With all the furore over the new Lone Ranger
movie, I thought this might be a good time to take a look back at the last time they tried to bring the 'Masked Man of the Plains' to the big screen. Legend of the Lone Ranger
, when released in 1981, probably received an even bigger critical slating than the current film and effectively killed the franchise stone dead for next thirty years. But is it really that bad? The reality is that Legend of the Lone Ranger
is, on a technical level, a perfectly well crafted film, although director William A Fraker does overdo the soft-focus, apparently smearing the camera lenses with grease, in an attempt to recapture the 'mythic' look of his directorial debut, Monte Walsh
. The film's problems are largely structural. Like the aforementioned Monte Walsh
, this film seeks to mythologise the Old West in general and the Lone Ranger specifically. However, this aim is fatally undermined by the fact that the Ranger himself only appears in the last third of the film, engaged in a pretty perfunctory and mundane adventure. The movie spends the better part of an hour establishing the character's origins in laborious detail. Which isn't to say that there isn't any plot development going on in this section, just that it doesn't move the film significantly forward.
Once John Reid has finally become the Lone Ranger, the plot he's involved in is pretty dull and doesn't actually require him to deploy any special skills beyond those the average cowboy hero would demonstrate in the course of a B-picture. Sure, all the elements are there: the kidnapping of the US President from his train by Butch Cavendish, who is attempting to set up a separatist Texas state, the infiltration of the villain's fortress-like HQ, lots of explosions and the US cavalry arriving just in the nick of time. Unfortunately, none it ever gels into a satisfying story. The pace is too slow, the Lone Ranger and Tonto find Cavendish's hideout without even trying, they infiltrate it too easily and, worst of all, there is never any sense that they (or the President) are in any real peril. The film doesn't even make anything of the real life Western heroes travelling with the President - Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock and General Custer - they barely get a line of dialogue between them and contribute nothing to the plot. They're just so much window dressing.
Which could also be said of the Lone Ranger himself. Part of the film's problem is the leading man, Klinton Spilsbury. Don't worry if you've never heard of him. This was his only acting credit. Last heard of, he was working as a photographer. Whilst being very handsome, he has no charisma or presence as either John Reid or the Lone Ranger, a problem exacerbated by the fact that he was dubbed post-production by James Keach. Still, he does have nice hair. This, combined with the poor structure and slack storytelling - which leaves the viewer with the feeling that it is all over before it has even started -and a sub-par musical score from John Barry, meant that the film never stood a chance at the box office in 1981. Especially after the bad publicity it suffered pre-release, when the producer obtained a court order to prevent former Lone Ranger Clayton Moore from wearing the mask during public appearances, which just looked mean-spirited.
But perhaps the film's biggest problem was that, 1981, it just seemed too old fashioned. Despite the bold promises of its producers, it didn't radically reinvent the character and felt like a throwback to the 1950s TV series. It had the misfortune to be released only weeks ahead of Raiders of the Lost Ark
, a movie which took similar source material - 1930s and 40s cinema serials - but reworked them radically into an exciting and contemporary feeling entertainment. Beyond making Tonto into more of an equal partner to the Lone Ranger - and why does only the Ranger have to wear a mask to protect his identity, are they saying that all Indians look alike so nobody will ever recognise Tonto - Legend
does little to update the characters or scenario. I don't know - maybe the problem is that the Lone Ranger himself is just too boring to make into an exciting contemporary character. My first encounter with the character was in those cartoons which ran on TV in the late sixties and early seventies. They were incredibly bizarre, with the Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting things like giant robots. Only later did I see episodes of the Clayton Moore TV series - and they seemed deadly dull by comparison, with our hero coming off as just a bland do-gooder, no different (other than the mask) to a thousand other cowboy heroes. Perhaps that's why, since the fifties, big screen attempts at the Lone Ranger have been such spectacular failures.
Labels: Forgotten Films