The 2013 film “The Lone Ranger” presents a challenge to the  nationalist myth that undergirds the American identity. It is to be hoped that the film will compel Americans who see it to think more deeply about what drove the settlement of the West, as well as at what price and by what means Americans purchased national progress and their transcontinental empire.

“Come a time, Kemosabe, when good man must wear mask,” the elderly Tonto tells a young white boy at a Wild West museum in Depression-era San Francisco. And thus in its opening scene The Lone Ranger introduces us to the moral complexity of The Walt Disney Company’s version of the traditional story of the masked man and his Indian companion, who mete out justice in the Old West.

Disney, which has a track record of warping fairy tales when bringing them to the silver screen, often turning their moral lessons on their heads, might have been expected to do the same to the Lone Ranger story. But the Jerry Bruckheimer film, which stars Armie Hammer as the Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto and is directed by Gore Verbinski, preserves the essential elements of the old radio and TV shows. The Lone Ranger is the lone survivor of an ambush by the dreaded outlaw, Butch Cavendish, and his gang. Nursed back to health by the Indian Tonto, who is himself a loner, the Ranger (whose name is John Reid) dons a mask, and the unlikely duo team up to right wrongs in the Old West. The Ranger’s horse is a beautiful white stallion named Silver, and Disney’s Ranger even uses a silver bullet.

In addition to these plot details, the Bruckheimer/Disney version is also true to the heart of the Ranger myth. This Ranger operates on the fringes of the law in his efforts to do good. As in the original story, Tonto and his Native American brothers are not the bad guys and certainly not savages.

In contrast to earlier incarnations of the legend, however, Bruckheimer’s morality tale is darker, deeper, and includes some unexpected touches of gray. In the original tale, the Ranger’s actions—though at times lawless—were always clearly performed in the service of the established order of society and indeed in the service of the nation’s Manifest Destiny. Obviously evil outlaws were not simply violators of traditional justice but also stood in the way of progress and the glorious extension of the Union from sea to shining sea. The essential conflict between American expansion and the Native American way of life was somehow skirted.

Not so in Bruckheimer’s vision. Indeed, what we have here in The Lone Ranger is perhaps the greatest cinematic challenge to the American nationalist myth ever produced. Told in flashback by the old Tonto, and set in 1869, the plot centers on the efforts of railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) to complete the construction of the transcontinental railroad, so as to make possible the transportation of a vast treasure of silver he has commandeered to San Francisco. “Out here it’s just rock,” Cole explains. “Put it on a train, and it’s priceless.” “What could you buy with all of that,” a cavalry officer asks. “A country, captain, a great country,” Cole responds, “for which our children will thank us.” In the original version of the Lone Ranger, the silver mine was simply the source of the Ranger’s bullets and his modest income; here in Bruckheimer’s darker telling of the tale, it is the object of greed that drives men to commit murder and indeed, genocide. There are “evil spirits” in the silver, the old Comanche chief says.

Latham Cole is the embodiment of the blind drive for “progress,” no matter the cost in human lives. In one scene, Cole dismisses the Ranger’s murdered brother, Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), as a man who lacked “vision” and who thus stood in the way of the “the common good” and the future. “I was at Gettysburg,” Cole tells Reid’s widow. “Twelve thousand casualties before lunch. You know what I learned in all that carnage? Nothing is accomplished without sacrifice.” In Cole’s world, national progress and personal profit are the same thing, and many eggs must be broken when cooking the omelette of national greatness and individual fortune.

In another scene, Cole rhapsodizes in a Nietzschean vein about the possibilities of the railroad: “From the time of Alexander the Great, no man could travel faster than the horse that carried him. Not anymore. Imagine: Time and space under the mastery of man. Power makes emperors and kings look like fools. Whoever controls this, controls the future.” With the enthusiastic backing of the federal government, Cole and the supposedly republican United States will conquer not only the West but nature herself in the building of an American Empire. Cole’s locomotive is aptly named The Constitution.

In The Lone Ranger, the railroad—and indeed technology and progress themselves—are depicted as bringing with them great evils. “Our time has passed,” the old Comanche chief says of his dwindling tribe. “They call it progress.” The pocket watch, the symbol of man’s attempt to arrange industrial life by the clock and thus control time, plays an important role in the movie. Such a watch is at the heart of the tragic tale of Tonto’s banishment as a boy from his tribe, and throughout the movie pocket watches stand for industrial man’s quest to subdue nature.

Cole and his nationalist allies, which include the American military in an early example of the military-industrial complex, repeatedly invoke God and country in their mad quest to dominate nature and their fellow men. “The unification of this great country of ours by iron rail,” Cole proclaims, is “the single most important enterprise under God.” Cole seeks to wipe out all opposition to his plans, particularly the troublesome Comanche tribe, by any means necessary. The “savages” in The Lone Ranger are not the Indians but white men, particularly Cole himself and his secret ally, the gruesome Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner); indeed, the latter enjoys cutting out, and sometimes eating, the organs of his enemies. (Be prepared to send the kids out of the room during the scene in which Cavendish’s gang murders the Rangers!)

Attempting to thwart Cole’s designs are, of course, the Ranger Reid and the Indian Tonto, whose characters have real depth and whose relationship is depicted as an equal but uneasy one, in contrast to the paradigm of the original Lone Ranger story, in which Tonto was the secondary sidekick, and in which the relationship between the two was one of simple mutual respect and devotion.

When we meet Tonto, he is already seeking vengeance—what he sees as “justice”—against those who murdered his family years before. He stumbles upon Reid, a newly-minted Eastern lawyer who is headed to Colby, Texas, to work as a federal prosecutor, when the train both are riding is robbed by Cavendish’s gang. With the murder of Reid’s brother, a Texas Ranger, by the twisted Cavendish, John Reid has every reason, like Tonto, to take the law into his own hands, and Tonto urges him to do just that. “I am not a savage,” Reid pointedly tells the Indian. “You are not a man,” Tonto responds. What follows is a profound meditation on the nature of justice. “Justice is what a man must take for himself,” Tonto insists. “Wendigo [Cavendish] cut out brother’s heart. Where is brother’s justice?”

But Reid, who when he first appears on screen professes that John Locke’s Two Treaties of Government is his religion, is devoted to following the law. He rejects the idea of shooting Cavendish in cold blood and steadfastly holds to the notion that he will simply prosecute the outlaw “to the full extent of the law,” a phrase that Cavendish laughingly throws back in his face later. Originally amenable to Tonto’s suggestion that he wear a mask fashioned from his dead brother’s leather vest, Reid later discards the disguise, telling Tonto, “Civilized society has no place for a masked man.”

It is only when Reid sees that the powers-that-be that control society are utterly corrupt that he changes his mind and transforms fully into the Lone Ranger. “You’re right,” Reid tells Tonto. “There is no justice. Cole controls everything: the railroad, the cavalry, everything. If men like him represent the law, I’d rather be an outlaw.”

If all the above makes The Lone Ranger sound unbearably serious, it should be pointed out that the film is actually a “dramma giocoso,” a jocular drama (as Mozart termed his Don Giovanni.) Indeed, the script’s clever blending of serious themes and occasionally intense violence with humorous dialogue and slapstick hijinks seems to have flustered many critics and was one of the reasons for the movie’s generally poor reviews. (It must be said here that the costume device of the dead crow on Tonto’s head, derided by many critics, is ingeniously important to the story.) In addition, it seems that many critics panned the film even before they saw it, seemingly relishing the story of the big-budget Hollywood flop.

This is lamentable because The Lone Ranger is a truly great movie, and many will miss it because of its generally negative reception, at least by American critics. Acting across the board is excellent. Depp deftly portrays Tonto as a tragicomic figure, and he does a masterful job portraying an elderly Tonto (in superb old-age makeup), through whose eyes we see the story. He and Hammer mesh well together, both in dramatic moments and in their comic exchanges. Hammer himself is convincing as a bumbling, naïve, and reluctant hero, retaining charm and a quiet, manly strength throughout. Wilkinson and Fichtner are deliciously evil as very different kinds of villains, and Ruth Wilson as Dan Reid’s widow and Helena Bonham Carter as the ivory-legged proprietress of the local brothel are also excellent.

The movie also features many exciting, old-fashioned action sequences, with incredible stunts and well-concealed CGI effects, as well as beautiful cinematography, outstanding special effects, and not least, wonderful music by Hans Zimmer. Yes, the Lone Ranger’s signature theme, Rossini’s great William Tell overture, appears here in a masterful arrangement by Zimmer, and is wisely saved for the superbly dramatic, action-packed finale.

True, there are several anachronisms as well as basic historical and geographic mistakes in the movie, some of which are so significant as to distract a viewer with basic knowledge of the period. But these venial sins can be forgiven in light of the many virtues of The Lone Ranger, a well-scripted and well-acted, funny, exciting, thoughtful, and indeed poignant film that offers not only a reassessment of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans but more broadly a challenge to the  nationalist myth that undergirds the American identity. It is to be hoped that The Lone Ranger will compel Americans to think more deeply about what drove the settlement of the West, as well as at what price and by what means Americans purchased national progress and their transcontinental empire.

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The featured image and top image are taken from IMDb. 

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