I have to confess. I have loved The Lone Ranger ever since I was a little kid. I never wanted to be part of its reality, though; I was already a Whovian by then, so I wanted to run off with the Doctor. But that’s not why I’m writing this.
Also, spoilers under the cut.
I love The Lone Ranger still. Those opening bars of The William Tell Overture do something special to my heart. And, yes, I do realize that I love something that’s as problematic as all hell. It’s appropriating, it’s misogynistic, it’s unrealistic (even the latest take left out the horse crap that should have been in the town streets) and for lots of it, utter, utter nonsense. Intellectually, I know this. Spiritually, I still love it.
So, after I saw the movie (fan, remember? I couldn’t not see it) I went and did some homework. Did you know that the character of the Lone Ranger was based on an African-American? Imagine how ground-breaking a little accuracy could have been. As for the word/phrase ‘kimosabe’… I looked up a Potawatomi dictionary [Tonto was originally Potawatomi, a tribe native to Michigan] and could not find any trace, no matter how creative my spelling attempts. I also couldn’t find 'Tonto’ but maybe my research is lacking.
Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but I didn’t read a lot of the anti-native subtext that others have seen. Maybe it’s because I went in to the theatre prepared to love the movie. I was keeping a watchful eye out for problematic stuff, so I wasn’t glossing over anything.
Now, if I was prepared to gloss over the casting, I could say that casting Depp as Tonto was symbolic. I could say that the only time he was seen as a 'real’ native American was before his mind broke and he became an outcast. When he’s an adult and had time to steep in his dissociative fantasies, he’s no longer a 'real’ native American. But I know better. Hollywood has always favoured white leads. The casting director just loved Depp for the role and that was that.
Aside- I would personally love to see a movie about the REAL Lone Ranger, the guy the mythos sprang from. If you read his bio, he was a freaking BAD ASS. But that will be a rare thing and possibly hated by my fellow white people. Ugh.
Now, a little geography. I know NOTHING about the layout of the US. I’m used to westerns where there’s suddenly a chase scene through Monument Valley and a gunfight in the Vasquez Rocks. That holds few qualms for me, and I can even find it a little funny. On that count, Hollywood only has itself to blame.
And I was a bit put out when the only two female speaking roles didn’t even get to glance at each other. It’s annoying when ones own gender doesn’t get to have a decent conversation. It’s slightly more annoying when you spot the “HEY LOOK, WE’RE PASSING THE BECHDEL TEST” scene where two women with names get one line to each other each.
And Mrs Reid was HEAVILY objectified. Passive when the bad guy creeped on her, the screaming damsel when she’s inevitably kidnapped. The only time she has autonomy is when she mysteriously imperils herself by sneaking along the outside of a moving train carriage for no apparent reason whatsoever. Even then, she’s seeking a man to rescue her… And finally, by the end of the movie, she’s the Prize in the Wings, for when the hero finally decides he wants to step off the stage.
As for Red (not even a real name, thanks Hollywood!) she’s sexualized to the extreme. One of her body parts is literally objectified, since it’s turned into an ivory prosthesis with a hidden gun in it.
Historical side-note, amputations above the knee were also associated with a high mortality rate, even in “professional” surgical situations at the time. The fact that Red’s leg was taken by an amateur and she lived to remake herself anew - to my mind - gives Red ovaries of titanium. I’m saddened by the fact that no-one else in the audience realized her potential as a lady bad ass was so very wasted in this movie.
Now all that’s out of the way, let’s move on to all the juicy racism.
The movie begins with a kid discovering old!Tonto as a freaking exhibit in a sideshow. He has to be edging up to a hundred, but he has to stand there holding an axe up like he’s a wax statue. I don’t care what that thing is made of, you try holding the lightest thing you can up in the air like that. Your arm is going to get heavy. I read this as the cruelty of the world and the white man exploiting POC again, and I wondered if this was going to work its way into the plot.
Nope. It’s just a framing device, boys and girls. No tragedy of faded glory, no rescue from the clutches of an evil carnie overlord. It’s just a vehicle so that a white kid can meet and talk to old!Tonto.
[Man, if I was writing this, I’d have used Fran Striker, the original writer of the radio show, interviewing old!Tonto in his house…]
As for other POC, they’re either under-represented (token black guy, dead in 5 minutes or less) or wrongly represented (chinese labourers in rice paddy hats, because how else will the audience KNOW they’re chinese? Wat?) and get maybe one line each before they die.
The rest of the story has almost overdone elements of Unreliable Narrator Syndrome. My favourite amongst them is the freeze in midair when the kid interrupts at the beginning, but there’s call-backs to that pretty much all the way through the movie.
I did not read Tonto eating peanuts in the shell as 'stupidity’. I read it as 'desperate hunger’. He snarfs them right down as if it’s the only thing he’s had to eat all day. The hat-feeding, I just read as 'strange’. When it’s revealed as a potentially-live-again spirit-bird, I just took it as This Movies’ Gimmick and left it at that. I was also pretty sure that it was all bullshit, and I was right. They even lampshaded the made up Tonto!Bullshit in the film.
I was glad to see native Americans portrayed by native Americans in this movie. And even happier to hear complete sentences. I’m not happy that they only gave lines to one dude or that traditional life is portrayed as dancing around a campfire. That’s just wrong.
And maybe a white man had to make a movie this bad at portraying native Americans to get white people talking about the raw deal that’s been going on ever since Columbus took slaves in the West Indies. Disney in particular and Hollywood in general are blowing their trumpets and shouting, “Look! We tried! We asked them about stuff! We really tried!” and ignoring the elephant in the room with the words NOT HARD ENOUGH on the side.
Native life/living is only seen briefly before its destroyed by the white man. And doesn’t the white man destroy it quickly. Just like the ancient serials of yesteryear, native Americans exist on the screen only to be slaughtered by white folks. I’d have liked a little more time for this on the screen, but what we’re given is a handful of lines in silence (no mournful music for slaughtered natives) followed by a running gag joke and cut to celebration.
Me, I read the cut-to-celebration as highlighting the venality of the white bad guys, but that’s just me. The townsfolk had no idea what the celebration had cost the natives and, sickeningly, probably would not have cared. Knowing this made my stomach churn, and I listened to the speeches about progress and so forth with a knot in my innards.
Then we get to see the heroes sneaking around. Something is going on! There’s a plan to defeat the evil foe, at freaking last.
I was the only one in the entire theatre who cackled with glee when I heard the trumpet solo. Everyone else didn’t understand. When they start The William Tell Overture, shit’s about to go DOWN.
This is one thing that, to my mind, they got right. It’s the most ludicrous, overblown, ridiculous, runaway train, posse chase, get the bad guy and save the girl scene ever committed to film and I loved it to death. Props for giving Tonto a few billion levels in Bad Assery, rather than just showing up whenever the hero needed a helping hand.
True to the Lone Ranger code (it’s in this wiki page) our hero never shoots to kill. And, during the chase scene, it’s not seen as his beginning bad aim. It’s a deliberate act that saves the day. The bad guy gets ended by that which he coveted, the silver that he and his degenerate pal murdered an entire tribe for.
The day is saved, the prize offered and rejected (we find out later that the watch box contained bird seed) and the woman offered and rejected for different reasons. And the Lone Ranger rides away into destiny.
It’s a different story for Tonto. He changes into a suit - implying that it was his choice to be an exhibit (Wat) - and literally shuffles off his little stage with a hint of Magic Injun Mysticism. I almost threw up a little.
I hung around to see if there was a stinger. I was 'rewarded’ with a “Hi Yo Silver!” scene that was obviously cut from the rest of the movie, and a near-eternity of old!Tonto literally shuffling off to the remaining wilderness.
My heart wanted to see a white horse come and give him a ride. It would have been poetic, perhaps even uplifting, to see Silver come and take him on the biggest Last Adventure to have. But no. It just… ended.
Blackness there, and nothing more.
I was vastly disappointed by that. The people who thought this was a good idea should be locked in a room where all they can see are the words, “NEVER DISAPPOINT YOUR AUDIENCE” ad infinitum until they learn their lesson. But only after all the native Americans offended by their choices have been done with them.
I can wait.
This is the sort of film that will be loved by tweenaged boys. If you’re a parent of one, take some time to discuss the problematic issues in the movie and how it could have been made better with a little thought.
And show them all about the REAL Lone Ranger, bad ass Bass Reeves.
Maybe the next time they tackle this American legend, they’ll get it right.