There Must Be a Lone Ranger

lonebothOne of this summer’s biggest misfires, The Lone Ranger was green-lighted in 2008, began shooting in 2011, came in with a $250 million budget, and cost about $150 million to market. For all of that effort and money, it has yet to break $100,000,000, according to the IMDB.

While promoting the movie, star Armie Hammer revealed the problems the cast and crew experienced during production. Just before principle photography began in New Mexico, Disney shut down the movie to force producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to wheedle down the budget from $260 million to $215 million. When the ball finally began rolling, Mother Nature interfered via severe rainstorms with 70 mph winds, a snowstorm, and even wildfires, edging the budget closer to the original costs. During the summer, the temperatures soared passed 100 degrees, slowing down productivity. Sadly, a stuntman was killed during production, casting a pall over the shoot. When, the crew suffered from an outbreak of chicken pox, some joked that The Lone Ranger seemed to be cursed.



Thirty years earlier, rumors of a curse swirled around the production The Legend of the Lone Ranger, another attempt to update the story of the Masked Man. Released in 1981 by Universal, Legend cost about $18 million to produce but grossed only $12.6 million. Unknown actor Klinton Spilsbury starred in the title role, which turned out to be the sole big-screen appearance of his “career.” Apparently, Spilsbury fought with everyone during the production of the film—from crew members to residents of New Mexico and Utah, where the film was shot on location. He also clashed with costar Michael Horse, who played Tonto. When Horse was asked to help keep Spilsbury stable and on track, he snorted, “This faithful companion stuff is only in the movie.”

After production was completed, Spilsbury became a public relations nightmare while doing his part to promote the film. A feature on Spilsbury and the movie in Andy Warhol’s notorious Interview magazine claimed the actor was drunk while speaking to Warhol. During the interview, he revealed that he had fathered a child with a wealthy woman, but they lived apart because he needed time to be alone. He also claimed “to be in love with” actors Dennis Christopher and Bud Cort and that he had had a sexual tryst with clothing designer Halston.  (Spilsbury is now a photographer in Los Angeles, according to Variety.)

IF Spilsbury’s behind-the-scene behavior was the post-production scandal for The Legend of the Lone Ranger, then the pre-production outrage was the treatment of Clayton Moore, who had starred as the Masked Man on television during the 1950s. Oil magnate and television mogul Jack Wrather owned the rights to all things Lone Ranger, and he had been allowing Moore to travel around the country and make personal appearances in costume. When the film was announced, Wrather requested Moore to stop touring as the Lone Ranger, but the 64-year-old actor felt proprietary toward the role and refused. Wrather sued, which led to a 1979 verdict in which a judge ordered Moore to remove the mask if he continued to appear in public. While Wrather did indeed own the rights to the character, his decision to sue a beloved America n icon was short-sighted. Not only were Moore’s personal appearances a kind of free publicity for the film, but he could have been part of a clever publicity campaign. Wrather’s hardball tactics were recounted in the press, and the court of public opinion was against him. It wasn’t hard to decide who made the better Lone Ranger: Clayton Moore, who believed in his character as a positive role model, or Klinton Spilsbury, a promiscuous pretty boy. According to Variety, Wrather released the mask to Moore in 1984, and the actor continued to make appearances for several years. I wonder if the bad karma generated over denying Moore the mask—and therefore the identity—of the Lone Ranger has cursed all future interpretations of the story.

loneinpersonHowever, Clayton Moore was not the original Lone Ranger. The character came to life as the protagonist of a radio drama. George Washington Trendle, owner of radio station WXYZ in Detroit, conceived of a dramatic series about a heroic protagonist that would appeal to children.  He and his staff decided it should be a masked man who traveled the Old West crusading for justice. At this point, he brought in writer Francis Striker to work on the series, which debuted on January 31, 1933. Though the program struggled through a slow start, other stations picked it up by the end of the year, until over 400 stations were broadcasting it. The Lone Ranger ran on the radio until August 31, 1955. Several radio actors voiced the character over the years, including Earle Graser, who landed the job in April 1933. Eight years later, he was killed in a car accident. The program’s producers were concerned that his highly recognizable voice would be missed by young fans, who might become confused if they replaced Graser too quickly. They rewrote the storyline so that a wounded Lone Ranger could not speak. For five weeks, he communicated via notes, grunted, and whispered, while Tonto took on the heavy lifting. By the time the booming voice of Brace Beemer took over the role, Graser’s higher-pitched voice was a vague memory. He received little recognition for playing one of America’s most popular characters, and, in retrospect, few know his name. Perhaps that nasty Lone Ranger curse actually preceded Clayton Moore. Moore has become the actor most associated with role. He costarred with Jay Silverheels in the television series from 1949 to 1957.



I recently watched the first episodes of the series, which have been packaged onto a DVD titled Enter the Lone Ranger. Though the acting and dialogue were exaggerated and superficial, I was charmed by the simplicity of the premise and the earnestness of Moore and Silverheels in their roles. (However, Tonto’s English, in which he omits verbs and uses the wrong pronouns, is Hollywood stereotyping at its worse.) Enter the Lone Ranger made me nostalgic for stories in which the protagonist stands for ideals and values and does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Disney stands to lose $190 million on their bloated version of the Lone Ranger legend. Today’s studios and producers are convinced that the high costs of blockbusters are necessary because they believe movie-goers want “eye-popping visuals and elaborate action set pieces they haven’t seen before,” according to Variety. I wonder if the film’s fortunes would have gone differently if Bruckheimer and Verbinski had approached the material with the simplicity of the television series and its focus on the partnership of the two principle characters.



Though Bruckheimer and Verbinski’s Lone Ranger is flawed and overblown, it was not nearly as bad as the scathing reviews suggested. I liked the opening sequence in which a little boy wanders through a carnival against the backdrop of 1930s San Francisco, which is depicted as an economically and morally bankrupt modern era—not unlike our own. In a tent with run-down exhibits, he discovers an elderly Tonto on display. The old Indian recounts his adventures in the Old West, so the story becomes Tonto’s tale to tell. This perspective suggests to the viewer that the story of the Lone Ranger is a legendary hero’s journey handed down from one generation to another—not unlike Verbinski’s movie. And, I was pleased that the film used the origin story from the first season of the television series. Texas Ranger John Reid rides with five other Rangers, including his brother, to capture notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish. But, Reid and the others have been betrayed by an old scout whom they had trusted. The Rangers are ambushed by Cavendish and his ruthless gang, who leave no survivors. Or, so they think. John Reid survives because he is discovered and nursed back to health by the Indian Tonto. Tonto actually gives Reid his identity in the film and the series. As he reasons in the first episode of the series, “You all alone now. You a lone Ranger.” I also appreciated the key role that trains play in the film. Trains are a kind of super-symbol in the western genre because they bring Easterners, who are the representatives of encroaching civilization. Whether they represent progress or corruption, these characters spread the values or ideas that will tame the West, thereby killing it. Unfortunately, there are two elaborate, noisy, frenetic train sequences in The Lone Ranger, and they neutralize each other dramatically. Finally, like Verbinski’s animated western Rango, The Lone Ranger pays homage to the western genre by referencing scenes from classic movies, such as the slaughter of the pioneer family in The Searchers and the elaborate train in Once Upon a Time in the West. Verbinski appreciates the western genre and its legacy as America’s origin story, and I appreciated his efforts to make it come alive for a new generation.



Many Internet reviewers “previewed” The Lone Ranger rather than reviewing it, damning it before it was released. Writers created negative expectations for the film, with reviewers lying in wait for it to flop so they engage in the snarky blather that passes for film reviewing these days. In this climate, a film has to be spectacular to avoid the gauntlet of half-baked jokes and one-liners hurled at most movies. One of the most offensive pieces that I came across on The Lone Ranger not only revealed that the writer had not watched the film he was condemning but that he was proud of the fact that he had no intention of seeing it. Most disheartening was his criticism of Bruckheimer and Verbinski for making a movie based on a character who, according to the writer, was last relevant in 1962. I couldn’t disagree more.  Though I enjoy watching films with anti-heroes and corrupted protagonists, there must be room for stories about characters who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. There must be a Lone Ranger.

27 Responses There Must Be a Lone Ranger
Posted By Gene : September 2, 2013 4:29 pm

Great post. I avoided the Verbinski film like the plague. Several friends saw it and enjoyed it. For me, I have just tired of Johnny Depp’s caricatures. He’s a terrific actor but what he did in (and with) Dark Shadows was disappointing. I perceived his portrayal of Tonto as yet another caricature, and I think there are some who saw it that way as well. Rango, on the other hand, was terrific and I hope Depp and Verbinski pair up again for a film of that caliber. As for The Lone Ranger, sometimes great things of yesteryear just can’t be retooled for today.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 2, 2013 4:45 pm

Gene: You may be right about past characters staying in the past, though sometimes I think if producers consulted pop culture experts and historians instead of marketing people, they might have a better chance of figuring out how to do an updated interpretation.

Posted By AL : September 2, 2013 5:26 pm

An open letter to Johnny Depp: PLEASE stop appearing on TV wearing those trite, ludicrous, contrived “costumes”–you’ve become a fool; a fatuous clown–you’re Johnny Fucking Depp fer chrissakes! A shirt & a pair of pants will do. We forgive you for wasting the prime of your career on those sappy pirate movies because they’ve made you a millionaire, making it possible for you to own your own private island, a yacht, etc. And PLEASE, before it’s too late: shave all the hair off your beautiful face, comb your hair, put on a plain shirt and have some unaffected portraits taken…

Posted By Peter Denman : September 2, 2013 7:25 pm

I appreciate the thought about there being room for characters who do the right thing. In trying to update classic stories and characters, movie makers often seem to fail to understand what made them appealing in the first place. The Lone Ranger was about an unusual partnership which existed to help others who were in trouble. Stories about friendship and helping others are always going to appeal if they are well told. A successful update might’ve worked if they’d have kept that premise along with a reasonable update of the Native American character so that the partnership/friendship was truly that. It’s too bad that so many have come to think that ‘eye-popping visuals’ are a requirement. The capability to create them is useful only as far as necessary to tell the story. If the story is well told, people will enjoy it.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 2, 2013 7:47 pm

Peter: Well said. I agree. Given the number of big-budget flops this summer, with their eye-popping visuals, you would think the studio execs would learn that story is superior to cgi. Even if they do, there are many similar blockbusters already in the pipeline and in production. It would be like stopping a juggernaut. So, I suspect we will be plagued with them for some time. In the meantime, the art of Hollywood storytelling continues to decline.

Posted By Michael Laws : September 2, 2013 7:59 pm

Susan – While I agree that there needs to be a place in today’s films for “stories about characters who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do”, and that there were a lot (well, at least some) things that the movie got right, my biggest problem was simply that the characters that we saw on the screen were not The Lone Ranger and Tonto. As a matter of fact, I actually thought there was a pretty good western underneath all of the semi-mystical clap-trap that Verbinski threw into the film. And that western has already been made – it’s called The Great Train Robbery.

From the time I left the theater, my main response to people who have asked me about it has been “I really kind of liked it, except for the parts that had The Lone Ranger and Tonto in them”. I even thought Armie Hammer was doing a good job until he actually put on the mask. From that point on, however, it simply seemed like the film-makers couldn’t decide who these characters were and what kind of film they really wanted to make. Add to that overblown special effects and cgi moments that take one completely out of the film, and, well…

Yeah, this is one of those movies that I really could go on about for a long time, but my biggest concern is that this movie has “poisoned the well” for a true updated Lone Ranger movie, which I would still love to see.

Posted By DBenson : September 2, 2013 8:13 pm

Another film I would have liked more if it wasn’t so danged big.

The real Lone Ranger was all about struggling to bring civilization — defined as decent, upright behavior and values — to a sparsely populated West, a land undeveloped in every way. The villains were thugs who liked might-makes-right lawlessness. It was a world of small towns, isolated homesteads and just maybe a railroad, the weak and uncertain beginnings of communities. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were trying to lead this place out of anarchy towards the American ideal, backed by nothing more that their own moral strength and whatever they could awaken in the people they met. You could see the appeal to kids, struggling with right versus might in the playground and schoolyard.

Both the Wrather spin-off movies prominently featured anti-Indian racism. They could be heavy-handed and condescending, but bigotry was clearly identified as an enemy of all good Americans, and it was a tool used by oily landgrabbers and rustlers. Seeing Tonto almost lynched, or watching decent folk finally turn their backs on a frankly racist sheriff . . . always wondered if they took any heat for that message in the 50s.

Both the later movies inflated the outlaws into supervillains, turned the West into Gotham City with cacti and made trains as common as New York taxis. You lost the story of the masked man helping a newborn country find its soul. He became just another crimefighter in a crowded human environment. The prisoner train chugging across a wasteland; the posse dwarfed by the vast, unspoiled landscape — there wasn’t enough of that world.

I’ll credit Disney’s version with some excellent ideas, but they got lost in the impossible stunts, outsized train chases and big explosions. And while I guess we should be grateful the rumored werewolves were cut, did they have to leave the bloodthirsty bunnies?

Posted By The Mutt : September 2, 2013 8:23 pm

Spilsbury”s performance was so bad that all of his dialog was redubbed by James Keach.

Posted By Gene : September 2, 2013 9:24 pm

Susan: I completely agree that the marketers are a big problem but Hollywood doesn’t apparently get that. Maybe someday The Lone Ranger will be given its proper comeback.

As to story, I agree there wholeheartedly. Substance before style. Judging by many I know, though, they live for the CGI and really don’t get this thing called “story” or character development. To be fair to Hollywood, they are simply giving the audience what they ask for. Again, the “Marketeers”.

Posted By Marco : September 2, 2013 9:59 pm

This is just another example of wasted talent and money by Hollywood spendthrifts. Remember “Pearl Harbor”: not the sneak attack— the incredibly stupid, historically inaccurate, waste of money produced by the same Jerry Bruckheimer who foisted this wreckage on moviegoers. It does not matter how much these dogs cost, the DVD sales during the next hundred years will return a billion dollars to the studios that are writing off these losers here in the USA and booking the profits offshore. I do not bother seeing these turkeys in theaters and I don’t watch them on the television. I just thank TCM for providing me with thousands of movies that the current crop of clowns inhabiting Hollywood couldn’t match if they actually tried to make a great movie.

Posted By Lisa W. : September 2, 2013 10:10 pm

Excellent post and beautiful point made in that perhaps focusing on the partnership would have made for a more successful picture. I find it interesting that the comments above all seem to be in agreement that the story is elemental and so compelling as to how the Lone Ranger comes into being and what he represents. I love your point comparing the 30s era to now and feel that we could use a well-told Lone Ranger story right about now. Too bad the opportunity was missed: it sounds like the right thing was NOT done by this icon.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 2, 2013 10:53 pm

Great comments, everyone. They are similar to those I get in some of my film classes, where many are fed up with overblown blockbusters that ignore or muddle the story and ignore character development.

I don’t know why Hollywood insists on ignoring the tastes and desires of groups other than their all-mighty demographic of adolescent boys who are still entertained by endless exploding vehicles.

Posted By Arthur : September 3, 2013 10:05 am

Thanks for the backstory on the Lone Ranger. I watched it as a child and was enthralled. . . The notion that a movie must have eye-popping visuals means ever more deadly, spectacular stunts that often leave the viewer jaded. Take the recent James Bond movies for example. . . BTW if I am not mistaken Jay Silverheels played the Native American in Key Largo.

Posted By robbushblog : September 3, 2013 10:36 am

I had been waiting for a new Lone Ranger movie for years. I grew up as a big Lone Ranger fan even though I was born in 1974. I was burned by the 1981 movie because it was just so darn awful and was hoping it would be done right. Then, they cast Johnny Depp as Tonto and chose Gore Verbinski to direct. My heart sank.

Then I heard about the werewolves and I got mad. Budget cuts forced them to remove the werewolves, so it could have been worse, I guess. I decided to wait to see who they cast as the Ranger and to see how everything looked. Armie Hammer was bland, yet inoffensive. Then however, they showed pictures of Johnny Depp, who claims to possibly be of partial Cherokee descent, in his costume as Tonto. WTH?

Then I finally saw a trailer. That was what really, finally convinced me to not see the movie. It was nothing like THE Lone Ranger. I don’t typically have a problem with big summer blockbusters overall (Although this summer was a good argument against them), but I could tell that the Ranger was not being served well by that bloated nonsense. Just the few scenes in the trailer made both characters appear to have very little dignity and showed little respect for the ways of the Lone Ranger. There is nothing wrong with being heroic, honest, trustworthy and other such ideals. They certainly didn’t need to be lampooned by using characters who fully represented them to a few generations. To today’s Hollywood, anything old or old-fashioned needs to be made fun of. This time, for me, they crossed the line.

Posted By J R Nichols : September 3, 2013 12:02 pm

I attended a focus group prior to release of Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981. NOBODY in my group liked anything about how the movie was to be promoted. It was interesting that this honest reaction was not one those running the focus group were prepared to accept. They managed to browbeat some into moderating their opinions so a positive report could be given to the studio. I am sure mine was not the only focus group but if those holding it were typical, the studio was being fed bad intel on what people thought of the mere notion of the film.

Posted By LD : September 3, 2013 12:26 pm

Childhood in the 1950′s would not have been the same without The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Silver, Scout and the William Tell Overture. Thanks for triggering the nostalgia.

Posted By Doug : September 3, 2013 4:40 pm

I still have no interest in this movie-the first images of Depp as Tonto made it look like another of his own personal Halloweens.
Forgive the reposting of old info, but Fran Striker is thought to have based “The Lone Ranger” on Bass Reeves, a former slave who joined the US Marshals:
His life would make a good movie.
Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” had basically the same origin story, and one of the saddest misfires of a movie in the past few years.
The Lone Ranger, as noted above, stood for justice, embodying a strong moral code. That is the element which I think touches audiences, and makes these heroes timeless.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 3, 2013 4:56 pm

Doug: OMG! I am thrilled that you mentioned Bass Reeves. His story would definitely make a good western. Back in the day, I was an editor for a trade publisher, and we did a series of coffee-table books on the Wild West. The one I organized and edited was called Legends of the Wild West, and Bass Reeves was in the Lawmen chapter.

On another note, Depp took a lot of criticism for his makeup, which he designed with the help of a makeup artist. However, they must have done their research, because I was watching a PBS documentary on Lewis & Clark, and they used later photos of Native Americans from the various tribes that L&C encountered. One of the Indians had his face painted in thickly caked-on vertical black and white stripes, like Depp’s. I was surprised to realize hat his makeup was so close in concept to an actual tribe. I wish I had written it down.

Don’t know about the bird on the head, though. I have heard rumors that it was also based on fact, but I can’t verify that.

Posted By Arthur : September 3, 2013 4:57 pm

Doug, thanks for the link! Very informative. Knowing that the prototype was named Reeves, and what happened to the Reeves and the Reeve, who played Superman ties in to the idea of there being a jinx.

Posted By Marco : September 3, 2013 7:10 pm

I always believed that the Lone Ranger and his trusty Indian sidekick were located in the American Southwest. There were only two places that had lawmen that were organized as Rangers: Texas and Arizona. None of the Indian tribes that ever engaged either the Texas Rangers or the Arizona Rangers looked anything like the Indians that Lewis and Clark encountered on their famous journey of exploration to the Pacific. All of the criticism that Depp took for his makeup was completely justified from those who were hoping for an authentic look for this movie. They lost me when I saw Depp’s farcical getup. It was obviously going to be Jack Sparrow meets Tonto and a complete waste of money to pay to sit through this mess. I still remember when Marlon Brando’s phony Irish accent derailed “The Missouri Breaks” and ruined what could have been a great Western. In twenty or forty years, the new breed of suits in Hollywood will run out of ideas and decide to remake “The Lone Ranger” one more time. If you want to watch an honest Western with believable characters, catch “Appaloosa” on cable. It has so many things going for it, including authentic period clothing, firearms, and attitudes—and it only cost around $20 million. Movies like “Unforgiven” and “Appaloosa” show that modern, adult Westerns can still find an audience without costing $150 million.

Posted By phil : September 4, 2013 11:27 pm

I sort of enjoyed it. The character of the Lone Ranger himself was wrong, he was some sort of wimp instead of a real hero. Tonto was quite funny. The outdoor shots and the parts when they played the William Tell overture where great fun. So there you have it. It was fun, I enjoyed it and some parts bothered me quite a bit. I’ve seen a lot or worse movies. I would say its worth seeing at the discount theater.

Posted By swac44 : September 5, 2013 10:57 pm

I don’t know about you guys, but I have this insane craving for some Geno’s Pizza Rolls.

Posted By robbushblog : September 6, 2013 9:36 am

Ha ha! That was a great commercial. Totally bizarre.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : September 6, 2013 11:07 am

Clinton Spilsbury’s voice was actually dubbed because he sounded like he was reading the phone book,just totally bland and without any emotion,when i read that they were re-making that famous dud the phrase “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” came to mind

Posted By john a smith : September 7, 2013 4:19 pm

Back in the 1940s I listened to The Lone Ranger on the radio. I saw the two serials The Lone Ranger and The Lone Ranger Rides Again. I always had a fond remembrance of him! This movie is a travesty. I hope it disappears and is soon forgotten. Cue the William Tell Overture ” Hi Yo Silver Away!”

Posted By Susan : September 8, 2013 10:01 pm

Strange. The both times I saw the film everyone watching seemed to be very pleased, including myself. Considering I went in with bad reviews on my mind and not being a big fan of classic remakes, I thought the movie was far better than most coming out of Hollywood these days. My bet is it does great on DVD sales and rentals. Everyone in our party liked it, go figure.

Posted By Juana Maria : November 18, 2013 10:01 pm

Didn’t read everything. Haven’t seen film. Was invited to go with aunt. Never did. I liked the old show. I had a crush on Jay Silverheels. (sigh) I just loved seeing a handsome native every week. Johnny Depp is Native too,part Cherokee. Like me! However, I don’t think he is doing our people justice with that buffoonish costume. Stick with silly pirate movies and stuff for that crazy Tim Burton.

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