Summary: Hollywood projects our dreams and fears on the big screen. Studying films gives us perspective on ourselves.. Today we look at “The Lone Ranger”.
“The Lone Ranger” is a powerful movie whose incoherence reveals much about America.
First, it shows (as do so many movies) our discomfort with heroes. Rather than make a straightforward movie about heroes, “The Lone Ranger”, like “The Green Hornet” (2011) shows its ambivalence about heroism by staging the protagonist as a buffoon whose assistant is what Spike Lee calls the “Magical Negro” (see Wikipedia) whose skills get the white boy hero out of trouble. We get to enjoy our heroes while simultaneously mocking it.
A people who make war on the weak — such as night raids on homes by heavily armed special operations forces, or kill from the sky by drones — has little interest in heroes. A people who disgrace their heritage by allowing the Constitution to die on their watch has little interest in heroes. Heroes become problematic, best handled as comedy or cartoons.
Second, and more important, “The Lone Ranger” is history pretending to be comedy. It’s one of the most accurate movies about the Old West I recall. It shows the cavalry helps the rich and slaughters the Indians — the greedy evil rich entrepreneur, trampling any in their path — the screaming crowds seeking to lynch an Indian — the general atmosphere of desperation — and the horrific dilemma this created for anyone attempt to do the right thing.
The traditional western hides this by either
- inverts the actual history (e.g., John Wayne’s 1970 “Chisum”; in the real Lincoln Country War the cavalry arrived to help the bad guys win), or
- airbrushes it into pretty poetry (eg, John Ford’s cavalry trilogy.
More than a century has passed since the closing of the western frontier, yet we still cannot look at it with open eyes. The pervasive injustice, the brutal suppression of Indians, blacks and workers, the might-makes-right ethos, the crushing of our small merchants and farmers, the concentration of wealth — it was a maelstrom of hatred and fear. Rather than confront our past and rejoice that we evolved beyond it, we construct and esteem a faux history of the west.
That’s bad since losing touch with our past weakens us. Now that might be changing.
Court jesters were able to speak unspeakable truths to medieval Kings; today films do the same for us. Laughing at the horror of our past is the first step to recovering it. Perhaps this is our “Hogan’s Heroes”, the 1960’s TV show popular in Germany during the 1990s — part of their rediscovery of the truth about the widespread involvement of the German people in the WW2 war crimes.
Perhaps we too can come to terms with our past, and better appreciate how far we have come from those dark dark days of the mid- and late-1800s. When that happens this will be a stronger America.
For More Information
See Locke Peterseim’s review of this movie: “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
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11 thoughts on “The Lone Ranger tells us about America”
Erratum: for “Nego” read “Negro.”
Fixed! Thanks for catching.
Query: “by allowing the Constitution on their watch”
Suggestion: “by allowing the Constitution to be dismantled on their watch”
Fixed. Thanks for catching this.
I wrote this quickly after seeing the movie, in a few hours between family engagements. It is not polished or well-expressed, but probably gets the message across.
This is a good point when you write:
“More than a century has passed since the closing of the western frontier, yet we still cannot look at it with open eyes. The pervasive injustice, the brutal suppression of Indians, blacks and workers, the might-makes-right ethos, the crushing of our small merchants and farmers, the concentration of wealth — it was a maelstrom of hatred and fear. Rather than confront our past and rejoice that we evolved beyond it, we construct and esteem a faux history of the west.”
Of course, Mel Brooks satirizes all of these injustices in his clever “Blazing Saddles.” You acknowledge the role of the satirist when you write: “Court jesters were able to speak unspeakable truths to medieval Kings; today films do the same for us. Laughing at the horror of our past is the first step to recovering it.”
Most people only remember “Blazing saddles”for its “bean farting scene” around the campfire, when the real substance is with Brooks showing the evil pols and businessmen exploiting Black and Chinese labor in the face of the ignorant white townspeople. Brooks gives the solution to these problems, as all good satire does, by having the townspeople agree to let everyone in and have a chance at a just life, even the Irish! In fact, Brooks defends the “other” and mocks the injustice of prejudice and exclusion in many of his other movies, where his villains resemble real historical bad guys.
A bigger issue here is the use of “shock effect” in modern culture, which:
1) Grabs immediate attention, and
2) Evinces an immediate visceral, not rational, response.
If you add “shock effect” to the trivialization you speak of, you end up with, not “Blazing Saddles,” but “Family Guy,” which is mean-spirited, misogynistic and lacks any real substance. “Family Guy” may provide some form of catharsis after a long day at a stressful job, but other than trivial escapism, it stands for nothing.
Ultimately, it is easier to go the “Family Guy” route and guffaw emotionally than it does to go the Mel Brooks route, which actually requires some rigor in knowing about history, real life and solutions through public policy.
Brilliant comparison,worth some thought.
Mel Brooks points to these injustices, but in such a light way that its easy to miss the message. I did (note: not a Mel Brooks fan).
The Lone Ranger pours cold sweet syrup on these evil and throws in it our faces. What can we do but laugh?
There is a rich western populist tradition critical of historical myth. John Wesley Powell. Aldo Leopold. Wallace Stegner. Wendell Berry. Ken Keysey.
“Sometimes a Great Notion” — excerpt:
The bibliography alone is probably a trove of references to western labor agitation.
Anthony Lukas’ Big Trouble, review By Sean Wilentz, Slate, 1 Oct 1997
An extraordinary western, Kirk Douglas’ best movie, based on a book by another great western writer , Edward Abbey, father of the eco-terrorism movement.
“Lonely Are the Brave” (1962)
Book: The Brave Cowboy (1956) — excerpt:
And of course Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 gritty western, Unforgiven, with the classic corrupt, cruel, sociopathic Sheriff played masterfully by Gene Hackman.
Not to mention Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic “Dances With Wolves”, which details the genocidal racism of the US Army and larger white society.
Good point to ask us all to remember history. I highly recommend the work of Forrest Carter. He wrote “The Education of Little Tree”, “Gone to Texas”, “The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales”, and “Watch for Me on the Mountain”. His heroes would be the villains in the mainstream media of the 1950’s and 60s. It is more a history of the people rather than an anthem of empire.
Thanks for the recommendations!