The Lone Ranger – a Cultural Analysis

As I grew up in the 1960s my father took great delight in bringing through the radio on Sunday mornings to introduce us to The Lone Ranger, the radio series first launched in 1933. I also spent Saturday afternoons catching up on the syndicated black and white television series first produced in the 1950s. Here’s a review of the 2013 film of The Lone Ranger, produced for a class I’m participating in at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The focus of this week’s discussion is social analysis, drawing on three texts: Meeting God at the boundaries: Cross-cultural-cross-racial clergy appointments, by Lucia Ann McSpadden, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, by George E. Tinker, and Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (The Seeley Lectures), by Martha Nussbaum. This is a review with a purpose, and not a commentary on the appropriateness or entertainment value of The Lone Ranger.

Tonto and The Lone Ranger

The 2013 film produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films and directed by Gore Verbinski, is a pastiche treatment of the Lone Ranger mythology found in the original 1930s radio series and 1950s ABC television series. The film, although lighthearted with deliberate anachronisms, sets out the conflict between the values of American Indian native cultures and those associated with Western capitalism.

I believe that Gore Verbinski, with a lot of influence from Depp, has created an experience that functions in the liminal, as described by Victor Turner in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (PAJ Books). Tonto and John Reid, and even Silver, function in the “Trickster” archetype, outsiders who defy the norms placed by their societies, standing between sacred and profane. The film plays around with time, our ideas of sacred and profane, good and evil. This may be experienced as puerile by some. I experienced it is as a tongue-in-cheek poke-in-the-belly challenge to our own assumptions of virtue, cultural superiority and certainty. The film plays with the legend, by introducing the entertainment idolization of the 1933 radio legend (popcorn packet thrown anachronistically into the 1869 setting), suggesting that Kemo Sabe meant “Wrong Brother” and through the mystical and humorous antics of Silver.

Tonto and John Reid are both outlaws, one from a collectivist culture, the other an individualist culture. Tonto’s life has been scarred by his betrayal of his people through a self-serving deal with Coles and Cassidy. As George E Tinker points out, “American Indian indigenous cultures are communitarian by nature and do not share the euro-west’s capitulation to the priority of the individual over against the community.” (Tinker, p. 8). Knowledge in the Comanche tribe is presented as a treasure to be kept for those who are known and trusted. Reid, on the other hand, finds it difficult to fit in with the rugged individualism of his culture. He has left home, pursued his own education, and yet his passionate idealistic pursuit of justice for all, even the criminal, make survival difficult in the face of the unscrupulous capitalism and colonialism of the Western frontier.

Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, laid out in McSpadden’s book “Meeting God at the Boundaries”, (McSpadden pp. 57-59), contrasts cultures in which power is distributed equally and those in which power is distributed unequally. Tonto comes from a people whose power structure is clearly outlined in the appointment of a chief, recognition of warriors, and the capacity to banish members from the tribe. Tonto himself has chosen to empty himself of claims to authority, relying instead on subtle methods of influence. The invading culture, that of Tom Coles and Butch Cavendish, has the veneer of democracy. And yet the system is set up to reward anyone (usually white males) with the right combination of skill and money to climb to the top. However, Coles and Cavendish both use coercion and manipulation to achieve their own goals. John Reid is uncomfortable about the degrading effect of violence and seeks to avoid wielding power over others. The film shows Tonto and The Lone Ranger coming to terms with their ability to shape their environment together.

Edward T. Hall’s high context/low context continuum can be used to analyze the communication preferences of the lead characters of The Lone Ranger. Tonto, as a member of the Comanche people, has learnt to communicate largely with symbols, actions and few words. He carries with him the crow, a constant reminder of the people whose lives have been lost through his carelessness. The bird reminds us of the Comanche commitment to the interrelatedness of all the created/natural world, including animals, birds, and all the living moving things, along with all the other sorts of two-leggeds (Tinker p. 9) Tonto places John Reid on the top of a platform, perhaps for safety purposes, but also as a reminder that Reid is a spiritual being who lives between the sky and the earth. In contrast, we see both Reid and Coles conveying meaning through the content of their language (low context). Latham Cole constantly and publicly articulates his vision of a railroad that will bring together the West and the East. He is aware of his own goals for the future, but overlooks the significance of verbal and body communication from Rebecca and young Dan Reid. John Reid appropriates the symbols provided by Tonto, the mask, the white horse, the feeding of the crow, but appears to be oblivious to their meaning. He’s schooled in the art of intellectual discourse, with words from John Locke.

The Lone Ranger constantly creates tension through two approaches to time, polychromic time and monochronic time. Tonto appears as the child, the adult and the aged adult, bringing together a sense of the indigenous focus on time as a gift. (McSpadden p.60) Tonto’s three time lines in the film are held together by the movement towards his ancestral home. As Tinker explains, “Indigenous traditions are spatially based rather than temporally based. Whether in its capitalist or socialist guise, history and temporality reign supreme in the euro-west, where time is money and development or progress is the goal.” (Tinker p.7). The pocket watch appears throughout the film as a symbol of the Western culture’s obsession with progress, achievement and moving away from the place of origin. Tonto is haunted by the way in which he fell into the Western approach and yet is seen to have picked up the golden watch Reid rejected at the end of the film.

Throughout the film, we are presented with colonialist views of the world, in which male colonizers set out to reduce differentiation by eliminating the “other” or by setting it apart as uncivilized and doomed to extinction. We see this in the portrayal of the Noble Savage in the museum, as well as in the cavalry’s massacre of whole people groups. Chinese and African American workers are welcomed as disposable workers but will inevitably be rejected when their task is completed. As Martha Nussbaum points out (Nussbaum, p.31) colonialism “typically assumed that the ways of the colonial power were progressive and enlightened, the ways of the colonized people primitive.” Objectification of women in the film is shown only in the colonial camp, as seen in the commodization of women as prostitutes, the acquisition of Red Harrington’s leg, and Coles’ assumption that he can buy the affection of Rebecca Reid.

The film is punctuated with Tonto’s call to the Lone Ranger to become a partner in the search for justice. Nussbaum’s list of central human functional capabilities (Nussbaum pp. 78-80) could be applied to the ongoing quest carried out in this partnership. Nussbaum names long quality life, bodily health, bodily integrity (safety and freedom), senses, imagination and thought, emotions free from fear and anxiety, practical reason associated with good and life planning, affiliation with others and self dignity, being able to live in relation to other species, being able to play, and control over one’s environment. Perhaps those who have watched The Lone Ranger are now called to make these real in the ways they relate to people in their frontier worlds.

4 Replies to “The Lone Ranger – a Cultural Analysis”

  1. Wow. Finally another reviewer who has seen below the surface of this film to the deeper themes. You are the only one who has mentioned the Trickster imagery used multiple times throughout: the Crow (or Raven), Tonto especially as a kind of heyoka or sacred clown (I noted that when he commandeers the train he is driving it backwards! … I seem to remember this is something done by heyokas… doing things backwards… in certain ceremonial situations). I have always felt that most of the “critics” are too uneducated to do more than snark at something they don’t get (or perhaps it makes them sound cool). This film had layers of stuff going on; it was a fine example of a truly American Faerie Tale or Myth.

  2. Hi, enjoyed the review. I agree that there is a lot bubbling under the surface in this film, most people just see an native american character being played by a non-native american actor and leave it at that. One of Tarantino’s top ten movies of 2013 apparently.

    One thing i found quite interesting about this film was the way in which the main plot is presented as a product of Tonto’s memory, interspersed with the young boy interrupting the aged Tonto to correct him or question strange plot developments. The boy’s peanut packet (which he eats out of and gives to Tonto in 1933) makes an appearance in the early grave scene in which it is briefly glimpsed being placed on one of the rangers’ graves. This hints that Tonto’s memory is probably quite affected and unreliable, is he making the story up, embellishing it, or telling the truth? Thus the sillier elements of the film become explainable as perhaps embellishments, allowing the conflict between native american and white man, progress and culture, capitalism and morals etc to become more central.

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