'The Lone Ranger' as Horror Film

Column by Glen Allport.

Exclusive to STR

I bought “The Lone Ranger” on Blu-Ray this week and enjoyed it even more than I had in the theater – it's a fun, big-budget summer action movie. Then as the credits rolled, I sat and cried for about 15 minutes.
“The Lone Ranger” has been a financial disaster for Disney, despite the fabulous Johnny Depp performance as Tonto, despite the Jerry Bruckheimer / Gore Verbinski polish and energy, and despite its more than quarter-billion-dollar global box-office take. When you spend a reported $215 million making a film, plus maybe another $200 million on marketing, you need an ocean of box office cash to come out ahead. Disney projects up to $190 million “Lone Ranger” loss, according to a story making the rounds this past August. Yikes.
Critics were not kind to the film, which has a 31% Tomatometer rating at Rotten Tomatoes, although the audience was happier with it – 57% of user ratings at the site are positive. Why the nasty reviews from the media, I wondered? And why did Americans in particular stay away? This quintessentially American story took in nearly twice the box-office receipts overseas as it did here at home.
I can't say for certain why the film got such disdain, especially in its home market, but I can say this: the story is directly and clearly about two horrors that Americans in particular have had much practice at actually ignoring, downplaying, and denying. The first of these horrors is one of the worst genocides in world history, and the second horror is a foreshadowing of the loss of the American republic and its gradual and now nearly complete replacement by a corrupt and violent corporatist tyranny.
Really: Who the hell wants to deal with that?
Not the American movie-going public, apparently. Even less, American movie critics in the elite corporatist media.
Readers at STR won't have any question about the reality of the second horror, but some brief comments about the genocide: before Europeans arrived, American Indians were, naturally, 100% of the American population. Now, according to Wikipedia's article on the American Indian Wars, they're 0.9% of the population. More Indian deaths were probably due to European diseases--which hit the native residents of both North and South America harder than the Black Death hit Europeans--than to war and massacre, but American Indians were systematically pushed off their land, and a vast number, including women and children, were murdered by U.S. Army troops and by other whites. Genocide is the correct term for what America did to the native Indian population. (For an excellent, mind-expanding look at the Americas shortly before and after the arrival of Columbus, see 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann and Mann's follow-up volume, 1493).
The plot of “The Lone Ranger” [spoiler alert], and the backstory for Tonto, begins with the massacre of Tonto's tribal village by two men who have found silver nearby and who want to be certain the tribe won't become a source of that information to anyone else. Many years later, the same men and their confederates attack several white settlements disguised as Indians to provide a reason for breaking a treaty that would have prevented a railroad from going through Indian territory. The few remaining members of Tonto's tribe die (at the hands of the U.S. cavalry) in an attack aimed at stopping the railway. Near the end of the film, after the last of the Comanche warriors are killed, one of the two original murderers tells Tonto, “In a few years, it will be as if you people never existed.”
Of that villain and his wealthy railroad stockholders, Armie Hammer (as the Ranger) says, “He controls the railroad, the cavalry . . . everything. If these men represent the law, I'd rather be an outlaw.”
Genocide and corporatist tyranny, right here in the land of Disney. The wonder is that Bruckheimer and crew were able to craft a movie around those themes that didn't cause audiences to run out of theaters screaming. Instead, the film is often upbeat and generally quite entertaining – Bruckheimer and Verbinski previously collaborated on “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “The Lone Ranger” has similar polish, energy, and humor. And indeed the good guys come out ahead – aside from all those dead Indians and a number of dead, good-guy Texas Rangers who were trying to stop the railroad false-flag scam. Tonto and his masked companion survive and are clearly available for further adventures, although those have likely been cancelled by Disney executives. Actual, right-here-in-America genocide combined with a glimpse at our long-running, malignant corporatist tyranny were, I suspect, too much reality for this would-be franchise to survive.
And yes, I actually cried after the movie ended. Readers will understand that I am not complaining; rather, it seems a wonder that such a film could be made today. If you've not seen “The Lone Ranger,” I recommend it both as Hollywood-style entertainment (if you enjoy such things) and as a jolting reminder of important truths that are too-often swept under the rug.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 111

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.


Paul's picture

Well, there are lots of reasons a movie like that might be panned, not all of them having to do with acceptance of fascist "history". For example, there is often a fine line where a plot must not cross, having to do with reality. If as a film watcher you say to yourself, "Nobody would act like that", then the film is going to be downgraded. I think this film crossed that line multiple times. It may also be that the whole thing was too formulaic. For example, it's long been common to show films sympathetic to Indians, and I don't think that is a bad thing - but portraying them as angels is going overboard and again strains credulity. It also irritates people to be preached at.

Cheer up, Glen; it was just a so-so movie. I did like Depp's character though.

Glen Allport's picture

Hi Paul -- I'm not sure what to make of your comment about "fascist 'history'" -- I'm pretty sure we actually killed off most of the Indians (something sure did) and corporatism at the federal level DID take a huge step forward with "regulation" of the railroads at about the time this story was set, but I don't understand if you're contesting that or just don't feel it would be a reason for many people to be unhappy with the film. Either way, I'll agree with you that there are plenty of other reasons people might not like a particular film, inclluding this one.
The "nobody would act that way" line is crossed repeatedly in every summer blockbuster and would-be blockbuster; think of any of the Batman movies, for instance -- or for that matter Avatar, one of the highest-grossing films in history, and in which behavior, including combat tactics, often makes no sense other than to move the story along as the director wants it to go. Again, people like or don't like a film for any number of reasons, and I know that plenty of people just felt, as you did, that Lone Ranger is a so-so film. I personally LIKED the film and especially much of the acting but my growing and originally mostly unconscious discomfort about the underlying horrors of the story really came to a head after seeing it a second time when I watched it at home. I do wonder how many people felt a similar discomfort and whether that discomfort played a role in people's views (and reviews) of the movie. Perhaps I should have expanded on my thesis but I wanted this one to be short.
I certainly agree with you about Depp's character -- he's terrific in the role, and Tonto is more solid and nuanced than the loopy, lightweight drunk he brings to life in the "Pirates" films.

Paul's picture

"but I don't understand if you're contesting that or just don't feel it would be a reason for many people to be unhappy with the film."

No, I'm not contesting that (my comment about "fascist history" wasn't very clear, I guess). The film could allude to the true historical reality - in fact, I think it pretty much did that - but still have so many flaws as to turn people off, even if they agreed with that allusion. In other words, I don't equate widespread rejection of the film, with acceptance of the government school historical narrative.

Yeah, I know, blockbusters aren't that realistic anyway, but I still think they have to have some connection to reality - if not so much to the laws of physics, then at least to the motivations of the players. For some reason, I'm much more forgiving of the violations of the former than of the latter, and I suspect that is true for others as well. After all, 2/3 of all films made seem to invoke the supernatural, zombies or vampires - yet we still watch the silly things.

The best treatment of early railroad practices and corruption I think is the series, "Hell on Wheels". If you haven't seen it, take a look. I put it close to Firefly in quality, and the acting is superb.

Glen Allport's picture

Good points, Paul, and thanks for "Hell on Wheels." No, I haven't seen it, and if it's half as solid as Firefly -- one of my favorites -- I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

Mark Davis's picture

Good take Glen and I wondered the same thing about the critics panning this movie.  I thought perhaps that  too many critics are simply tired of yet another loopy Johnny Depp character, but I thought this was a brilliant adaptation and performance. I also considered perhaps Americans no longer go for westerns unless they involve mean, dirty, cruel men having massive gun fights in slow motion only to be saved by agents of the state bringing "civilization" to the inwashed.  However, I think that you may have hit the nail on the head, as audiences seem to like it better than critics: it makes the critic weenies uncomfortable on the two related subjects of mass genocide and corporate-state malfeasance.  Most movie critics are liberal statists who have long hated westerns, especially when they glorify the "rugged individualist" and show corporate-state minions as the bad guys they were, and are.

Glen Allport's picture

Mark, I agree that most movie critics are liberal statists, and I think it offends them when non-PC truths and positive views of freedom are portrayed on film. And I think both the critics and the public generally felt uncomfortable, even if only vaguely and mostly unconsciously, with the two underlying themes in The Lone Ranger. Growing up and well into my own adulthood, it really didn't consciously occur to me that white Americans had actually murdered most of the Indian population during the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s. We did, though, and I think with books like 1491 and other material out there on the topic, the truth is seeping into public awareness just a bit more than previously. An entertaining movie can probably survive one horrible truth, but TWO may be one too many. 

Jim Davies's picture

Clearly, I'm going to have to see the Lone Ranger. My education would be otherwise incomplete. Thank you, Glen.
And for all you Johnny Depp fans, don't miss Chocolat. It's delicious.