(Credits: Far Out / Walt Disney Pictures)
There are absolutely no circumstances under which a western needs to cost a quarter of a billion dollars to produce. It’s madness, it’s lunacy, it’s capitalism gone wild, it’s excessive to the point of self-indulgence. Funnily enough, those are all terms that apply to Gore Verbinski’s Disney-backed disaster The Lone Ranger.
It’s impossible to argue that the adaptation of the beloved TV series isn’t one of the biggest financial busts in Hollywood history because that’s precisely what it is. And yet, it felt like the end of an era in certain respects, with the Mouse House gradually abandoning the notion of handing distinctive auteurs massive budgets to inject their own sensibilities into their films in favour of identikit Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Star Wars sequels and spinoffs, live-action remakes of animated classics, and general blandness.
Verbinski arguably pioneered the short-lived craze to begin with because Pirates of the Caribbean sequels Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are exceedingly weird films. Sure, they made a tonne of money, but there are countless scenes that are so offbeat, off-kilter, and outlandish that it feels remarkable they even made it past the Disney executives and onto the screen in the first place. Unfortunately, The Lone Ranger was not so fortunate.
Alongside Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, and Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, The Lone Ranger lost an absolute fortune despite boasting plenty of visual ingenuity, dazzling spectacle, and personality. Those three things have been keenly missing from Disney’s blockbuster output ever since, and it’s not a coincidence that being average and succeeding has become more important to the studio than being ambitious and failing.
That’s not to say The Lone Ranger is a misunderstood classic, but it’s nonetheless the product of a filmmaker’s unfiltered and unbridled creative and budgetary vision. If you take the shackles off someone like Verbinski, things are never going to be straightforward, and that sentiment seeps out of every frame of the mammoth 149-minute epic.
This is a film where the villains are an unscrupulous railroad magnate and a bloodthirsty gang of hooligans, and it’s very clearly intimated on at least one occasion that William Fichtner’s Butch Cavendish is a cannibal who murders people and eats their hearts. Because this is still a Disney film, though, there’s also a horse sidekick used for comic relief and plentiful poop jokes.
“The first 45 minutes are excellent. Then comes the train scene – incredible!” said one prominent filmmaker. “When I saw it, I kept thinking, ‘What, that’s the film that everybody says is crap? Seriously?’” Who spoke of The Lone Ranger in such glowing terms while also naming it as one of their favourite films of 2013? Why, it was Quentin Tarantino.
That being said, Tarantino did explain the preposterous tonal imbalance that blights the movie from scene to scene. “I still have a little problem with the film. I like Tonto’s backstory, but the slaughter of the tribe, by gunfire, from the cavalry, it left a bitter taste in my mouth,” he continued. “The Indians have really been victims of a genocide. So slaughtering them again in an entertaining movie, Buster Keaton style, that ruined the fun a bit for me.”
Tarantino is entirely correct, too, because in amongst its hints of cannibalism and gags about equine defecation, The Lone Ranger also decrees that pitting an odd-couple buddy caper with plenty of heavy slapstick elements against the slaughter of innocent people, the industrialisation of America, and the nefarious means many local and immigrant populations were dispersed and decimated was the right way to go, story-wise. It’s bold, it’s bonkers, it’s bizarre, but in terms of pure spectacle, it’s also quite beautiful.
Without a hint of exaggeration, the opening and closing set pieces deserve to be held up as among the greatest action sequences the 21st century has had to offer, and the climactic showdown in, on, around, on top of, and underneath a speeding train does Mad Max: Fury Road every bit as well as George Miller did, before he’d even done it.
Even the framing device – which tells the story from the perspective of Johnny Depp’s aged Tonto 64 years after it happened – can reasonably be interpreted as a deconstruction of the mythology surrounding the American West, where unreliable narrators retold history to suit the victors. That’s insanely subversive for a mega-budget Disney blockbuster and reason enough to give The Lone Ranger a second chance. It’s never going to be regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, but there also isn’t anything else quite like it.