director Gore Verbinski
Lambasted by critics and a big box office flop for Disney, I scratched The Lone Ranger from our summer movie viewing plan and hadn’t even added it to a DVD queue until I saw that local cineaste Jesse Hawthorne Ficks had listed the film in his top 10 for the year, noting keenly that he considered it “perhaps the most subversive Hollywood film since Paul Verhoeven’s still misunderstood sci-fi masterpiece, Starship Troopers (1997)”. That was enough for me.
On even more of a whim, I decided to watch the film with the kids, not just to watch the film for my own reading of its “subversion”. Actually, I hadn’t even read Mr. Ficks’ full article that I’ve linked to above yet. But I still had local critic Mick LaSalle’s extremely negative review in mind, recalling that he had reacted most negatively to the film’s pervasive violence and potential inappropriateness.
Unsurprisingly, I found the in the film neither of these extreme perspectives. But perhaps surprisingly, I found, as did the kids, the movie to actually be pretty fun and entertaining. In the end, we all kind of liked it.
Coming from the team behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, produced Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinksi, and star Johnny Depp, the film is actually quite clearly trying to grab onto that template, a mixture of high action and stunts with broad near slap-stick comedy verging into outright fantasy, a hopeful tentpole summer flick to lead to another fruitful franchise. And it delivers as such. Except for the failure at the box office.
If anything, the film leans towards the wacky conceptual indulgence of the later Pirates films, pulling some high concept gags, though perhaps not nearly as extreme as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) (It’s funny but because of the period of those films, I have never watched any of them with the kids and since I liked them but didn’t love them, I haven’t ended up watching them with the kids.)
Really the film does have its issues. Depp’s Tonto is a mixture of an attempt at a revisionist (circa 2013) Western’s attitude toward Native Americans, that is, revisionist in being positive. Though he’s also goofy/crazy, mystic/prescient, heroic and buffoon. Which is fine. It’s just that the character reads differently throughout the film and does at time become something to wince at, though more often something to enjoy. The kids liked him. But it’s a dance of sorts, the film’s portrayal of ethnic groups, trying to ennoble while also always wanting to be funny, too.
Armie Hammer is quite good in the comic bumbling Ranger hero. The irony of the film really is about how Depp took the sidekick role and left the title role to a man without nearly as much box office stuff. And the fact that The Lone Ranger is much more an accidental hero here, not the classic Western hero of his radio and TV heydays.
I actually had reruns of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels TV show as a kid to be oriented to the story. My kids are children of this millennium, who have no context for the character whatsoever. In fact, when the music booms in with the “William Tell Overture” late in the film, Felix noted that the music seemed sort of inappropriate. I had to inform him that this was in fact The Lone Ranger‘s theme, oddly enough.
The film is violent and gruesome. In fact, it’s really quite dark. From a villain eating the human heart of the Ranger’s brother to a slaughter of a village of Comanche, to further slaughter of Comanche, the film has a huge body count, and some bloodless yet grotesque endings for several characters. I was wondering if this was the considered subversion. How un-Disney this Disney’s kids movie was. I mean, that was certainly one of the criticisms of the film.
The other major subversion to wonder about would be regarding American History and the Western genre in general. Since I watched the film, I have read Ficks’ full article, so I know now where he’s coming from a bit more. His reading pulls in with a lot more specific cinematic references which I didn’t grasp at all. I do see how this concept of retelling history, as the film is told in flashbacks via an ancient Tonto’s recollections to a small boy, would offer a reading of the story as something highly revisionist.
Bottom line is that I didn’t get that from my first viewing. Westerns are such an unusual genre these days that the pure intentionality of making a Western almost inherently forces the film to be highly genre-aware, if not post-modern or post-post-modern, reflexive, self-aware, historically aware, depicting the period and genre through some aspect of reference to itself. So to get too specific it would require a closer reading than a single viewing can offer.
The film did get short shrift by most critics. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, not wholly successful on any level, but it was actually pretty good. The kids in particular enjoyed the film’s bloopers that appeared on the DVD. The film’s box office flop will most likely curtail any franchising to be done (which is fine too – franchises are good for the producers, not necessarily the audience), but time and history will tell about how the film will be read.
I reckon that it would actually be interesting to do a study of Westerns produced in this millennium. The Western in the 21st Century. That might be the really interesting essay.