Critics dislike “The Lone Ranger” with some energy. On the other hand, after seeing the movie, large samples of general audiences rate it comparatively positively.
At Rotten Tomatoes, only 27 percent of 183 critics give “The Lone Ranger” a positive review while producing an average rating of 4.7/10. Yet a sample of 74,000 ordinary fans give an average rating of 7/10.
At IMDB, the movie receives a critical score of 37/100. But 24,000 general movie fans rate it 6.7/10. Box Office Mojo reports the movie also is being well-received by foreign audiences.
In short, therefore, whatever the critics may say, undaunted fans obviously believe “The Lone Ranger” delivers adequate “movie value” for the price of admission. Even so, it probably will remain a comparative box office bust, unable to recover from the pounding delivered by the critics.
In cases where the critics and the fans disagree so dramatically, one hopes to find that ordinary fans (whom one imagines as attending movies without a mind clouded by the need to evaluate instantly and defend an opinion,) intuitively discern some value that the critics miss. Moreover, in the short term, critics frequently get it wrong because some movies must be seen more than once for an adequate appreciation. This often results in a later critical re-evaluation. Yet “The Lone Ranger” does not seems the sort of movie one has to see more than once. Could this be a case where the critics and the movie fans are each correct?
On the surface, this is a “buddy movie.” On the most explicit level, it is about a native called “Tonto” and the non-native man he raises from the dead and forges into an action figure, “The Lone Ranger.” While Tonto (a Spanish word meaning slow-witted) is the movie’s true hero, he masquerades (is he slow-witted or just acting slow-witted from prudence?) as side-kick to the nominal hero.
The movie does have considerable symbolic imagery. One must think through these to understand all the underlying themes. Some have stumbled, for example, over the symbolic role of the not-spiritually-dead crow on Tonto’s head, a fixture that he takes care to feed and protect. It may not be an especially eloquent way of communicating a need to feed the spirit of important things but it gets the job done. The movie also has plot points or characters that some find superfluous, like the virtuous madam. Yet she eventually acts to symbolize that all the forces for good have allied themselves behind Tonto and the Lone Ranger to expel evil from the community. The movie is also typically more poetry than prose. Yet none of all this seems inaccessible after only a little reflection.
On the plus side, the movie delivers an interesting, imaginary place. It provides great visual spectacle. The story telling is mostly fast-paced, relentless and effortless, if not always immediately clear in direction. It does suffer a loss of momentum by a seeming villain switch in the late second act. It is a full feast for the ears, both in music and sound. Even critics who do not like the movie often praise the train-wreck climax as a brilliant piece of theatre. In short, it delivers entertainment. This probably explains why general audiences endorse it, though not enthusiastically. Probably, few will return to see it a second time.
If the movie delivers adequate entertainment, then it must seem to fail at the rhetorical tasks of delivering education or motivation. Let’s take motivation first.
What the creators would have us change in our lives is transparent. The movie opens with a new (golden) bridge being built. It climaxes with an old bridge (founded on greed) being destroyed. It then ends, after the initial credits roll, with the personification of “a noble savage” transformed into a native elder.
Along the way we are taken on a journey in which, the “noble savage” tells a young white boy in a mask (a future Lone Ranger) how a native who had become estranged from his people for helping settlers with a material quest for silver (the second best metal) created (with the help of a beautiful spirit embodied as a horse, Silver) the Lone Ranger. The motivational goal, then, is that future non-native activists seeking justice, as this boy might become, should value the wisdom of native elders and seek common cause with it….especially from those who risk themselves in good faith to be of assistance to non-natives. However modest this goal, it seems unlikely that the movie will inspire much change because of the problems in its underlying teaching.
It is telling that some critics believe this movie fails because its creators go too far in recasting the relationship between Tonto and the Lone Ranger as it is found in the source material. Others, however, believe the movie fails because it does not go far enough. Fundamentally, the problem seems traceable to the fact that the movie does not resolve itself successfully into either comedy or tragedy.
On the one hand, the storyline of the Lone Ranger character is comic. He is awakened from his slumber, drives out the cruel imposters who would rule in their own interests, saves the community from injustice, gets the girl and rides off having forged an alliance with his native saviour.
But the storyline of Tonto, the movie’s true hero, is tragic. Tonto’s assistance of non-natives led to the near destruction of his community and to his exile. At the end, he is neither reconciled with his now fragile community nor integrated into the new dominant community, as signified by his failing to be offered a female companion with whom to begin a new life. He ends by walking away alone; the last, as it were, of his kind.
While great dramatic pieces can combine comedy and tragedy successfully, the tragic is usually a greater theme. Tragedy’s natural topics concern the relationship between nature (or the gods) and human beings, inevitable fate, the consequences of breaking natural laws or the clash of civilizations. The natural province of comedy contains merely personal or intra-community concerns.
Great movies deal with great themes. Audiences instinctively expect the greater theme to have the greatest dramatic weight. When the greater theme is not given its due, then the whole project seems disproportioned. And that seems to be what happens here. Since Tonto is the true protagonist, the audience naturally expects his story as the primary theme. That story is about the clash of civilizations. It naturally contains a critique of the principles underlying the community that resorts to killing another, even when there is no necessity to do so. Yet the movie seemingly trivializes this story, probably because such deep critiques of the dominant society typically do not play well in North America. Of course, foreign audiences may have a different perspective.
Instead of this great theme, the movie’s primary story actually assumes that the dominant community’s underlying principles are sound. It sees the problem only in corrupt individuals abusing their social powers. Ultimately, this remains the Lone Ranger as that story is found in the original source material. And, as a staple theme of the dominant culture, it does not discomfort audiences.
We can learn at least five things from “The Lone Ranger.” First, even a buddy movie has a main protagonist. When a drama is called “The Lone Ranger,” people eventually will find it confusing when it is actually Tonto’s needs and desires that truly drive the story.
Second, great themes have the greatest impact. If one associates a great theme with the central character, then people expect the creators to have the courage to make that the prime story.
Third, while critics will expect some coherence in the rhetorical tasks of education and motivation that are inherent parts of every drama, general audiences will consider they have had value for their “movie dollar” if the movie delivers sufficient mere entertainment.
Fourth, education is necessarily prior to motivation. Any creator’s best intentions with respect to motivation will come to naught if the instruction seems incoherent.
Fifth, major American studios still seem unlikely sources of support for art that delivers a fundamental social critique head on. What support would there be for a movie called “Tonto” that presented a genuine native perspective on the dominant culture?
Moreover, a fair proportion of the North American native public seems concerned that this project, as conceived and executed, may reinforce negative racial stereo-types and “othering.” That is, that it may contribute to the clash of civilizations that the movie seemingly did not have the courage to explore while hoping to be a healing force. If one does not have the courage to highlight a story’s greatest themes, then one should expect harsh critiques and, perhaps, trouble at the box office. Better, perhaps, to be sure of doing no harm and leave the franchise for the dustbin of history.