Although they stopped making new episodes in 1957, The Lone Ranger was a significant part of my childhood. I saw the old black-and-white show enough times that I wanted to be the Lone Ranger, donning his trademark combo of cowboy hat and eye mask on more than one occasion, humming the William Tell Overture and imagining myself galloping across the plains, shouting “Hi ho Silver, away!”
So I’ve had a wary eye for some time now on the long-rumored Lone Ranger remake. After going through a number of scripts and directors, the project was grabbed by blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer several years ago. Johnny Depp was announced as Tonto back in 2008, and Gore Verbinski, his Pirates of the Caribbean collaborator, came aboard as director a couple years later. With those two signed up, the expectation was that the movie would indulge in some Depp/Verbinski Pirates-esque goofiness. But the first trailer is all Bruckheimer bombast:
Score another one for the forces of darkness. Though there are some fun shots of Depp hitching a ride on the bottom of a train, the dark title screens and driving rock score convey the “gritty” feel of an overly serious 21st-century Hollywood action tentpole. The one line of dialogue we hear from Depp sounds like Tonto wandered into a Christopher Nolan Batman movie. “There come a time, ke-mo sah-bee, when good man must wear mask.”
Depp has a taller order here than he did when incarnating the swashbuckling hero of an amusement park ride: Tonto has always been a somewhat troubling invention. “I hated Tonto then and I hate him now,” Sherman Alexie has written, in an essay otherwise about his complicated love for movie Indians. Created by a white guy from Buffalo and another from Michigan, the original Tonto character was said to be part of the Potawatomi nation, though the Potawatomi did not generally live in the Southwest, where the show was set. The phrase “ke-mo sah-bee” was lifted by the radio show’s original writers from the name of a camp one of them remembered in Michigan.
“The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto,” Depp has said, “is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history or the history of the cinema at the very least.” We’ll have to hope that some of that messing around made it into the final cut, because it definitely doesn’t show up in the trailer. It doesn’t help that Depp’s get-up is based on yet another white imagining of the noble American Indian. The 1950s Tonto was at least played by Canadian Mohawk Jay Silverheels. Depp has suggested he has some Native American ancestry, but I suspect if he was running for Senate in Massachusetts those claims might not hold up.
Mostly I just wish this looked more fun. There are some beautiful shots of the American West, but overall the movie appears to be an episode of Hell on Wheels with an unusually large budget. Hard to imagine any 6-year-olds yelling “Hi ho Silver, away!” after walking out of this one.