Picture a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but instead of swashbuckling pirates hijacking ships on the high seas, substitute swashbuckling cowboys hijacking trains in the vast open range of the American West.
That’s enough to get the gist of the new Johnny Depp vehicle, The Lone Ranger. Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger are so similar that Johnny Depp doesn’t even have to change characters: Tonto and Jack Sparrow are the same person, only with different make-up. He’s crazy, but in a wise way. He’s calm in the face of mortal danger, even making wry wisecracks in the midst of the most life- threatening moments.
Not only that, but the two films are identical in style. Even ignoring the supernatural elements in Pirates, it’s full of physically impossible action sequences. So is The Lone Ranger: riding a horse at full speed along the top of a speeding train? Surviving unscathed a full derailment of a steam train which leaves you sandwiched between the engine and a train car? Really?
To state this in a more positive way: the over-the-top action scenes are the best parts of both films. They’re fun to watch, to the extent that I found myself laughing out loud at how utterly ridiculous they were. It’s the same sort of action that makes James Bond films so popular.
Despite their enormous similarities, The Lone Ranger has one huge flaw that the Pirates movies don’t have, and that flaw lies in the nature of the character Depp plays. The difference is that pirates are not a segment of society with a history of oppression and genocide by a dominant majority. Native Americans are. It’s okay to make pirates look ridiculous, not Native Americans.
Depp cast himself as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick, despite the fact that he’s not actually a Native American (unless you count that he was recently “adopted” by the Comanche tribe). Were there really no Native American actors out there who could have filled this role? If he wanted to appear, he could have cast himself as the Lone Ranger – or did he think that the white guy had to have blue eyes to be convincing in the part?
Even if you disregard his lack of Native American blood, his portrayal of Tonto is offensive in its reinforcement of stereotypes going back to the earliest Westerns. This Native American, the only one viewers get to know in any depth, is insane. He is hell-bent on revenge against white outlaws who led him to betray his own tribe as a child. He wears a dead crow on his head, which he “feeds” periodically with birdseed. He is perpetually smeared with war paint, which never seems to rub off: it’s just permanently cracked.
Depp’s Tonto lives in an English-speaking society, yet still speaks like the Tonto portrayed in the 1950’s Westerns: “Horse dead,” instead of “The horse is dead.” At the same time, he demonstrates the more modern stereotype: the “wise savage,” in touch with Mother Earth, dispensing astute observations and advice as needed. He knows how to track, for example, much better than the whites.
Tonto as Depp plays him isn’t a passive, loyal servant to the Lone Ranger; he’s the wise one, the guide for an unwilling hero. This is a big departure from the original Tonto: he was usually played by an actual Native American, but he didn’t wear war paint, and there wasn’t any back story that I remember. He was passive: the trusty sidekick to the Lone Ranger, who was always the leader. But at least that Tonto was sane. So while Depp may have intended to subvert the passive sidekick stereotype, he doesn’t do Tonto’s image any favors.
Depp modernizes the story to some extent: the wholesale destruction of Native Americans and their way of life is not justified in this movie, or explained away. The movie points out how the expanding white society did all it could to take land from the Indians, turning to slaughter if trickery didn’t work.
The Tonto character isn’t the only problematic (read: racist) element of this film. The work crews on the transcontinental railroad look accurate, in that the western end of the project did in fact employ many Chinese laborers, so their presence, complete with pointed hats and long ponytails, makes sense. However, the appearance a couple of times of a Chinese woman portraying the stereotypical inscrutable Oriental, mixing a potion for the white woman, is a puzzling addition.
And the frame of the film is just odd. It’s built around a conversation between a small boy dressed as the Lone Ranger and an elderly Tonto who is acting as an exhibit in a freak show in the 1930’s. Here and there the film jumps forward to this conversation, but with no discernible purpose. Was this meant to show how poorly Indians continued to be treated? Or just to give Johnny Depp the opportunity to try a different kind of complicated make-up?
The best audience for this film is teenagers: both my son and my niece who watched with me enjoyed the film tremendously. This isn’t surprising: teenage girls think Depp is cute; teenage boys like the action. And teenagers are much less likely than adults to even notice the racism, or to know how this film follows or departs from the original Lone Ranger stories.
But is that a good idea? Just because they don’t notice the racism, doesn’t mean they don’t absorb it and make it their own. Teenagers like these two have no contact in their lives with real-life Native Americans, so their ideas are formed through the media. An image like Depp’s Tonto isn’t really what we want them to “learn” about Native Americans, is it?