There’s an old joke, apparently drawn from a 1958 issue of MAD magazine, that goes something like this: The Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding across the plains when they see a group of Indians in full warpaint galloping toward them, tomahawks at the ready. The Lone Ranger digs in his heels and says to his faithful companion, “Well, Tonto old friend, looks like they’ve got us surrounded.” Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
It’s a great gag, one that’s been repurposed thousands of ways since, but always with the same subtext: Alliances are rarely as unbreakable as they appear to the unwary, and last only so long as they’re useful to all parties. What it also tells us is that more than half a century ago, the relationship between the iconic Western lawman and his Native American sidekick was already being called into question. Why would an Indian — at this point, there is no distinction between tribes — side with a white man, especially in a part of the country where the rest of his race was being systematically wiped out?
The Lone Ranger provides an answer, of sorts. Johnny Depp’s Tonto, rather than the solemn mystic of past incarnations, is an outcast from his tribe, driven mad, or at least to the outskirts of eccentricity, by his inadvertent betrayal of his fellow Comanche. (Spoilers through the end of this paragraph.) It’s revealed that he is the one responsible for guiding the movie’s villains to a vast deposit of silver, which the bad guys lay claim to by massacring Tonto’s people. After a U.S. Army commander plainly modeled on George Custer gives the word, his men crank up their machine guns and mow down the defenseless Comanche, who have never broken the peace treaty they signed. (End Spoilers.)
To the movie’s defenders, this vision of American treachery, which reenacts the genocide of the continent’s native peoples in miniature, is proof that the movie is a subversive historical critique in the guise of a summer entertainment, one that further depicts its supposed hero as a bumbling buffoon who’s only given the courage to act through Tonto’s encouragement.
In theory, it’s a tantalizing idea, and there’s no doubt that’s how Verbinski and his writers would like the movie to be read. But it’s hard to square any reading of The Lone Ranger as a serious, even half-serious, critique of American colonialism with the rest of the movie, whose relationship to history is cavalier at best.
For one thing, it’s riddled with anachronisms, in a manner less suggestive of purposeful criticism than mere carelessness. The script is riddled with lazy action-movie catchphrases that barely date back to the 20th century, let alone the 19th: As they ride into battle, the Lone Ranger quips, “Let’s do this”; later, Tonto drawls, “Not so much.” When they bluff their way into a whorehouse in search of scarfaced villain Butch Cavendish, Armie Hammer’s masked man mutters something about them being health code inspectors and an unsavory jar of pickles. Tonto quips, “Not refrigerated.”
Does it matter that there was likely no health code, let alone refrigeration, in the Texas of 1869, or that we later see a child playing with an electric train set, years before such toys or the electricity to power them were commonplace? Given that the movie presents itself, for the most part, as an antic action comedy, not really. But it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept it when the film brushes up against the systematic extermination of an entire people — a sequence that, as several critics have pointed out, pays off with a gag about a horse in a tree.
The Cherokee blogger Adrienne K. has a fascinating post on the subject at Native Appropriations, which reads in part:
They slaughter an entire tribe of Natives, and there is no discussion. Just an awkward joke and a cut to the next scene. What?
Over and above Depp’s performance, which the critic Tom Carson unfavorably compared to the notoriously racist caricatures of Stepin Fetchit, it’s the way The Lone Ranger deals with its actual Indians that’s the most troubling, and the hardest to swallow.
Read more: I saw The Lone Ranger so you don’t have to