The Lone Ranger: Pirates of the Old West

Review of The Lone Ranger, Directed by Gore Verbinski

We can sum up The Lone Ranger with a simple comparison: it is Pirates of the Caribbean out west.

It makes sense. It comes to us from the same gang – director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer – who brought us the Pirates franchise and features Johnny Depp in a starring role as an off-kilter, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants hero.

Imagine Captain Jack Sparrow as a Native American, and you have Tonto. With his long, black hair and dark brown bandana; an abundance of Depp’s signature quizzical, perplexed, and ironic looks; and plenty of deadpan lines, I couldn’t help but see parallels. When we first meet Tonto, he is chained in a train car headed to trial. Somehow, during the swashbuckling escape sequence that follows, he ends up chained to John Reid (played well by Armie Hammer and soon to become the Lone Ranger), swinging from a wooden hoist (way too similar to Captain Jack this scene at 1:15), and utterly impervious to Reid’s attempts to accost him and bring him to trial after they narrowly escape a train crash.

Just as Jack Sparrow is not the stereotypical pirate, Tonto is not the stereotypical Native American Indian of the old classic western movies. He speaks like one, in short, simple words, yet sometimes – and always for comedic effect – he shows a surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary, like when he tells Reid that he is “obviously very fatigued.” Normally, such dialogue would stretch believability and take me out of the Western “feel” of the film, but because it’s Johnny Depp, and because Tonto is just too much fun to watch, I found myself easily excusing it.

Later, in the most obvious hat-tip to the Pirates films, Tonto and the Lone Ranger highjack a train, prompting an assistant to yell “They’re stealing our train!”

In a more subtle parallel to Pirates, The Lone Ranger pulls a moral twist on the western genre, uniting the outlaws with corrupt lawmen in a sick pursuit of manifest destiny while making the Indians and a band of rambunctious entertainers (read: prostitutes) the “good guys.” It starts when John Reid’s brother and a number of other Texas rangers die in an ambush while tracking the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). With the noble lawmen out of the way, railroad magnate Latham Cole becomes the dominant authority in the land.  Cole is about to start mining a vast silver deposit and finish building the first intercontinental railroad, and he thus has his sights set on becoming the most powerful man in America. To secure access to the silver and his dominance over the railroad, he uses Butch’s gang to incite conflict between the Comanches and the settlers, thus justifying a war of extermination against the former, whom he perceives as lesser savages.

Into this quandary steps John Reid, the lone ranger who survived the earlier ambush, who must confront an age-old moral dilemma: pursue justice ineffectively through established law or go vigilante and take justice into his own hands. When the law becomes corrupt, should one take justice into his own hands? Reid begins as a young, idealistic, Locke-reading, hot-shot attorney but he turns toward vigilantism when his brother his killed and he nearly dies himself. Even then, much like Batman, he refuses to use guns at first and remains stubbornly committed to seeing justice done via the proper channels of the state. Cold, hard reality takes its toll on him, however, and (SPOILER) when he finally has Butch at gunpoint for the third time in the film’s climax, he pulls the trigger.

Ultimately, the film dodges the question.  The Lone Ranger is out of bullets, and Butch ends up dying in a train crash, leaving us with an uncomfortably open question: the Lone Ranger didn’t actually kill him, but he intended to. In his heart he took justice into his own hands, and only dumb luck kept the blood of Butch Cavendish off his hands.

So how should we answer the question? The film, in its tone, clearly inclines the audience toward vigilantism. I often found myself “wanting” the Lone Ranger to just shoot the outlaw and be done with it. As a Christian, several issues are at play here that could rightfully incline us either way. Romans 13 makes clear that we are to submit to governmental authorities, and the chapter before states that we are not to take revenge because vengeance belongs to God. In this case, however, government seems to have neglected its God-ordained role of punishing evil. But it hasn’t failed completely. The case of Butch is one small case that doesn’t reflect the entire United States government as a whole. So it would not seem that vigilantism is justified in this sense.

That said, I think The Lone Ranger is justified in his use of violence on different grounds: namely, the responsibility to protect his family. Reid’s brother left behind a wife and child, making him their closest kin and thus chief protector and provider. When Butch’s gang kidnaps them and threatens their lives, I see no reason why Reid shouldn’t do everything in his power to stop them, even if it means killing.

We can further appreciate such vigilantism by remembering that this isn’t real life, it’s a movie, and as a work of art – as a story – it taps into our longing for justice. In a world where the hero gets to ride off into the sunset at the end of the day, we’re free to rejoice in how he came into town and righted a few wrongs. It causes us to look forward to a greater Hero, one who will come to right all the wrongs that we experience in this broken world.

The film is also not helped at another point. In its most egregious break with the fun adventure of a Verbinski/Bruckheimer film, an army of Comanche warriors charge a small contingent of American soldiers, who slaughter them with a pair of Gatling guns while the American captain inspires his men with appeals to God and country. Admittedly, the moment serves as a powerful turning point in John Reid’s character development, as in the aftermath of the slaughter he decides that if this is what the law is like, he doesn’t want to be on the law’s side. But it also draws us into an unwelcome meditation on America’s past sins – appropriate for a western film perhaps, but a bit much for a Disney adventure flick.

This is supposed to be Pirates of the Caribbean out west, after all.

 


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