Asking anyone who was not around during the days of radio to fully appreciate the recently released The Lone Ranger is like asking someone below the age of 80 to understand or relate to the legends and icons of the “Roaring Twenties.”
Truth is, most of us, historians excluded, tend to focus on our own experiences, our own entertainments, our own times. So, when 73% of the critics quoted on Rotten Tomatoes scored it “rotten,” (and that’s only from among the critics who bothered to review it at all) you know they have no reference to the “radio days” of the media past when Rossini’s William Tell Overture was planted in the minds and culture as the adventures of a heroic figure for the ages.
There was also The Thin Man, Superman, The Shadow, The Green Hornet to sparkle a generation’s imagination. The list goes on. It even includes Orson Welles riot-causing “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 when real war was breaking out.
The aforesaid generations know most of these dramatic figures through comic books and recent movie remakes. Marvel Comics never had it so good. But, until this month, thanks to Disney Pictures, The Lone Ranger didn’t receive the full-scale update treatment. For all those years.
One of the things that was notable in the radio drama of those Spartan times is that a great deal of omission was acceptable. We never did get an explanation of why the American Indian, Tonto, was the masked man’s dutiful sidekick. It was just accepted. Deep character analysis wasn’t demanded and might have lost a series’ following if it were provided. Today, most films’ success rests on those details.
Enter producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, the filmmaking team behind the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. This duo proved their action/ adventure mettle with that series which, BTW, has earned more than a billion bucks world-wide. Which explains Johnny Depp for any role he’d like — in this case, Tonto. But the script that ensued from the pens of Justin Haythe and Ted Elliot (“Pirates…”) explains a great deal more. Thanks to the faithful inventiveness of these creative artists, these are the “untold” tales of the justice-seeking pair.
Tonto is a spiritual tribesman of the old west. He comes upon a scene of gruesome savagery after the brutal Butch Cavendish and his outlaw band ambushed the posse of Texas Rangers and gunned them down. In the posse is John Reid, an idealist lawyer who thought justice is only what you receive in a court of law and everyone must be presumed to be decent and law-abiding.
Tonto follows his tribal ways and prepares a grave for each dead man, taking a memento from each body and returning something to the corpse, telling us that an Indian never takes — he “trades.” When Tonto gets to Reid and bends to perform his ritual, the body moves! The lawyer is alive! And, in the same instant, a fabulous white horse appears on a nearby bluff.
Tonto reads the signs. He says, “I dig seven graves. Horse says you are spirit walker: a man who has been to the other side and returned. A man who cannot be killed in battle.” And the transformation of the lawyer to vigilante lawman begins.
The story is one of greed and evil during the time the plains were being spiked with miles of railroad track and robber barons saw it as a means to enrich themselves. Tonto is relating the story to a little boy who comes across him as a museum exhibit (another trace of the surreal in the legend). He chronicles Reid’s diminishing naivete about crime and criminals who defile the magnificent plains.
At the very beginning of the third act, when Reid’s blindness to reality is finally stripped away and the transformation to a newborn crime fighter, with Tonto and Silver, begins, composer Hans Zimmer, having held back all this time, blasts the theme music we know so well at full volume to herald a new day for justice.
Even as I write this I get a shiver when I recall the effect the music, allied to the transformation of the characters, had on me. In terms of movies, I can’t remember one that exhilarated me like this, and elevated a movie so much. Though I had some carps with the length of the movie and other details connected with that, every negative faded away. I had been transported!
Obviously, the rotten tomato guys and girls didn’t share the effect. The theme and the moment of its arrival, was minor to those with no prior knowledge of the characters nor the interwoven theme that had been encoded into the DNA of a prior generation. Retro stuff — unknowable, therefore irrelevant, therefore a rotten movie. But the director, his writers and his composer knew. And many voting members of the motion picture academy know.
For me, the new Lone Ranger, with its understanding and exquisite inventiveness filling in the blanks in the story of a legend, is the stuff of dreams and magic that’s not likely to be repeated any time soon.