“The Lone Ranger” was an unwatchable abomination that made “Heaven’s Gate” look like “Citizen Kane.” But the Suits at Disney were only trying to clone the ultra-successful “pirates.” So what went wrong?
First, Disney forget a crucial lesson of the “John Carter” fiasco. Its director Andrew Stanton is a genius. Just look at “Finding Nemo”, “Monsters Inc.” and his scripts for the “Toy Story” movies. But he had never directed a live action movie.
Verbinski of course had the “Pirates” trilogy triumphs under his belt. But he had never directed a live action Western.
Second, “Pirates” was actually built on a living breathing cultural base. The four “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme park rides in California, Florida, Tokyo and Paris have been mega-hits with holidaymakers since 1967. The millions of current and once-were kids who shrieked in delight on it were a clear, potent base for the movies.
But “The Lone Ranger”’s cultural DNA is very different. The hit radio serial from 20 years from 1933 and the hit TV show from 1949 to 1957 were both produced on zero budgets, which made them enormous moneymakers, and they were both solemn-serious. Above all, the TV series was something no “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie ever dreamed of being: It was dignified.
It’s been a common cliche for half a century that Jay Siverheels, original name Harold J. Smith and he was in fact Canadian (I swear you can’t make this up), was supposed to be a contemptible racial stereotype of a Native American. By contrast, the Comanche nation extremely unwisely as it turned out, through their own dignity and caution to the winds and made Depp an honorary member, even after they knew he was going to make the movie painted up like a corpse and wearing a ludicrous dead bird on his head. (On the radio and TV shows, Tonto was the son of chief in the Potawatomi nation.)
By contrast, anyone who would actually bother to watch any episode of the classic 1950s “Lone Ranger” (and you can catch them every morning, believe it or not, on Memorable Entertainment Television — ME TV) grasps at once that although Silverheels’ Tonto speaks in fractured English, he is dignified, heroic, exceptionally intelligent, respected by every good guy in the show.
Most important, the Lone Ranger himself recognizes Tonto as his partner and equal. Far from being a slur or slander on the Native American peoples, Tonto provided the most positive role model they had ever enjoyed in the hitherto racist, and contemptuous wilderness of American popular culture. And the show on which he appeared was a super-hit for a quarter century.
For all the electronic derision that this frightful movie has deservedly generated, its wider issues have been ignored or misunderstood. It didn’t kill the Western: The Western in both movies and on TV is now enjoying its brightest time in more than 40 years, and that’s going to continue.
Much more ominously, the Lone Ranger fiasco warns of serious problems in the running of Disney’s long invincible movie division.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “To lose a quarter of a billion dollars on a pulp hero movie mega-bomb once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it two years in succession looks like carelessness.”
Next: How to make a successful Western