Friday, May 14, 2010
No Room For Ordinary Men
It’s an ongoing thing how I seem to be indulging my desire to finally catch up with films that I have vague memories of opening when I was a kid but didn’t get to see. My parents never took me to FLASH GORDON or THE BLACK HOLE, to name two that come to mind, but they get points for knowing enough to bring me to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on its opening weekend, a memory that will always stay with me. I even remember going with them to see ARTHUR of all things so I guess a film where the title character picked up a hooker in the first scene was acceptable. One early eighties movie they also didn’t take me to was THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER though I actually do remember it not being well received at all at the time. So in finally getting to take a look at it and scratching this long standing itch I can confirm that, yeah, the film isn’t very good. It’s a handsomely mounted production but comes off as totally lopsided both storywise and visually, as well as featuring a number of actors who cause it all to play much flatter than it really should. Thinking of the film in the context of when it was released on May 22, 1981 (just a few weeks before RAIDERS, to be precise) and what the story’s approach is makes me wonder just who it was even supposed to be for. Incidentally, the film came in third on its opening weekend, well behind BUSTIN’ LOOSE and THE FOUR SEASONS despite playing in more theaters than either film. I’m going to guess that nothing was going to keep the western from being dead and buried in the early 80s but this film, which became a somewhat notorious flop during that period, probably didn’t help things any.
When his mother and father are killed by bandits, young John Reid is rescued and brought to live among the Indians who raise him as one of their own until John’s brother Dan shows up to send him back east but not before John makes a bond with his young friend Tonto who tells him that he will always be Kemosabe, trusted friend. Years later, the adult John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury) returns out west to practice law and be with his brother, now a Texas Ranger. Before he can act on a possible romance with Amy Striker (Juanin Clay) the niece of the local newspaper editor who he shared a stagecoach with, John joins his brother on a posse which tragically ends with the Rangers ambushed by a gang led by the vicious Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), a disgraced former Major with dreams of a “New Texas” that he will presumably control. When John is left for dead he is discovered by the now-adult Tonto (Michael Horse) who nurses him back to health among his people, giving John the chance to create his own secret identity of a man in a mask, a force who will fight evil along with a white horse who he names Silver after the type of bullet Tonto provides him with (“Silver is pure. A symbol of justice and purity...”). Meanwhile, Cavendish is formulating a plan to kidnap the visiting President Ulyssses S. Grant (Jason Robards) and possibly kill him, meaning that only the Lone Ranger with his trusty sidekick Tonto can possibly stop him.
Looking up this film for research reminded me just how huge a symbol The Lone Ranger was for the Baby Boomer generation. It’s not something I have any real connection to beyond knowledge of the character and William Tell overture being used as his them still somehow being a part of pop culture when I was a kid, but I guess even that’s long since passed. Providing such a huge backstory for this character who until then had always been a figure of mystery was probably tantamount to heresy at the time but that aspect now actually makes the film seem about twenty-five years ahead of the curve considering how every single character revived in this era has to fill in all those blanks. Even its deliberate holding back of the William Tell fanfare until an hour in with the exception of a few brief musical quotes isn’t all that different from how CASINO ROYALE refrained from using the full Bond theme until the very end in 2006. I didn’t sit down wanting to dislike this film but every time I began to take pleasure in a moment, an action beat or just the old-fashioned pleasure of watching an actual western, the movie would pretty much kill off that enjoyment with its own heavy-handedness. Directed by legendary cinematographer William A. Fraker, the film bears all the marks of someone who knew more to pay attention to visuals than to the specifics of the action in front of the camera or how to assemble these visuals into a compelling story. Much of the film seems to be shot using the same filter Fraker used when he was D.P. on Spielberg’s similarly-gauzy 1941 (for the record, Lazlo Kovacs served that function on this film) and its haziness just winds up making me sleepy, continually losing interest in the already lackluster story. Maybe the production got a deal on any film stock left over from HEAVEN’S GATE. During one evening festival scene early in the film there’s so much ‘atmosphere’ in the frame that it becomes difficult to tell exactly what’s going on and all the hard work that various craftsmen must have put into designing this western town seems for naught.
It feels like a train wreck of tone or maybe one was never even decided on, like there was a deliberate attempt to not do an update of old-fashioned serials in the style of STAR WARS and SUPERMAN but in trying to be as earnest as possible it just winds up coming off as a drag. Several of the main actors are too wooden, much of the dialogue is flat and clichéd, at times it feels too violent for kids (was it meant for kids? You’d think so, but I’m still not sure) and maybe worst of all it’s just not much fun. It barely even seems like it was ever meant to be fun. We get people being violently blown away by bad guys and then the Lone Ranger confidently shooting guns out of people’s hands instead of wounding them which is probably meant to show how much more noble he is but the various elements never fit together in a cohesive fashion. Even a lot of the admittedly impressive stunt work just winds up looking a lot like, well, impressive stunt work. There’s also some spectacularly awful rhyming narration by Merle Haggard, credited as “The Balladeer”, which must have made the film seem like an episode of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD to people when it was released. You get to hear Haggard sing “The Man in the Mask” as well, which gets worked into the score by John Barry whose work here goes for the sort of lush mystery and romance that his music was beginning to focus on at the time. In THE BLACK HOLE that sort of approach certainly helped the mood but here it winds up not only making things way too ponderous and when the familiar theme finally does come into play it just feels out of place with the slow, steady fanfares we’ve been hearing. The story of a white man living among Indians does provide for an unexpected comparison point with Barry’s score for DANCES WITH WOLVES, however. This world is so gritty and nasty with no sense of adventure or real excitement that the Lone Ranger winds up seeming like he’s in the wrong movie. Maybe if he’d been allowed to be a stronger presence that would have helped…but he isn’t.
The Ranger’s origin story takes about as long as the buildup in SUPERMAN and when the character finally makes his spectacular first appearance it feels like a beat designed to exactly emulate Christopher Reeve’s introduction but in that film we still had practically an entire movie of fun to go. Here we just get some dull mini-adventure that involves saving President Grant and getting revenge on Cavendish that isn’t very exciting or satisfying at all (Cumbersome screenplay credits—Screenplay by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts and Michael Kane and William Roberts, adaptation by Jerry Derloshon). The film only runs 98 minutes with at least one major character disappearing from the film at a certain point but some sections are paced in so lethargic a fashion that I could imagine somebody easily removing twenty minutes from what’s here. Losing most of the endless slow motion footage would be a good start. One point of interest to people may be the scenes involving stuntman Terry Leonard’s attempt to traverse under a runaway stagecoach during an early scene. The trick apparently went wrong, injuring him in the process, but Leonard wound up trying it again during the production of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK some time later for when Indiana Jones makes the similar move underneath the Nazi truck. That time, as we all know, he was successful.
I don’t even know how much I want to criticize some of the actors since there doesn’t seem to be much point. Klinton Spilsbury, definitely no Christopher Reeve, never appeared in another movie and became kind of a punchline for film geeks from all this. Suffice it to say that he never projects much personality as either the Lone Ranger or John Reid (presumably no relation to the only American ever buried in the Kremlin that was played by Warren Beatty), with his voice even being dubbed over as flatly as possible by James Keach. There’s nothing to be gained in denigrating him further. Female lead Juanin Clay, probably best remembered now for playing Dabney Coleman’s assistant in WARGAMES, gets an ‘introducing’ credit here at the age of thirty-one and she looks considerably older. She’s kind of a nonentity but she died in 1995, so there’s nothing to be gained in dwelling how she doesn’t make much of an impression. Michael Horse, best known as Deputy Hawk on TWIN PEAKS, does manage to bring a considerable amount of dignity to the role of Tonto and Jason Robards is such appropriate casting as Ulysses S. Grant that he deserved to play him in a better film. He also says a certain famous line near the end that we’ve been waiting the whole movie to hear and he even pulls it off. Richard Farnsworth appears briefly as Wild Bill Hickok, making me wish we could also see him play that role in another film, but the best performance is easily given by Christopher Lloyd who uses his off-kilter nature to enhance Cavendish’s nastiness and keeps it consistent all the way through, with none of the eccentricities that might be associated with the actor. There’s one icy close-up of Lloyd early on which is so effective that it almost makes me want to defend the rest of the film on general principle, but it rarely rises up to that level. Lloyd’s future BUCKAROO BANZAI co-star Matt Clark (that film’s Secretary of Defense, along with a million other credits) appears here as the town Sheriff as well.
The bad publicity that came out of the lawsuit around the time of its release by the character’s owners to get Clayton Moore, the star of the legendary television series, to stop wearing the mask in personal appearances didn’t help the film’s chances but it probably didn’t matter much in the end. To add to the odd history surrounding the film the most recent DVD was released full frame for some reason but recent airings on cable are in the full 2.35:1 Scope ratio so you can at least kind of see something through all that misty photography. It’s caught between eras, between approaches and there apparently wasn’t anyone involved who had the vision of somebody like Richard Donner to figure out exactly what this film was going to be. As a result, it winds up being not much of anything. Some plot beats and iconography feel right out of certain classic westerns but none of it has any real feeling or love for the genre so much of it winds up feeling pretty perfunctory. For several years now a new version of The Lone Ranger to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and possibly featuring Johnny Depp as Tonto has been in some form of development. It doesn’t appear to be happening just yet but if Bruckheimer can get people to see a pirate movie again I suppose it’s possible he can figure out some kind of magic formula for this character as well, whatever the specific approach might be. THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, meanwhile, remains stranded in that wide open valley between paying too much attention to nostalgia and not having enough interest in why people responded to such a character in the first place. And in the end that uncertainty is the sort of approach which takes a legend and turns it into something purely mediocre.