Posted by Susan Doll on September 2, 2013
One of this summer’s biggest misfires, The Lone Ranger was green-lighted in 2008, began shooting in 2011, came in with a $250 million budget, and cost about $150 million to market. For all of that effort and money, it has yet to break $100,000,000, according to the IMDB.
While promoting the movie, star Armie Hammer revealed the problems the cast and crew experienced during production. Just before principle photography began in New Mexico, Disney shut down the movie to force producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to wheedle down the budget from $260 million to $215 million. When the ball finally began rolling, Mother Nature interfered via severe rainstorms with 70 mph winds, a snowstorm, and even wildfires, edging the budget closer to the original costs. During the summer, the temperatures soared passed 100 degrees, slowing down productivity. Sadly, a stuntman was killed during production, casting a pall over the shoot. When, the crew suffered from an outbreak of chicken pox, some joked that The Lone Ranger seemed to be cursed.
Thirty years earlier, rumors of a curse swirled around the production The Legend of the Lone Ranger, another attempt to update the story of the Masked Man. Released in 1981 by Universal, Legend cost about $18 million to produce but grossed only $12.6 million. Unknown actor Klinton Spilsbury starred in the title role, which turned out to be the sole big-screen appearance of his “career.” Apparently, Spilsbury fought with everyone during the production of the film—from crew members to residents of New Mexico and Utah, where the film was shot on location. He also clashed with costar Michael Horse, who played Tonto. When Horse was asked to help keep Spilsbury stable and on track, he snorted, “This faithful companion stuff is only in the movie.”
After production was completed, Spilsbury became a public relations nightmare while doing his part to promote the film. A feature on Spilsbury and the movie in Andy Warhol’s notorious Interview magazine claimed the actor was drunk while speaking to Warhol. During the interview, he revealed that he had fathered a child with a wealthy woman, but they lived apart because he needed time to be alone. He also claimed “to be in love with” actors Dennis Christopher and Bud Cort and that he had had a sexual tryst with clothing designer Halston. (Spilsbury is now a photographer in Los Angeles, according to Variety.)
IF Spilsbury’s behind-the-scene behavior was the post-production scandal for The Legend of the Lone Ranger, then the pre-production outrage was the treatment of Clayton Moore, who had starred as the Masked Man on television during the 1950s. Oil magnate and television mogul Jack Wrather owned the rights to all things Lone Ranger, and he had been allowing Moore to travel around the country and make personal appearances in costume. When the film was announced, Wrather requested Moore to stop touring as the Lone Ranger, but the 64-year-old actor felt proprietary toward the role and refused. Wrather sued, which led to a 1979 verdict in which a judge ordered Moore to remove the mask if he continued to appear in public. While Wrather did indeed own the rights to the character, his decision to sue a beloved America n icon was short-sighted. Not only were Moore’s personal appearances a kind of free publicity for the film, but he could have been part of a clever publicity campaign. Wrather’s hardball tactics were recounted in the press, and the court of public opinion was against him. It wasn’t hard to decide who made the better Lone Ranger: Clayton Moore, who believed in his character as a positive role model, or Klinton Spilsbury, a promiscuous pretty boy. According to Variety, Wrather released the mask to Moore in 1984, and the actor continued to make appearances for several years. I wonder if the bad karma generated over denying Moore the mask—and therefore the identity—of the Lone Ranger has cursed all future interpretations of the story.
However, Clayton Moore was not the original Lone Ranger. The character came to life as the protagonist of a radio drama. George Washington Trendle, owner of radio station WXYZ in Detroit, conceived of a dramatic series about a heroic protagonist that would appeal to children. He and his staff decided it should be a masked man who traveled the Old West crusading for justice. At this point, he brought in writer Francis Striker to work on the series, which debuted on January 31, 1933. Though the program struggled through a slow start, other stations picked it up by the end of the year, until over 400 stations were broadcasting it. The Lone Ranger ran on the radio until August 31, 1955. Several radio actors voiced the character over the years, including Earle Graser, who landed the job in April 1933. Eight years later, he was killed in a car accident. The program’s producers were concerned that his highly recognizable voice would be missed by young fans, who might become confused if they replaced Graser too quickly. They rewrote the storyline so that a wounded Lone Ranger could not speak. For five weeks, he communicated via notes, grunted, and whispered, while Tonto took on the heavy lifting. By the time the booming voice of Brace Beemer took over the role, Graser’s higher-pitched voice was a vague memory. He received little recognition for playing one of America’s most popular characters, and, in retrospect, few know his name. Perhaps that nasty Lone Ranger curse actually preceded Clayton Moore. Moore has become the actor most associated with role. He costarred with Jay Silverheels in the television series from 1949 to 1957.
I recently watched the first episodes of the series, which have been packaged onto a DVD titled Enter the Lone Ranger. Though the acting and dialogue were exaggerated and superficial, I was charmed by the simplicity of the premise and the earnestness of Moore and Silverheels in their roles. (However, Tonto’s English, in which he omits verbs and uses the wrong pronouns, is Hollywood stereotyping at its worse.) Enter the Lone Ranger made me nostalgic for stories in which the protagonist stands for ideals and values and does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Disney stands to lose $190 million on their bloated version of the Lone Ranger legend. Today’s studios and producers are convinced that the high costs of blockbusters are necessary because they believe movie-goers want “eye-popping visuals and elaborate action set pieces they haven’t seen before,” according to Variety. I wonder if the film’s fortunes would have gone differently if Bruckheimer and Verbinski had approached the material with the simplicity of the television series and its focus on the partnership of the two principle characters.
Though Bruckheimer and Verbinski’s Lone Ranger is flawed and overblown, it was not nearly as bad as the scathing reviews suggested. I liked the opening sequence in which a little boy wanders through a carnival against the backdrop of 1930s San Francisco, which is depicted as an economically and morally bankrupt modern era—not unlike our own. In a tent with run-down exhibits, he discovers an elderly Tonto on display. The old Indian recounts his adventures in the Old West, so the story becomes Tonto’s tale to tell. This perspective suggests to the viewer that the story of the Lone Ranger is a legendary hero’s journey handed down from one generation to another—not unlike Verbinski’s movie. And, I was pleased that the film used the origin story from the first season of the television series. Texas Ranger John Reid rides with five other Rangers, including his brother, to capture notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish. But, Reid and the others have been betrayed by an old scout whom they had trusted. The Rangers are ambushed by Cavendish and his ruthless gang, who leave no survivors. Or, so they think. John Reid survives because he is discovered and nursed back to health by the Indian Tonto. Tonto actually gives Reid his identity in the film and the series. As he reasons in the first episode of the series, “You all alone now. You a lone Ranger.” I also appreciated the key role that trains play in the film. Trains are a kind of super-symbol in the western genre because they bring Easterners, who are the representatives of encroaching civilization. Whether they represent progress or corruption, these characters spread the values or ideas that will tame the West, thereby killing it. Unfortunately, there are two elaborate, noisy, frenetic train sequences in The Lone Ranger, and they neutralize each other dramatically. Finally, like Verbinski’s animated western Rango, The Lone Ranger pays homage to the western genre by referencing scenes from classic movies, such as the slaughter of the pioneer family in The Searchers and the elaborate train in Once Upon a Time in the West. Verbinski appreciates the western genre and its legacy as America’s origin story, and I appreciated his efforts to make it come alive for a new generation.
Many Internet reviewers “previewed” The Lone Ranger rather than reviewing it, damning it before it was released. Writers created negative expectations for the film, with reviewers lying in wait for it to flop so they engage in the snarky blather that passes for film reviewing these days. In this climate, a film has to be spectacular to avoid the gauntlet of half-baked jokes and one-liners hurled at most movies. One of the most offensive pieces that I came across on The Lone Ranger not only revealed that the writer had not watched the film he was condemning but that he was proud of the fact that he had no intention of seeing it. Most disheartening was his criticism of Bruckheimer and Verbinski for making a movie based on a character who, according to the writer, was last relevant in 1962. I couldn’t disagree more. Though I enjoy watching films with anti-heroes and corrupted protagonists, there must be room for stories about characters who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. There must be a Lone Ranger.
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