Monday, August 12, 2013

lone ranger: a post-colonial cowboys and indians

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for July, of Lone Ranger.

Lone Ranger
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

I confess to a sheltered childhood. Somehow a masked man and his cry of “Hi-Ho, Silver! Away!” passed me by. Which is strange, given that the Lone Ranger occupies a significant place in contemporary popular culture, including 18 novels, 2,956 radio episodes and 221 half-hour television episodes.

Come 2013, the Disney remake of “The Lone Ranger” is able to draw on an extensive cultural arsenal. But this is the 21st century. Thus the way we tell stories of cowboys and Indians is certainly open to a re-make.

Much of this film deals with stereotype. It begins with a child wandering a theme park. It is a clever plot device, inviting us to cross times and cultures through the eyes of a child.

As we do, we encounter a Western side show, read a sign that says “noble savage,” and find ourselves startled by the appearance of an elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp), with a story to share with us.

The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer as John Reid) is also battling with stereotype. He is a young city lawyer returning to the wild West. He is living in the shadow of his older brother (James Badge Dale as Dan Reid), a real Ranger living on the dry and dusty borders between railroad expansion and Comanche lands.

In storytelling one way to deal with stereotype is through character development. Take for instance the character of Tonto. He is introduced as Indian, imprisoned both in sideshow and in a railway carriage with convicted outlaw Butch Cassidy (William Fichtner). Rapidly he becomes mystical saviour, escaping prison, then restoring an injured Lone Ranger from a Butch Cassidy ambush in which his older brother is tortured and killed. As the plot twists, Tonto becomes village idiot, damaged as a child by the greed of Western imperialism.

All the time, the cultural gap is immense. In the original 1903‘s radio play, the character of Tonto was introduced so the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk. By 2013, Tonto is a window into a very different world. In Comanche culture, knowledge is treasure, exchange is mutual, while communication is primarily symbolic. In wild Western culture, knowledge is commodified, exchange is earned through gun and greed, while communication is primarily verbal.

Except that Tonto is Johnny Deep. Which cleverly makes obvious yet another stereotype, that of the audience. When we see Johnny Deep, we might be a child, but we are still expecting Captain Jack Sparrow, lawless buffoon from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Who are we really seeing? What is the real story?

The answer, in “The Lone Ranger,” is partnership, a growing, and increasingly equal discovery of difference between cowboy and Indian. As those very first radio shows used to announce: “a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice.”

All of which invites us to consider a final stereotype. The credits of Hollywood roll. And all the time Tonto walks. Away from the sideshow and into his land. Home for Comanche? Or empty desert, waiting to be colonised with greed by gun? One picture. Can it include two peoples. Or must cowboys always end up killing Indians?

Posted by steve at 04:46 PM


  1. A moments confession I left this movie early, didn’t stay to the end. glad you stuck it out, I could not.

    Comment by Martyn — August 13, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  2. When did you leave? What was the reason?

    The final scene, of Tonto walking ever so slowly into the distance, will remain with me for a long time.


    Comment by steve taylor — August 13, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  3. “stupid white man” was when i left

    Comment by Martyn — August 13, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.