A Six-Part Takedown of Disney's The Lone Ranger
This is a cross-post from Native Appropriations.
I have so many thoughts on this film, and only maybe one of them is good. But I think we need to start off with this: The Lone Ranger is just a bad movie. It's 2.5 hours of a film with an identity crisis, not knowing if it's supposed to be funny, campy, dramatic, "authentic," or what. At points it was very hard to separate the stereotypical and hurtful from the bad script, bad editing, and bad character development of the movie itself.
So, if it even needs to be said: SPOILER ALERT–I'm about to give away everything. But you're not going to see the movie anyway, so it shouldn't really matter. If you'd like to read a spoiler-free Lone Ranger review, check out Monica Castillo's write-up from earlier this week.
Here's my review, in only 6 parts. I restrained myself.
Some quick overall thoughts: Like I mentioned above, this movie didn't know what it was, and that was a problem. It was also so. incredibly. long. By the time we got to the final big train chase scene at the end where the pair saves the day, I wrote in my notes: FINALLY! I AM SO BORED! and then that scene dragged on for another 15 minutes and I just wanted it to end. I forgot what we were even fighting for. Which I think was the problem all along.
This is also the most violent movie I've seen in awhile, and I'm a fan of Game of Thrones. Don't take your kids, despite the Disney label and PG-13 rating. There is so much shooting and stabbing, and they show the aftermath. Early on in the film the bad guy even cuts out and eats the Lone Ranger's brother's heart (yes, eats it). They have no qualms about shooting someone for the sake of shooting someone, and there are blood and guts and barn beams smashing people's heads. It's not something I would want to expose my kids to, at all.
And for those of you who need a refresher, here's all my Tonto coverage over the last year or so, which covers the casting, the costume, and a whole bunch of other things: my initial reactions, why you should care about Tonto when there are "bigger issues" out there, tearing apart Depp's reasoning over his costume choices, the controversy I dealt with for writing about Tonto, and Armie Hammer's comments about Indians loving the movie.
Part 1: The Opening Scene—Indians are so backward and funny, y'all!
The movie opens with a Buffalo Bill-style Wild West Show, set up like a museum of Natural History, and a little kid wanders in dressed like the Lone Ranger, eatin' some peanuts, lookin' at the buffalo, then, oh hey! "The Noble Savage in his natural habitat." Guess who that is??
Spoiler! It's Johnny Depp. In some scary-ass old person makeup. Like seriously crypt keeper style. Then OMG he moves! and reaches out! and says, in a croaky old-person voice, the first words of the whole film: "Kemooosabeeeh." Then there's this whole bit where Tonto asks the little boy to "traaaade" (sounding like zombies and "braaains") and points to his peanuts, which Tonto exchanges for a dead mouse. Then he proceeds to eat the peanuts with the shells on, crunching through them to the boy's disgust and wonderment, while feeding the crumbs to the bird on his head.
I won't go this in-depth with the rest of the film, but I wanted to set the stage. The very first scene we are presented with an image of a Native person, in a museum–which presumably we're supposed to critique, but there's no questioning of Tonto's position there. To me it reinforces the idea that all the Indians are dead, relics of the past, which is actually a theme throughout. This Indian is so silly and backward he trades a dead mouse for a bag of peanuts, doesn't even know how to eat peanuts, and is feeding a bird, but it's dead. Even the child knows that's wrong. So this is the "new" Tonto? Definitely an improvement, amiright? (That was sarcasm. In case you missed it.)
Anyway, Tonto launches into the story of the Lone Ranger for the kid in the museum. So the whole movie is in flashback.
Tonto speak summary: Tonto in museum. Tonto old. Tonto silly and backward. You listen to story now.
Part 2: The Indians—Let's combine ALL the stereotypes!
Here's the part you wanted to hear about, and I'm trying to think of the best way to frame it. Despite the Comanche involvement in the film, there's still a lot of problems with conflating all Indians together. First off, we're in "Texas," except Texas is set in the iconic Monument Valley–Navajoland. Tonto from the start talks about being a "Wendigo hunter" and that the bad guys are "Wendigos" and that "nature is out of balance." Wendigos are a Eastern Woodlands (Algonquian/Cree/Ojibwe) thing. Though they did get the stories kinda right, despite it being the completely wrong region/tribe. I'm not trying to argue that the movie should have been 100 percent "authentic"—whatever that means—but to tout your Native involvement and have a central plot point be totally wrong just felt weird to me.
Also general Tonto comments: Depp's "accent" is hilariously inconsistent, and whenever he has more than a few words to say, it veers into an almost stereotypical Italian-sounding thing, and for not speaking English, his vocab is great. He's also very much the mystical-magical-Indian: An early scene shows him in jail making his bird come alive by singing and flapping his arms; he talks to the horse (and the horse talks back); he talks about LR being a "spirit walker," etc.
Tonto speak summary: Indians during this time wild and dangerous. Indians all the same, kemosabe. Indians especially magical. Squint eyes and you will see, Utah can be Texas.
Part 3: The Comanche—Wait, is that Gil Birmingham?
After a false start where we see Rebecca (Lone Ranger's love interest and his brother's widow) protecting her homestead from raiding Comanches complete with war whoops and flaming arrows–but wait, they weren't really Indians, it was Cavenish's (the bad guy) men just playing Indian, we finally get to meet the Comanche camp after they capture the LR and Tonto. Here's where we get to see the Native actors involved in the film, and the first glimpse of any Indians besides Tonto. Guess what they're doing? Preparing for war, dancing around a fire, of course. Lots of yelping, lots of drumming, lots of masked, painted, and darkened Native faces.
Then the LR is pulled into a tipi, and we meet Saginaw Grant's character, who, lo and behold, speaks in complete sentences! Makes jokes! He gives us Tonto's backstory (more on that in a minute). I don't really remember the rest of the scene because I was distracted by the fact that Gil Birmingham, who actually is Comanche, was sitting there with face and body paint on and doesn't. have. any. lines. My dad compared it to Civil War movies where they have the Black regiment march by in a scene as an "Oh, see, we thought about the POC!" moment. I feel like his cameo was an attempt to show they had Native actor involvement despite the lack of any depth of character.
Throughout the film, besides the tipi exchange, the only scenes we see of the Comanche are them preparing for war, leaving for war, fighting in war, or dead.
Edit: I should add that there is use of Comanche language throughout, for commands, greetings, and small exchanges. Tonto speaks it a bit too when talking to the horse. So that's important to note. I also failed to mention that I've read the tipis in the film are done Comanche-style, and I can only assume the other details like the drums, dancing, etc. are "true" to Comanche culture.
Tonto speak summary: Comanche just like Hollywood western Indians. We war whoop around fire. Get ready for war. You see? Gil Birmingham and Saginaw Grant. Indians watching film should be happy now.
Part 4: Tonto's Backstory—He's off his rocker, so don't get mad!
I think this was the "twist" everyone kept telling me would "explain everything." Saginaw's character tells the LR about how, as a child, Tonto showed the bad guys where all the silver was, in exchange from a pocket watch from "Sears and Roebuck" (a weird detail that stuck out–product placement? ha). The bad guys come back and murder his entire village to keep the location a secret. The movies shows the village burnt to the ground, dead women and men everywhere, and then Tonto picks up his dead raven from the rubble and stripes his face with the soot. Saginaw tells us all this (starting with "many moons ago"—I kid you not) and that now Tonto is a "man apart (or departed? I can't read my notes. It was dark.)" and has basically gone crazy and taken on this "Wendigo hunter" thing as a means to cope with what he did. So, I think this whole thing was supposed to excuse his crazy antics and look, because his own people don't endorse it. But I'm pretty sure most movie audiences aren't going to pick up on that nuance.
There was also this almost sacred clown thing going on with Tonto, too—where he does the opposite of what is accepted by his tribe. For example, in one scene he grabs the LR's whiskey glass and drinks it in a single gulp (problematic for a couple reasons), but says its a "Comanche welcome ritual." Later, the LR tries to repeat the same gesture to Saginaw, and the whole tipi reacts as if he's committed a huge social taboo. Again, probably way more nuance than anyone is going to pick up on, and a tradition from another community anyway.
Tonto speak summary: Tonto sold out his community for pocket watch. He watch them all die. He take on Wendigo hunter role to get justice. See, Tonto crazy, not stereotypical! Tell Adrienne K. she no can be mad.
Part 5: The Genocide—we killed them all…now look at the horse in a tree!
This, to me, was the worst part of the movie in terms of the portrayals of Natives, and a lot of it was due to the jumpy nature of the film, the editing, and whatnot, but still. After the scene at the Comanche camp, we watch the Comanche ride off to war, leaving Tonto and the LR buried up to their necks in scorpion-infested dirt. As Saginaw and Gil ride off, the LR shouts after them, "There doesn't need to be a war!" and Saginaw answers, "It doesn't matter, we are already ghosts." Indians are so brave. ::swoon:: Skipping forward, we watch the Comanche attack come over a hillside in the shadows, you know what it looks like, and there's a moment as a viewer of "Ohhh damn, watch out you silly railroad and calvary dudes, you're about to get owned by some Comanches!" because they look so intimidating and like there are far more of them then the white guys. But no, the Calvary mows them down with an early machine gun, and we watch as all the Comanches are slaughtered, including a close-up of Saginaw getting stabbed.
It's very much a Guns, Germs, and Steel type moment—even though the Indians outnumber the whites, they're not technologically advanced enough to win, and they are too dumb (or full of backward "honor") to realize they're headed for a death trap.
While all this is happening, Tonto is busy saving the LR from the firing squad, with plenty of jokes and quips, and he looks over his shoulder, watching the massacre happen, as he pumps away on one of those railroad hand cart things. He's definitely too busy making jokes and saving his white friend to try and help his people.
After it all happens, and we're to understand all the Comanche are dead, Tonto picks up his bird from the river full of floating feathers, shields, and bodies. I braced myself for the emotional realization that his entire tribe had just been slaughtered. Again. But no. Instead the camera pans up and we are shown Silver, the horse, standing in a tree holding the LR's hat in his mouth. To which Tonto quips, "Yes. Something definitely wrong with that horse." The scene then quickly cuts to a loud brass band and celebration at the unveiling of the railroad line back in town.
Let me reiterate that, not in Tonto speak, because it's important: They slaughter an entire tribe of Natives, and there is no discussion. Just an awkward joke and a cut to the next scene. What?
Part 6: The End—Tonto wanders off into the sunset
Finally we come to the end of the story. Tonto finishes telling it all to the little boy in the museum, and we see that he has put on a suit, holds a suitcase, and places a bowler hat over his crow (which he has continued to "feed" throughout the film). The boy gets momentarily distracted, turns back, and OMG again, Tonto's gone! In return, a (live) crow flies out of the exhibit and at the screen. Then we cut to credits. Then, a few minutes later, we see Tonto wandering off into the vastness of Monument Valley, hobbling along, carrying his suitcase. He continues to walk, back to the camera, for the next 10 minutes as the credits go on, and on, and on. I guess we're to assume his time as a "Noble Savage" has passed, and he's returning to his unbridled wilderness, alone–but dressed as a white guy this time? This, like most of the movie, didn't make any sense.
Tonto speak summary: Tonto still magical and mystical. Tonto wander off alone. Just like Edward Curtis in "The Vanishing Race".
Bonus: The other stuff—The womenz, the Chinese, and other POC
The Lone Ranger fails the Bechdel test. There are not two (named) women, who speak to each other, about something other than a man. The portrayals of the Chinese laborers who built the railroad are super problematic too, they have them in rice-paddy hats, and the only time they speak is to tell the bad guys they won't go in the tunnel because there are "Indian spirits" in there. Then that guy gets shot. The only Black characters are one of Rebecca's employees (who gets shot defending the house), and the driver/bouncer of the "House of Sin" where Helena Bonham-Carter works. This is also supposed to be Texas, but I can't actually think of any Latino characters, besides a "Spaniard" (bad guy), and another of Rebecca's employees.
Still with me? Nice work. So clearly I went into this with a critical lens, but you wouldn't expect anything less. This film has come under a lot of harsh criticism, and for the most part, it deserves it. As a piece of cinema, it's just a bad movie. On top of a bad movie, we have layers of stereotypes and harmful representations that are going to keep haunting us as Native peoples for years to come.
My theater had a bunch of kids in it. I kept thinking about what images they were leaving the theater with—and that left me upset and worried. Now an entire new generation is going to play Lone Ranger and Tonto at recess, thinking Indians talk in incomplete and inconsistent pidgin English, think all Indians are dead, and that it's okay to dress as an "Indian" for Halloween. While this might be a flash-in-the-pan film, it solidifies the continuing views of Native peoples as lesser, as relics of the past, as disappearing, as roadblocks to "progress." Tonto might have been less of a sidekick and running the show, but in the end, the LR gets the girl and the glory, and Tonto ends up in a museum. How's that for a re-imagining?
I have a lot more to say (of course), and can only imagine there might be a follow up post (or two, or three) as I think through some of the bigger issues of white supremacy and messaging and how this has all played out in the media. But I do have to say, as backward as it sounds, thank you to Johnny Depp. Because all of a sudden everyone cares about Indians in Hollywood, everyone cares about stereotypes in the media. He might have thought it was his Tonto character that would fix things in Hollywood, but in fact the huge mistakes of this film have opened up the door for a conversation that needed some publicity. So thanks for that, I guess. Let's hope this signals a turning point.
Bottom line: Don't go see The Lone Ranger. Just don't.
Adrienne Keene runs the blog Native Appropriations, which covers representations of Native Americans in pop culture.
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