The Lone Ranger: or, Leaving Not So Well Enough Alone

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The relative flop of Johnny Depp's recent foray into the Lone Ranger franchise (I say "relative" because many a domestic box office disappointment ends up in the black after all due to international ticket sales and DVD, Netflix, and whatnot re-sales) left the movie criticism community abuzz with post mortem analyses that were fairly dripping with the kind of schadenfreude that greets most expensive blockbuster busts.  The reason for the failure of the film are many—including the perceptions that it couldn't make up its mind whether it was Blazing Saddles or Little Big Man, and that Tonto came off suspiciously like Jack Sparrow—but whether it was really that silly stuffed crow that was to blame, or simply the fact that contemporary kids don't know the Lone Ranger from Hopalong Cassidy is not my concern here.  What I want to look at is what happens when some entertainment concepts that have more than outlived their times are mined in Hollywood's endless quest for safe formulae in a high stakes era when the bottom line is far more important than creativity. I can easily imagine what Disney's thinking was on this: with Superhero flicks pulling in billions (forget Iron Man for a moment, they've even resurrected Superman successfully for the umpteenth time) the studios (I use this word loosely) are ever on the lookout for old entertainment "claims" that haven't yet been fully mined out, and the Lone Ranger was available (though the spectacular failure of John Carter should have been a warning here).  But the problem is that some old mines contain toxic ores, and the Lone Ranger is one of them. The problem, of course, is Tonto.  Though by standards of the time in which the Lone Ranger story was created Tonto was quite a progressive advance over the usual savages-circling-the-wagon-train representations (Cochise in the short-lived television series Broken Arrow offers a similar, though far less well known example), by the 1960s Tonto's wooden caricature of a "noble savage" in subservience to the Ranger's dominance just didn't cut it anymore. That Disney and Depp were very well aware of this problem is quite evident in their movie.  Here, Tonto is dominant, while the Ranger, though physically imposing at six feet five inches in height, is stiff and unimpressive.  But this obvious attempt to lay to rest the ghosts of Westerns past by retelling the story from Tonto's perspective apparently failed to persuade Native American audiences— according to a review in the Los Angeles Times—who were neither terribly keen to see this old war horse resurrected, and were particularly unhappy to see, once again, a white actor playing an Indian character. I think the lesson to be learned from this is that there simply are some entertainment concepts that can't be redeemed, no matter how good one's intentions may be.  You don't try to bring back Stepin Fetchit.  You don't try to remake Birth of a Nation from a slave perspective.  Frankly, though it did pretty well both commercially and critically, I think it was a mistake for Peter Jackson to lug King Kong back onto the silver screen.  With Accounting in absolute control over Creative in today's movie industry, however, I expect that we will have many more attempts to dig up toxic concepts and decontaminate them for redistribution.  But, please: don't anyone try to pretend that The Merchant of Venice would make a great vehicle for Baz Luhrmann.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.