Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)

"Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear... The Lone Ranger rides again!"

Oh, if only that were so...

When I was a little boy living in New Jersey, a local TV station (WPIX, I think...) ran an afternoon block of heroic programming. First The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), then Batman (1966-1969) and then, finally...The Lone Ranger (1949-1957). 

This went on every weekday for a long time...and boy...I was in kiddie heaven. I remember some days begging my Mother to take me home from Brookdale Park so I could get home in time to see these TV programs!

Anyway, Clayton Moore portrayed the heroic Lone Ranger in the 1950s series (along with John Hart, for two years), and I admired the Lone Ranger as a child (and now, as a man) because of his moral creed. He didn't drink or smoke. Not only did he speak beautifully (never indulging in slang or jargon), but he believed that "all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world." Most importantly, the Lone Ranger never shot to kill.

Despite my love for the 1950s Lone Ranger TV series (and I even owned a complete set of Gabriel's 1973 10-inch Lone Ranger figures...), I would have certainly welcomed, by 1981, a modern take on the classic material; just as I had welcomed with open arms the updated Superman: The Movie (1978). 

But with The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), a notorious box office bomb, something went wrong.

I watched The Legend of the Lone Ranger again last week, for the first time in years, and was shocked anew at just how bad this film is. In fact, I was unpleasantly reminded of Tarzan: The Ape Man another 1981 film which failed to do justice to an iconic hero. At least Tarzan: The Ape Man has Bo Derek starring (and disrobing...) in it, and boasts a high-degree of camp value. The Legend of the Lone Ranger is just plodding.

Actually, The Legend of the Lone Ranger fails on three distinct fronts. But before I get to each particular failure, a brief re-cap is in order: The Legend of the Lone Ranger tells the story of the "man behind the mask" (as per the ballad of the Lone Ranger, performed by Merle Haggard).

In the Old West (Texas, 1854), young John Reid sees his parents brutally murdered by bandits and is taken in by friendly Indians to live as one of the natives. Reid's "blood brother" is Tonto, and at this early age, Reid decides irrevocably to follow "the trail of justice." Soon, however, he is removed from his Indian life by his older brother, Dan, a ranger who sends John back East to become an attorney.

Several years later, a grown John (Klinton Spilsbury) returns to the wild west hoping to make it a terrain where justice prevails, but in local "Del Rio," (a town in trouble, Merle Haggard tells us...) he finds that much of the territory is already in thrall to the power-hungry, psychotic Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), a warlord who seeks to kidnap President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards). 

Before long, John, his brother Dan and a team of rangers are led into a Cavendish trap by a traitor in the ranger ranks and -- after a brutal gun fight -- left for dead.

Only John survives the massacre. He is nursed back to health by a now-adult Tonto (who happened by the crime scene at just the right moment...) and soon launches his quest for justice. But first, John must "dig a grave for John Reid" and become The Lone Ranger; a masked man who rides a white steed named Silver, and who uses silver bullets in combat.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's first and most egregious failing is that it doesn't seem to know its audience (which, if you ask me, would include generations of "grown up" boys and girls who loved the TV show). By this, I mean that Legend of the Lone Ranger is the ugliest, gauziest, dustiest-looking western since Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980).

It's not just that the movie is unpleasant to's actually unpleasant to look at. You can hardly make out faces, the film is so gritty and soiled-looking. I would argue that this is precisely the wrong visual for any Lone Ranger production. We should be inspired by the beauty of the West, by those gorgeous wide open skies and natural landscapes; just as the Lone Ranger is himself inspired by the promise of America. I mean, I know dark things happen in the Lone Ranger's origin, but no one in their right mind would live in a Wild West that looked like this, forever inside its own whirling Dust Bowl.'

Secondly, this is a film that, in the first few minutes, depicts innocent Mrs. Reid (John's mother) dragged behind a horse by bandits, and then shot and killed at point-blank range. Later, the film doesn't cut away when two bandits are executed by Cavendish, and we see the bloody impact wounds blossom on their chests. I'm no prude, but the Lone Ranger in the past was a franchise that didn't exploit graphic violence. The Lone Ranger himself never killed his enemies; and furthermore lived by a code of justice that he applied to all: criminals and honest citizens alike. It's a mistake, I submit, given the history of the franchise, to revel in bloody demises like those depicted here. It seems antithetical to what the Lone Ranger is all about.

I'd also state that The Legend of the Lone Ranger doesn't know its audience because it makes several basic mistakes in franchise information and background. For instance, this film transforms heroic John Reid into a rookie attorney (!) not an experienced ranger, when he is involved in the massacre. It also establishes that he is a terrible shot, one whose skill is miraculously improved only when Tonto gives him silver bullets. In most incarnations of the Lone Ranger, Reid is a talented marksman and ranger before the events that change his life. Frankly, that origin makes more sense. Silver bullets aren't magic in and of themselves (though I guess they can kill werewolves...). I just don't see how silver bullets make a person's aim more true, even if, according to Tonto, "silver is pure."

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's second, and perhaps most catastrophic failing is that it is dull beyond  conventional forms of measurement. This is an action movie that moves at a snail's pace. It takes thirty-eight long minutes just to get to the ranger massacre in the gully. It takes to forty-eight minutes to introduce Silver. Key scenes are notably and irrevocably dull. For instance, the moment when Reid tames Silver is extended relentlessly by slow motion photography (think of Tarzan's wrestling match with a boa in Tarzan the Ape Man), and becomes almost laughable in its duration. I'm a long-time admirer of composer John Barry, but his lugubrious, ponderous score only contributes to the sense that this movie is a dead weight around your shoulders...never ending, ugly, and with nothing of significance occurring. 

"Thrilling days of yesteryear?" You won't find them here...

The film's final flaw is simple: basic incompetence. Through the entire film, Klinton Salisbury's voice is badly dubbed by James Keach, and you can tell. Worse, in key moments, (particularly the horse whispering moment), it is obvious that Silver is played by at least two very different horses. You know a movie is in trouble when you have the time to notice that the lead horse is being stunt-doubled...

The only time this movie comes to life is when that inspiring William Tell Overture is dragged out of mothballs and the pulse quickens.

What a disappointment. The children of 1981 deserved better.


  1. I wonder if the issue of tone in this film came from the fact that there were only two real ways for a Western to work in the 1980s. It either had to be something along the lines of classic 50s John Wayne style. Or it had to be Leone, Peckinpah dusty, dirty sweaty, spaghetti style.

    For the "Lone Ranger" the answer seems easy. It would be the perfect fit for something along the lines of what we saw in "Silverado" in 1985. But I think the Peckinpah model seemed much closer in time and therefore something "modern" audiences would relate to more. Hence the dust, violence and maybe even the pacing (with the director unable to capture Leone's ability with the slow build up to the explosive violence).

    Looks like the director has more credits as a DP and worked on the entertaining western "Tombstone" from 1993. So at least he was able to finally capture the true look of a modern Western.

    I was wondering if the new "Lone Ranger" flick would be closer in visual style to Eastwood's "Unforgiven", which seems to have cast a long shadow on the modern Western. But with Bruckheimer producing and Verbinski directing... I think we all know what we're going to get. :)

  2. Moncynnes12:32 PM

    There are some good performances in this movie, like Michael Horse and Jason Robards, but I have a big fault with two essentials: the villain (Christopher Lloyd) and the hero (Klinton Spilsbury).

    I just can't buy Lloyd's Butch Cavendish. The movie wants us to believe he's a tactical genius and a psychotic, but Lloyd just gives us a cleaned-up version of his Reverend Jim character from "Taxi." At no point does the audience regard Cavendish as a credible threat. And speaking of credibility...

    It's easy to dump on Klinton Spilsbury, but a lot of my issues with "Legend" fall into his lap. I get that the producers cast Spilsbury because they wanted an unknown like Christopher Reeve in "Superman." The biggest difference is that Reeve believed he was Superman; he inhabited that character. Klinton Spilsbury didn't believe. And thus the movie suffered.

  3. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film was the war between the copyright holder and Clayton Moore over Moore's right to continue wearing the mask. The bad publicity certainly did not help the film at all.

  4. Anonymous11:34 PM

    I vividly remember the experience of seeing this as a kid John - not the movie - but the experience. Much like you I was a BIG fan of the Clayton Moore series which played regularly on television in my area in the late 70's/early 80's. When I found out there was going to be a movie, I could not wait to go out and see it. In fact, this is one of my earliest memories of being bombarded with marketing hype. My parents bought me the action figures, and if my memory is accurate I believe I even had a pistol and mask set. I was ready for this movie!

    Boy what a disappointment. I was aware of the Clayton Moore mask issue as a kid, but was too young for that to play into my reaction to this truly awful excuse for a Western, much less a Lone Ranger film. What I remember from that screening 30+ years ago (how could it be that long ago!) is the following:

    1 - John Reid healing in a murkily lit room.

    2 - The unbelievable amount of time it took for us to see Spilsbury in the outfit. IMDB lists this movie as being 98 minutes - it seemed like an eternity. If your time estimate of 48 minutes to Silver is correct (and I have no doubt it is), then that means we don't truly see the title character until the film is halfway over. Madness.

    3 - The ending where Jason Robards asks "who was that masked man?" I actually remember thinking that was cool, unfortunately there was about 95 preceding minutes of pure terrible.

    I did watch the first 10 minutes of the movie again a few years back on TV when I randomly came across it. My hope going in was that maybe in my youth I had been unable to appreciate it. Nope, I was absolutely able to appreciate it back then to the extent this mess was appreciable. What I remember from this screening was very much in line with my previous encounter, and lines up with your thoughts:

    1 - It looks dreadful. Your comparison to Heaven's Gate is certainly understandable, but I'd say Heaven's Gate looks like Episode I compared to The Legend of the Lone Ranger (yep, it really is that bad).

    2 - The Merle Haggard song/narration. I had completely forgotten about this - more likely I blocked it from memory. I'm not a country music fan, but I'm sure Mr. Haggard is a talented fellow. This was not a good use of those talents. This was the Dukes of Hazzard era, so I'm guessing they were going for a Waylon Jennings vibe. They did not succeed.

    3 - Pure boredom. I can sit through just about anything - and believe me I have. 10 minutes and I reached my breaking point. I must have been one determined kid back in the 80's to have sat still for this even at 98 minutes. Your parallel between this and Tarzan the Ape Man is spot on John, and it is amazing how close their release dates were! How two well-funded productions could take can't-miss iconic characters and botch them so badly boggles the mind.

    On a final, related note, I also have to say the action figures were terrible. They had open holsters from which the guns were always following out - annoyed me greatly as a kid (much like the film itself). Thrilling days of yesteryear indeed.