Friday, July 12, 2013

In Defense of The Lone Ranger


After having a rather bad day, I decided to treat myself to the movies last Sunday and went to see Disney's The Lone Ranger. As history fan who has watched a few episodes of the show as a kid, mixed in with sorely needing air conditioning, being a Johnny Depp fan, as well as, the eye candy that is Armie Hammer I thought why not and bought a ticket. I hadn't read or heard about any of the reviews beforehand, so I went in with few expectations and came out thoroughly enjoying it, in fact although it was a matinee and not quite a full house, half the theater applauded as the credits started to roll. And no, as the snarky seemingly bitter film critics would pipe in, it wasn't because it over, it was because they too enjoyed it.

I was surprised when I saw the box office results roll in, then I started reading reviews by the critics. Now I know Disney is a large company filled with its share of evils, hell I even wrote a lengthy research paper on the hegemonic powers it has amassed and the rose colored glasses the company likes to sport over the decades back in a college history class, but it still feels as though all the popular critics got together and said let us run a smear campaign and nit pick every little thing we can find, from the history, to the "weird" bits and lengthy run time, whether it's actually warranted or not. Part of me feels dirty for this, the other part of me feels like slapping all the grown professional adults for acting like utter trolls. Regardless of the matter here's what I thought of the movie, as an historian, a film buff and a fan.

**Warning there may be SPOILERS ahead**

Firstly for all the folks who complained how the movie opens with a young boy dressed as the Lone Ranger entering a sideshow to meet an elder Tonto, why do you all have a beef with this? This was also a narrative device in another recent western retelling, True Grit (in the third act of the film, adult Maddie goes in search of Rooster Cogburn who was performing in a traveling wild west exhibition along with Frank James and Cole Younger), except in both cases, it wasn't truly a sideshow. Wild West shows would frequently travel the country, sometimes along with carnivals and be showcased during events like the many fairs through the early 20th century, as a history nerd I absolutely loved this and thought it was a great vehicle in which to tell the story of the west, and a nod the early nostalgia with stories of cowboys, Amerindians, trains and outlaws. Now here's my beef, as someone who wrote their final history research paper on the rise and fall of the American freak show, I can contest that the general public has certain connotations when the word sideshow is brought up, so when  LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan used the term in his negative review, it only adds to the casual readers mentality to call the movie weird and unsettling right off the bat. Fun thing though, when Tonto and John Reid visit Red's there is in fact a true depiction of what a sideshow traditionally was, folks with medical anomalies, but I digress . . .

The cinematography in this film was stunning, grand sweeping shots of the American West, a seedy dance hall and the interior of early 19th century luxury travel matched with beautiful costumes made this film a feast for the eyes. Then there was the score, almost every critic out there will mention the start of the William Tell Overture, which I'm not going to lie when the suite cued up as the Lone Ranger and Silver reared up to start an amazing action sequence there was a huge smile laden across my face, but there's more to it than that iconic suite.

Now I rather thought that it was refreshing to see the Native American Tonto take the reigns and instruct the Lone Ranger, who in his origin story is at first is more of a naive law man in who then grows into the rough riding quasi badass cowboy that we all know and love, through the tutorship of Tonto. Now here's were we get into the grey area, traditionally Disney and many other early production companies that portrayed American Indians on celluloid have perpetuated myths and stereotypes and display them as savage heathens who just attack settlements and scalp every white man woman and child they see in sight with no remorse. Now to me at least this is the first Disney movie that actually shows a true sympathy to the plight the Native American nations went through as their land was taken and treaties were blatantly violated and broken. However the movie takes two steps forward with that and one major step back as the bad guys and good guys alike keep beating the point of progress through "civilization" and full westward expansion via the transcontinental railroad while indirectly saying that these Indian Nations were the opposite of progress, they were a thing and people of the past who were standing in the way of this progress. Now a common theme to a lot of artwork, stories and movies of the mid to late 20th century was that of the vanishing American Indian, a theme that this movie both alludes to as the chief of the Comanche tribe basically flat out tells John Reid in a tepee before going out to fight the cavalry and are utterly defeated by the technological progressive wonder of the gatling gun and later on when Tonto literally vanishes into the vista of his display in the Wild West exhibition. As an historian, that part irks me severely is that Amerindians from coast to coast are still very much around. I once had the privilege to intern on a PBS documentary on the French and Indian war were we interviewed several Native Americans of scholars of the Abenaki tribe who talked about how frustrating the myth of vanishing American Indian is to them, a topic that not a lot critics mention which I think should be brought up instead of just calling it weird and ranting on petty tirades acting like the school yard bully and simply calling it a "cinematic horse turd." That quote comes directly from a critic I rather respected, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine who also compared the film to Wild Wild West, which I think is far from merited on many many levels, but I'll just simply say large steam operated spider by legless Kenneth Branaugh is really just about the worst offender to the western genre.

The pacing of the Lone Ranger is a fun roller coaster ride that eventually progresses into the ultimate runaway train action sequence. Although The Atlantic's film critic Christopher Orr describes "The final action squence . . . to be as exhausting as the first was amusing," I have to utterly disagree, as this to me was a great climax to the film where the audience finally gets to see the dynamic change of naive District Attorney John Reid into the no holds bard Lone Ranger. Within that pacing however, is a point I have to agree with critics on, there are some glaringly sharp tonal cuts, some are more dramatized by the besmirching critic. Yes Butch Cavendish cuts the heart out of a dying man and eats it, yes we do see part of the act through a silhouetted reflection in the eye of John Reid, but other than seeing a blood covered hand and mouth, it's not as graphic as some would have you believe. There have been worse and more graphics acts of violence featured in a PG-13 film. Relax. However after showing the slaughter of the Comanche tribe as they were essentially cut down by a couple of gatling guns the scene was followed by a pretty heavy conversation about man, greed and the state of justice, which then cut right to a shot of Silver in the Long Ranger's hat noming on some leaves in a tree is a wee bit jarring to say the least, but does provide a quick laugh as we prepare to engage in some vigilante justice. The film changes between a social commentary on the consequences of greed and how the can ultimately corrupt true justice, to a comedy as we get some cartoonish moments (Barry Pepper's portrayal of the Cavalry Captain was in my opinion a bit on the comically cartoonish side, I still however enjoyed it), and action adventure, but to me that was all part of the ride to a satisfying ending.

In the end, I super enjoyed the Lone Ranger, I even went to see it again and can't wait to get my copy on blu-ray when it comes out. It was a fun summer movie that made me forget about the heat and the stress of work and sucked me into a classic story of the old west that I thought was retold quite well and was visually beautiful and well acted.

So I say this, forget the critics and go decide for yourself. That pretty much goes for any movie though these days...

A couple of odd mentions:

I loved seeing W. Earl Brown aka Dan Dority in Deadwood as a lawman in the first few minutes of the movie.

While I appreciated the herd of buffalo running across the train tracks at the head of the film, the CGI looked kind of terrible, why not just get a few of live buffalo for the shot? They're also not extinct.

There was a kind of important continuity issue that as a script supervisor kind bewildered me as to how it happened, major I just missed something, yet there is an issue with Rebecca's blue scarf, which becomes an important prop. When admiring it in the little flea market by the train station she takes out, puts it on then abruptly takes it off as Cole approaches it possibly puts it back or it just vanishes into thin air, because as they cut to a wide medium shot, she's no longer holding or wearing it. Yet in a later scene as says goodbye to her husband Dan, she's wearing it and takes it off again. Hmmmm.....

Yes the movie is 2.5 hours long, there are lots of movie that length, but to me at least it certainly didn't feel that long, I was too wrapped up in the action.

Thank you Gore Verbinski for being one of the few directors out there who now-a-days who prefer practical versus digital effects.

One thing that probably could've been cut with the, shall we say, monster rabbits?

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