Weird Westerns: The Lone Ranger (2013)
Johnny Depp plays a highly questionable Tonto in Gore Verbinski's huge-budget adaption of the once-popular radio serial character.
By Max Sparber
Let me start by discussing the things 2013's "The Lone Ranger" did right, before getting to the one thing it did wrong, but with a warning that I think the one thing it did wrong sabotaged the entire film.
"The Lone Ranger" was director Gore Verbinski's second Western, after his delightfully odd animated "Rango," and "Rango" demonstrated he really had a flair for the material. The movie was a off-kilter love letter to Westerns, and Verbinski brought that same affection for the genre to his Lone Ranger film.
Verbinski is probably best known for the diminishing returns of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but, with the first one, he demonstrated a genuine talent for period adventures showcasing oddball characterizations in a series of imaginatively staged big set pieces. He managed this with "The Lone Ranger."
Unlike a lot of reboots, Verbinski demonstrated a surprising amount of respect for the source material: The essential storyline closely follows the original 1933 radio serial, in which the main character is the lone survivor of a massacre of Texas Rangers.
Verbinski cast Armie Hammer as the hero, and Hammer is a tremendously entertaining actor, even in a film in which he must play a rather square straight man. He is given the unenviable task of looking ill-at-ease in every single scene in the film, and is charming about it. He often must act opposite a version of his white horse Silver that is not just a wonder horse, but actually seems to be making fun of him, and, sometimes, the movie, and he's quite generous in allowing a horse to dominate scenes with him.
Verbinski has a flair for visuals, and so the film has the same sort of heightened art direction that the Pirates movie feature. The wilderness of the West is frequently played by Moab Utah, so even though the film is set in Texas, it rather resembles the surreal, sandstone butte dominated landscape of a Roadrunner cartoon. The villains are all greasy and odd-looking, with the primary villain, played by the tremendous William Fichtner, looking a bit like a gangly scarecrow with a badly scarred lip.
There is a marvelously weird scene in a brothel overseen by Helena Bonham Carter, who has a false leg made of scrimshawed ivory with a shotgun hidden inside it; the whole sequence looks like a Western version of the set designs for "Moulin Rouge."
And, as I have mentioned, Verbinski has a talented for entertaining action scenes, filled with big set pieces and amusing bits of business. There are a lot of these in the film, often taking place on moving trains, including an extended and dynamite climactic race between two trains choreographed to "The William Tell Overture," the Lone Ranger's traditional theme music, and it's a reminder of how exciting the music is, and how well it works in a Western.
But this was a film that cost a shocking amount of money — maybe $250 million — and just barely made it back, receiving mostly negative critical reviews, and despite my critical plaudits in the previous paragraphs, they were not unearned.
Because Verbinski made one tremendous error of judgement in the film, and the film does not recover from it. And that error is Johnny Depp.
Depp has long maintained that he is part Indian, but without evidence, and his story about the subject is inconsistent. He used to claim his grandfather was Cherokee and they were close, but now he claims it was his great-grandmother and perhaps she was Creek.
This is common enough — sometimes it seems like every American is sure they have a Cherokee grandparent, even though very few do. It's a common family mythology, and I used to teach a class on DNA genealogy that always started with me warning that it was likely people's DNA tests would come back with far less Indian ancestry than they had been led to believe they have.
But it is one thing for White people to delude themselves that they are Indian when they aren't; it's another for them to play Indians onscreen. And, frankly, the largely Jewish Armie Hammer has more demonstrable Indian heritage than Johnny Depp, as he is directly descended from an actual Cherokee chief, Kanagatucko.
But the film cast Depp as Tonto, a role that is perhaps most famous for having been played by Jay Silverheels, the son of a Mohawk tribal chief. The studios scrambled to legitimize Depp, especially once Native Americans began to question the authenticity of Depp's claims to Native heritage. Depp was formally adopted into a Comanchee Tribe, and, fair enough — if you are a member of a Comanche Tribe, I'm in no position to say you aren't Comanche.
The trouble isn't so much Depp's ancestry as the fact that he chose to play Tonto in a typically eccentric, and frequently clownish, way. The film tries to lampshade all this by claiming that Tonto was traumatized by his inadvertent participation in the massacre of his tribe as a child, but, gah. I'm not especially comfortable with the murder of Indians being used as an excuse for an actor's bizarre performance decisions.
So, firstly, Depp gives Tonto an extremely odd appearance: Whiteface, with boldly painted black lines, like a caricature of war paint, and with a dead crow as headgear, which Tonto insists on attempting to feed throughout the film. The appearance is based on a painting by a non-Native painter, Kirby Sattler, and the terrific Native Appropriations blog is unambiguous about this being a problem: That Sattler relies on racist cliches about Native American men for his fantastical imagery, without concern for authenticity or historical accuracy.
The film is about genocide. The essential plot of the film is that businessmen and the US Military are in cahoots to fake Comanche raids as a pretext to break treaties, both because silver has been discovered on Comanche land and because it will allow them to drive a railroad right through Indian territory. Ordinarily, I am quite suspicions of scripts that tell of Indian experiences when there is no visible Indian participation in the creation of the script, as here. (I once wrote a stage play about the Indian Congress at Omaha's Trans-Mississippi International Exposition, and had it vetted by Native American scholars, as well as made changes based on suggestion by the Native American castmember in the play, which seemed like the least I could do.)
But this representation of the state supporting predatory capitalism in breaking treaties for the sake of amoral profit feels historically accurate, at least in spirit. And the film is mostly tasteful enough not to represent the massacres of Comanche that follow, but for a single spectacular fight scene, and is forthright that the US military is engaged in a genocidal war against the Comanche.
This is almost entirely represented by Depp, as he is the only Comanche we spend a lot of time with, and, despite the title of the film, is the de facto star. But Depp seems far more interested in creating a comical and profoundly stereotyped character than in finding a way to dramatically articulate the experience of surviving mass death. His Tonto is relentlessly jokey in a weirdly stoic way, speaking in a broken English invented by White screenwriters to represent the way Indians speak.
I have searched extensively to find out more about Depp's characterization as Tonto, but can literally only find interviews where he talks about the costume, which suggests to me that the extent of his research was a painting by a white man, which, if true, is shocking.
Unlike most Westerns, "The Lone Ranger" was heavily discussed in Native publications, with some, such as Native Appropriations, expressing unhappiness at the representation, and other, such as the Director of the American Indian Museum, just finding it "weird." I will leave the question of the appropriateness of Depp's choices for Native Americans to argue, but I will make this point.
Appropriate or not, Depp did not make a choice that resonated with audiences. $250 million is an awfully big budget to invest in a movie, and, while Depp's oddball take on Captain Jack Sparrow managed to propel the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" film to be an surprise hit, his choices here did not have the same effect.
I think he made better choices with Jack Sparrow. His pirate was unexpected, but an enjoyably creative and flexible character. Tonto was a costume, and Depp only seems to have two attitudes when in the costume: stone-faced and dryly sarcastic. It wasn't enough for audiences to invest two and a half hours into.
I should include a brief explanation for how this film is a Weird Western: It mostly isn't, but for a sense that the world has been unbalanced by the events of the story, which represents itself in a pair of scenes, one in which rabbits suddenly turn vicious and one in which hundreds of scorpions pull themselves out of the sand. This borrows from a Hopi concept, the same one used for a film that uses the Hopi word for its title: koyaanisqatsi.
Reportedly, in the original script, this state of being out of balance produced even more supernatural effects, but these were toned back. Nonetheless, what exists is enough to establish that "The Lone Ranger" exists in a slightly fantastic universe, especially Tonto's insistence that the main villain is a wendigo, a Native American cannibal spirit, which is a fair charge, as the man actually does engage in some cannibalism.
I'd like to close with a quick note: Verbinski is an inveterate borrower, and "The Lone Ranger" borrows an awful lot of material from earlier films, most relatively obscure. The film has a crossdressing cowboy that seems lifted from "Dead Man," along with Tonto paraphrasing the line "Stupid fucking White man" from the earlier film. Helena Bonham Carter's false leg seems directly inspired by Isabella Rossellini's beer-filled leg in Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World." The use of a Wendigo seems borrowed from 1999's "Ravenous."
And this is the most supernatural thing about the film: That Verbinski thought he could combine a bunch of elements from little-seen art house films and produce something with a $250 million budget.