Monday, September 16, 2013

What Do You Mean, We?

I know six things about the Lone Ranger. That’s probably one more than you do.

1: He wears a mask.

2: He has faithful Indian companion named Tonto, who calls him "kemo sabe".

3: He shouts “Hi-ho, Silver!” to his horse.

4: He uses silver bullets.

5: His theme tune is the William Tell Overture.

6: He’s the Green Hornet's great-uncle.

And that’s literally it. I have no idea if he had a secret identity, a supporting cast or a back story. I assume that’s why the character was so durable -- three thousand radio episodes, and a TV show that ran for five seasons. He’s a peg on which to hang any cowboy story you feel like telling. No-one knows his name; he rides into town; he sticks up for the little guy against the big guy; and then rides out again. And that's it

But it turns out there's a narrative. I took the precaution of watching the first episode of the Clayton Moore TV show before writing this piece, and was surprised how much of it was carried over into Johnny Depp movie. I don't know if that shows a terminal lack of imagination on the part of 21st century screen writers, or a touching respect for foundational texts. Seven Texas Rangers ride into the badlands in pursuit of a baddie called Butch Cavendish. It turns out that they're being led into a trap, and Cavendish kills them all. But then it turns out that one of them is only mostly dead. A passing Indian, Tonto, nurses this Ranger back to health, and they decide that they'd better hunt down bad guys in general and Cavendish in particular. So much for the joke about why he's the "lone" Ranger if Tonto is always with him. 

Stuff I thought was probably late-in-the day over-interpretation (like the idea that the Lone Ranger’s mask is made out of his dead brother’s jacket) turn out to go back to the TV show, if not to the original wireless version. The one substantive change is that the original Lone Ranger was a creature of the Westward expansion, whose every adventure contributed to the development of this great country of ours; the movie version (like Jack Sparrow) represents the last hi-ho of a dying age, starting his adventures just as the coast-to-coast railway is taming the wild West once and for all.

This summer’s misbegotten Man of Steel was so heavy with invented back-story that I wondered why they had even bothered stamping the Superman branding on it. Poor Henry Cavill hardly got to play at being Superman at all: he's mostly a pawn in a manichean struggle between God, voiced by Jor El, and Satan, ghosted by Zod. But the bit about ickle baby Kal being shot into space when his planet blows up remained in place, as if that was the inviolable core that makes it a Superman movie. The Lone Ranger movie makes the killing of Dan Read (our hero’s brother) and the other rangers a cog in a huge conspiracy in which an evil rail-road magnate is in league with a psychotic cannibal who may or may not be Wendigo in order to get possession of a secret Indian silver mine which would enable him to buy all the shares and thus....I admit I got a bit lost. Ever since Jack Nicholson turned out to be both the crimer who shot Brucie’s mummy and daddy and the crazy grinning guy with green hair, superhero movies have worked a bit too hard to tie everything together into single all-encompassing plots. (Did Sandman turn out to be the burglar who shot Uncle Ben? I think I wasn’t paying attention.)

But this time around the backstory avoids smothering the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They may be embedded in a CGI and pop-corn remake of "Once Upon a Time in the West" but they are still basically a whiter than white white guy in a mask and a wise Indian scout who ride along trails and fight bad guys. Every conceivable buckle is swashed. Horses race trains (repeatedly); heroes leap from burning buildings into hails of bullets; the pair rob a bank (for good and adequate reasons) and are buried up to their neck in a scorpion invested desert. Logic and physics are completely abandoned for a climax involving trains, horses, firing squads and exploding bridges. And a ladder. (With the theme tune blasting out in the background, or course. Who was it who said that an intellectual is a person who could hear the William Tell overture and not think of the Lone Ranger?)

God knows, it's a flawed movie. It runs for two and half hours and feels like five, although it is far from obvious how you could make it shorter and retain its encyclopaedic scope. Uneven in tone doesn’t even begin to cover it. Parody of the Lone Ranger? Affectionately camp reworking? Pastiche? Serious engagement with an American icon? The final minutes include a very wholesome tribute the TV show, with everyone thanking the Lone Ranger and asking him to stay around before he rides of into the sunset. No-one says “Who was that masked man?” but you feel that someone might have done. (Like "Play it again Sam" and "Beam me up Scotty", it's a very famous quotation that no-one ever actually said.) But then we cut to him wondering whether to call himself “The Lone Avenger” or “The Masked Rider” which is straight out of Black Adder. I'm not quite what the the point is of making us sit through three hours of John Reid's personal journey from inept goody two shoes to fully fledged hero, only to portray him as an oaf in the final seconds. It really does feel like a cut and paste job between four or five different scripts.

When you don’t have pictures, you need verbal signals to tell the audience what is going on. Radio Superman used to say “Up, up....and away” to signify that he was flying; radio Lone Ranger similarly said “Hi-ho silver...away!” to warn of an impending chase sequence. The TV series used spoken voice overs (quite effectively, based on my extensive survey of one and half episodes) to make the pictures more dramatic, but kept the “Hi-ho silver” catch phrase, must famously in the opening credits. When Armie Hammer delivers the line, Johnny Deep wearily replies "Never do that again." That joke arrived approximately 60 years too late.

The burlesque may be mostly unfunny, but the Lone Ranger’s basic goodness is left intact -- this is the character about whom all those jokes about cowboys walking into saloons and ordering glasses of milk were originally made. We're nearly always laughing with him, hardly ever at him. We are never asked to find the idea of goodness funny, as we were in those cynical Mummy films. We’re nearly always on the hero's side. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is a lot less over the top than I expected him to be.

Don Quixote is the story of the friendship between a man who is clever but insane and a man who is sane but stupid. Together, they just about make up one hero. This most Quixotic of movies gives us a hero who is good and brave but completely inept; and pairs him with a companion who is wise and clever but crazy and cynical. Tonto honestly believes that the Lone Ranger, having died and risen again, is the legendary spirit walker who can’t be killed and whose gun never misses. Both sides are arguably frauds: Tonto is making up Indian mythology on the spot (his own tribe regard him as a crackpot) and the Ranger is a lawyer thrust into the role of hero by accident. The idea that these two half competents together make one superhero works better than it probably ought to. The relationship is unpredictable enough and funny enough to very nearly hold this monster of a movie together.

The whole film is wrapped in a frame in which a little boy in a Lone Ranger suit encounters the elderly Tonto in a 1933 Wild West Show. Why? Why, oh why? As if the thing wasn't long enough and confusing enough already? Perhaps it's intended to place it all in some kind of historical context: the Lone Ranger folk tale emerged at a time when the Wild West was still very nearly contemporary -- as close to the first radio listeners as the 1950s are to us. Perhaps it wants to make the point that the Lone Ranger is an iconic figure of whom you ought to have heard, for the benefit of the 90% of the audience who looked at the posters and said “The Lone what?” Perhaps the frame is an apology for the preposterousness of the action: maybe what we’re watching is a tall story, made up by Tonto. Maybe one of the dozens of discarded scripts was going to be reveal a realistic, “historical” Lone Ranger who lay behind the myth. Or maybe someone involved just really liked the Princess Bride. 

There’s definitely some weird shit going on: when Tonto pours peanut shells over the graves of the murdered Texas Rangers in the “historical” segment, the little boys “modern” carnival peanut bag blows across the screen; Tonto is first seen as a waxwork in the exhibition, but then, without explanation, he comes to life. I would bet pence that the original idea was for the little boy in the Ranger suit to have been looking at museum tableaux of the Wild West and then imagining, or dreaming the story, with himself as the hero. Remember the poignant ending of the original Secret of Monkey Island RPG? (1)

All through this summer, and every summer, we’ve had bigger and louder space movies until even those of us who love Marvel Comics with all our hearts are wishing we could just take off the 3D glasses and calm the hell down. The Lone Ranger is having a dang good go at being something better and more interesting than that. It’s a big meaty mythological movie which acknowledges that the guy in the white hat who carries six-guns but doesn’t kill anybody is basically ridiculous. That's what the frame is about, I suppose: it's telling us that this is fantasy wild west; peep show wild west, pop corn wild west, frankly rather racially patronising wild west, the wild west as imagined by a child of ten -- but that at some level, the material is so iconic that it has to stand as some kind of aetiological myth about America. 

It doesn’t work, of course. I lost track of the plot several mcguffins down; and the action is so relentless and over the top that a law of diminishing returns sets in quite quickly. (My heart sank particularly when we arrived at Helena Bonham Carter’s brothel.) On the other hand, the revelation of what the railway boss was planning to do with Tonto’s silver genuinely impressed me, and I can’t deny letting out a (very quiet) whoop of excitement when the Lone Ranger throws the silver bullet to his nephew. I wish that these heroes could be allowed to exist in something like their trashy pulpy context; part of what made Superman and the Lone Ranger and, er, Doctor Who seem so epic is that they appeared in an endless sequence of small adventures; saving America one homesteader at a time, every week for twenty years. An eighty year old radio show is very flimsy material to build a multi trillion dollar epic out of. But where Star Trek and Man of Steel and the Hobbit seem to hate their source material, the Lone Ranger seems to be created by people who love the masked rider of the plains and want to honour his memory. It's much better than I expected it to be, and very much better than it had any need to be.

(1) There’s a very odd moment when the boy interrupts the narrative to say that Tonto is getting the story wrong and that Dan Reid, not John Reid was the Lone Ranger. Tonto claims that “kemo sabe” means “wrong brother”. At first, I thought that this was some kind of continuity easter egg for advances Rangerologist. In the TV version, we are told that Daniel Reid is one of the murdered Rangers, and that he is the brother of the hero, but we pointedly don’t see the surviving Ranger’s face or find out what his first name is, although he had been called John on the wireless. But there doesn’t seem to have been any version in which he was called Dan.