This column contains spoilers for The Lone Ranger.
I’m not saying The Lone Ranger is a great movie. But it’s one that is very provocative and still works as entertainment. The action sequences are clean and well-shot, the performances are energetic and the photography is often beautiful. It’s unfashionable to release a straightforward Western these days, so The Lone Ranger is a sort of Western-Pirates of the Caribbean hybrid. The two work together better than expected.
I may be wrong, but I think this is all Johnny Depp’s doing. Only a star with his clout at Disney (thanks to Pirates and Alice in Wonderland) could have gotten away with this. I think he cashed in a favor. In an interview which you can find on IMDB, Depp is asked what attracted him to the role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. He answers that selfishly he saw it as an opportunity to pay respects to Native Americans and their culture. He goes on (a bit clumsily) to say he hopes the movie inspires a ‘warrior spirit’ and pride in young people. Depp’s heritage is something he’s talked about before and actually has been a cause of controversy for him. He’s said that he believed he was a descendant of Cherokee or Creek Indians. Some have questioned why he never confirmed his ancestry and he was quoted as saying "You have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape," which was (rightly) seen by many Native Americans to be ignorant and insensitive. However, that informs his intentions with Tonto and The Lone Ranger. Rape is an act of violence, and the consequences of violence is a major theme in The Lone Ranger.
Many people die in The Lone Ranger, but unlike other summer blockbusters there are scenes where one character grieves or buries the deceased. They consider the death. Tellingly, these deaths are all of white characters. The Native Americans that are killed (a Cherokee tribe is plowed down by military machines guns) are glossed over to catch up with our heroes John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) and Tonto. It is this sequence (about ¾ into the movie) where I got queasy. Was this Man of Steel all over again, where hundreds die only to be ignored by the protagonists? I thought so for a minute, but then I remembered the conceit The Lone Ranger had already set up. The white-washing of the Cherokee tribe’s death was done on purpose.
The conceit I mention is a framing device the movie uses of old-age Tonto (Johnny Depp in some great make-up) now being an attraction in a carnival sideshow about the Old West. Billed as "The Noble Savage," Tonto is telling the story of the Lone Ranger legend to a young white boy who is dressed in a Lone Ranger costume. Through the course of the movie, we learn that Tonto is an unreliable narrator. The scene where Tonto’s tribe is murdered by the military machines guns is very matter-of-fact, and then moves on quickly to Tonto and the Lone Ranger making a getaway. No dialogue is spoken about what happened to Tonto’s remaining tribe.
Other peculiar events happen as well, such as the spirit horse Silver standing on a tree branch that would never be able to hold a horse. Moments like this call into question how much the events of The Lone Ranger can be taken at face value. It seems that Tonto is creating a grand adventure where he and The Lone Ranger can save the day as a way of willfully blocking out the unfathomable tragedies he and his people have endured.
Here’s my opinion: everything leading up to attorney John Reid being killed actually happened. Some early scenes show Tonto admires John’s brother, U.S. Marshal Dan Reid, for being a great warrior. Dan is killed by villain Butch Cavendish shortly before Butch also shoots John. It’s established earlier in the movie that John is unbendingly moral and concerned with justice over revenge. He is also an ineffective man of action and shown to be a fool. Only through the course of the movie is John Reid able to “become” The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger is a hero’s journey for sure, but not the kind we are used to seeing. The hero, The Lone Ranger, is created solely in Tonto’s image. He is looking for the one white man who is moral and a brave man of action. He wants a combination of the two Reid brothers -- someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk. Is John Reid the true Lone Ranger? Sadly, the answer is no.
Is the young boy the real Lone Ranger? Tonto hopes so, but it may be a fool’s hope. The role of The Lone Ranger is too serious to Tonto to be taken lightly. Until the right time, “Hi ho, Silver, away!” will have to wait.