Who Is That Masked Man? Who Cares?

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LOGOAt a point in the stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel “Look Homeward, Angel,” one of the characters says, “Merciful God! What a travesty! That it should come to this.”

These words were all I could think about as I watched Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp make a complete mockery of a beloved legend of the Old West in the latest version of  “The Lone Ranger,” which is a total desecration of the entire franchise. This film probably has Brace Beemer (the Lone Ranger’s most famous radio voice), and Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels (the stars of the television series) doing slow revolutions in their graves.

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo, Silver.’ The Lone Ranger. With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early West. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again.

“Hi-Yo, Silver. Away.”

For years, first on radio and then on television, the golden voice of Fred Foy uttered these magical words to introduce the latest adventure of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The masked man was born on Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1933 and ran for 2,936 broadcasts, and the television series subsequently ran from to 1949 to 1957. Additionally the famous western hero was the subject of numerous books, comic books, cartoons, and movies, all of which treated him with the great respect he was due. Until now!

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Appropriately this unmitigated film debacle begins with a  ludicrous scene at a San Francisco fair in 1933, when a young boy dressed in cowboy hat and wearing a mask wanders into a Wild West exhibit. There among the stuffed animals he comes across the statue of an Indian labeled “The Noble Savage in his natural habitat.” I don’t possess sufficient verbiage to describe the absurd scene that ensues, and so I’ll just tell you the mannequin is an aged Tonto, who comes to life and tells the entire story to the boy. And this idiotic segment sets the tone for this insultingly stupid film. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a poorer rendition of this legend.

True Lone Ranger fans know that the friendship between the masked man and Tonto began when the two of them were boys, but, of course, you won’t find any reference to that in this travesty. Instead we have attorney John Reid (Hammer) aboard a train on his way home to Colby, Texas, in 1869. Among the other passengers are Tonto (Depp) and the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who escapes custody when his gang hijacks the train.

Subsequently, John’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), who is head of the Texas Rangers, deputizes John, and a group of rangers rides off in search of the Cavendish gang. Unfortunately they end up being ambushed, and all of the rangers die. Tonto discovers the massacre (Don’t even ask where in the hell he’s been all this time.), and begins digging graves. Just as he finishes, the horse soon-to-be-known as Silver shows up and raises John from the dead. NO I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!! Tonto ultimately convinces John to wear a mask, and the two of them team up to search for Cavendish, who did something really gross after he killed John’s brother.

Now when I was growing up, the western heroes were prevalent, and names like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash Larue, Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Cisco Kid were household words. I loved all of them, and I watched myriad movies and TV shows chronicling their exciting adventures. But for me nothing topped seeing the masked man in the person of Clayton Moore astride the magnificent white stallion as it galloped to the top of that famous hill to the thrillingly vibrant strains of the William Tell Overture, and hearing Moore’s rich baritone voice intone “Hi-Yo, Silver. Away.”

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THE “REAL” LONE RANGER AND TONTO (CLAYTON MOORE AND JAY SILVERHEELS)

So what have the filmmakers in their infinite wisdom done with the Lone Ranger saga in this film? They have attempted to turn it into a comedy in which “the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains” is reduced to a pathetic namby-pamby constantly subjected to insulting barbs from his “faithful Indian companion.”

After Silver raises John Reid from the dead, Tonto is dragging the unconscious man on a sled behind the horse when the animal decides to defecate and John’s head slides through the mess. A bit later John comes to, and when he attempts to get the drop on Tonto, the following dialogue ensues.

Tonto: If you are going to sneak up on an Indian, best to do it downwind.

John: Why are you talking to that horse?

Tonto: My grandfather spoke of a time when animals could speak when you get them alone. Some still do. But I cannot decide whether this horse is stupid or pretending to be stupid. Tricky.

John: Why am I covered with dirt?

Tonto: Because I buried you.

John: Why am I alive?

Tonto: Horse says you are spirit walker, a man who has been to the other side and returned. Man cannot be killed in battle. Horse definitely stupid.

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I could give you a veritable plethora of additional examples that make this movie the joke it is, but why bother? Certainly you get the idea by now. No wait! I must mention one other scene. Throughout most of the film, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are on Silver’s back at the same time (Tonto’s trusty steed, Scout, has not yet appeared.), and during a segment when they are following another horse (never mind why) through the desert, the Lone Ranger is holding a parasol over Tonto! Can I possibly be fabricating this?

In the film’s production notes, director Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean” films) made it clear that he had no interest in preserving the original story of the Lone Ranger.

“I think if you’re a fan of the original TV series, you’re going to be surprised by the movie because everybody knows that story, and that’s not the story we’re telling. We’re telling the story from Tonto’s perspective, kind of like ‘Don Quixote,’ told from Sancho Panza’s point of view. I would say that at its core, our version is a buddy story and an action-adventure film with a lot of irony and humor and enough odd singularity to make it distinct.”

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Actually this film may appeal to younger people who aren’t familiar with the original radio and TV series, but masked-man purists are going to find that Depp’s portrayal of Tonto is more of a parody than anything else and that putting the mask and white hat on Hammer ranks as one of the worst casting decisions since 1997, when George Clooney completely emasculated the character of Batman by donning the cape and cowl for the abysmal “Batman and Robin.”

And as for why the film really is more about Tonto than the Lone Ranger, Depp explained that in the production notes.

“‘The Lone Ranger’ was just one of those sort of regular things that you would see on television as a kid. I watched it and I always identified with Tonto. And even as a kid I wondered why the Indian was the sidekick.

“And it wasn’t that ‘The Lone Ranger’ was overtly disrespectful in the way he treated Tonto but I just thought, ‘Why is he the guy that has to go and do this and that? Why isn’t he the hero?’ So that was something that was always on my mind. And I was told at a very young age that we have some Indian blood in our family. Who knows how much? Maybe very little, I don’t know.

“So what I wanted to do was play this character not as the sidekick to the Lone Ranger. I wanted to play him as a warrior and as a man with great integrity and dignity. It’s my small sliver of a contribution to try and right the wrongs that have been committed in the past.”

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In addition to painting the heroes as a pair of bumbling fools, the film doesn’t really offer any great action scenes except for perhaps one on top of a train, and even the final showdown with Cavendish is totally unsatisfying. It is appropriate, however, that one of the final scenes features a massive train wreck because that’s exactly what this movie is.

If you think the points about this film I have so far delineated surpass ludicrousness, just wait until you hear Tonto explain what “Kemosabe” means. But the coups de grace occurs in the final 30 seconds when for the first and only time in the film, the Lone Ranger cries Hi-Yo, Silver. What follows completes the sacrilege!

With all due respect to Lone Ranger fans everywhere, this abomination deserves a zero, but I am going to award it a grudging two because the horse was pretty and because the William Tell Overture finally played. And here’s the way the introduction to this version of the Lone Ranger should sound.

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“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a falsetto Hi-Yo, Silver. The Lone Ranger. With his bird-headed Indian companion Tonto, the bumbling and foppish masked rider of the plains pretty much botched the fight for law and order in the early West. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a weaker champion of justice. Return with us now to those embarrassing days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Pantywaist rides again!”

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1 Comment

Filed under Film of the Week

One response to “Who Is That Masked Man? Who Cares?

  1. PITA

    “The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.” The true Lone Ranger remains in that moment. 🙂 Entertaining review.

    Excerpt From: Wolfe, Thomas. “Look Homeward, Angel.”

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