I’ve made it a habit to avoid movies starring Johnny Depp. There are many things I can put up with in an actor, but that special Depp brand of unctuous sex appeal is not one of them. After one last shot with the first Pirates movie, I pulled the plug on Depp, that is, until he was cast as Tonto in this summer’s The Lone Ranger. My own commitment to the masked kemosabe is such that I had to brave even Johnny Depp—and true to form, he delivered yet another cinematic scalping. The only upside of this was that his performance was entirely consistent with the rest of the movie. If Depp was Jack Sparrow with a dead bird on his head, Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger was channeling Brendan Fraser as George of the Jungle. And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the movie: Captain Jack in face paint yucking it up with a masked George of the Jungle.
For those of you who grew up with the William Tell Overture as the theme music for your mad dash to the TV, I’ve already said enough to incite a more-than-mild sense of loathing for the movie’s director, Gore Verbinski. But lousy acting is the least of Ranger’s shortcomings. One could go on interminably, but I’ll just note one particular tidbit touching on the Western classics before getting to what I really want to say. An early scene has John Reid (soon to become the Lone Ranger) aboard a Texas-bound train. He’s finished his legal education and is headed home to see that due process of law is observed in the westward expansion. The railcar is full of sanctimonious Presbyterians, one of whom politely asks Reid if he’d care to join them in a hymn. “No thank you, ma’am,” he replies, holding up a copy of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, “this here’s my bible.” Never mind that the very foundation of equal justice under the law, for Locke, is that we are “all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about His business, [we] are his property.” If Reid had actually been reading his “bible,” he might have joined in the singing. But as it happens, a snub from this Lone Ranger doesn’t turn out to mean much, because in reality the moral center of the movie is a big, gaping void.
Let me back up a bit. Here’s an excerpt from a post I put on our family blog a few years back when I introduced my boys to the Lone Ranger:
One of my earliest memories is of running in from playing outside to watch The Lone Ranger. I’ve recently had the great pleasure of introducing the masked man and his faithful Indian companion to the boys. I’ve got a small video collection, and we watch a couple of episodes every Saturday morning. I was ambitious a couple of weeks ago and made the boys pancakes with blueberry sauce. Then we pulled the TV into the kitchen so we could watch our shows while eating breakfast–Saturday morning bliss. Harry was so excited when the William Tell Overture started up that he pushed his pancakes away so he could focus on the show. It wasn’t until half way through the first episode that he was able to manage eating and watching simultaneously. It’s great. I confess that I still thrill a little myself to the sound of the overture, the firing guns, and the opening line: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-Ho, Silver!’” But my favorite part is the wonderful ingenuousness of it all–no irony, self-consciousness, double entendre, wink-wink-nudge-nudge–just an unabashed, straightforward commitment to defend the weak and bring the guilty to justice. It is, of course, frequently melodramatic and even a bit hokey here and there–but I’ll trade sophistication for earnestness and good faith any day. Here’s more of what I mean from the opening (makes me smile every time): “This is a story of one of the most mysterious characters to appear in the early days of the west. He was a fabulous individual. A man whose presence brought fear to the lawless and hope to those who wanted to make this frontier land their home. He was known as The Lone Ranger.” A fabulous individual indeed.
I obviously have a soft spot for the old Clayton Moore / Jay Silverheels version of The Lone Ranger, but I’ll also freely admit that it wouldn’t be difficult to improve on it. For instance, you might make Tonto a stronger character, portray the dark side of the United States’ march west, or simply ride the horses around more than one major rock formation. It wouldn’t be hard. But for Verbinski, the Lone Ranger’s basic crime is none of this; the real problem is its moral seriousness. Isn’t it just a little off to wear a mask, make silver bullets, and ride around on a white horse shouting “Hi-Ho, Silver!”—without so much as an ironic sideways glance to let the audience know that your ridiculousness is actually another level of sophisticated coolness? Apparently Verbinski didn’t think straight-faced heroism would work, not even in a kid’s adventure story. So he turned the Lone Ranger into a buffoon. The more John Reid gesticulates about justice and due process, the more his general idiocy and naïveté are underscored. The effect is not so much to puncture American pretentions to have civilized the West with the rule of law as it is to dish up a cinematic version of Gaius and Titius’ “Green Book”—in which youth are not educated in right moral sentiment, but rather disabused of it altogether (See C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man).
For all its faults, your grandfather’s Lone Ranger did something far more than entertain. With sincere, open-hearted portrayals of bravery, self-sacrifice, friendship, and heroism it furnished what Edmund Burke called the “wardrobe of a moral imagination.” In fact, Burke’s comments on the revolutionary spirit in France identify the vacuity of Ranger precisely: “All the decent drapery of life is…rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are…exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.” The beauty of adventures like the Lone Ranger is that they give the hearts of children moral sentiments to own in preparation for understanding and ratification by the intellect. The ugliness of remakes like Verbinski’s latest flick is that they steal from a new generation the thrill of the story itself, as well as everything it contributed to a developing moral imagination.