal to the most important white characters; the climax of the film is a battle between two Native American characters while the white hero Nathaniel watches. And there are, of course, independent films made by Native Americans themselves, including Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Art of Fancydancing. Being set during the time of manifest destiny, though, The Lone Ranger had to deal with genocide, and the racial questions (is Johnny Depp Indian enough? Does the film give enough agency to its Native American characters? Is the movie truthful enough about genocide) are not settled in my own mind, and really must be answered by each viewer.