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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013

The many stories behind ‘The Lone Ranger’

Who Was That Masked Man?

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While Michael Singer’s book is obviously related to the recent box office failure The Lone Ranger and has sections devoted to the movie’s creation, The Lone Ranger Behind the Mask: On the Trail of an Outlaw Epic (Insight Editions) is more than a film tie-in coffee table book. It’s a history of the mythic character as well as a convincing text on America’s romance with the Old West.

The movie’s failure does not become clear in any reviews this author has read, for the critics focused on the film as a summer action movie and not on what The Lone Ranger is actually depicting: genocide.

Johnny Depp contributes an afterward to Singer’s book, explicating what the movie intended: “What drove me to take the role [of Tonto] was to be able to serve…all Indian nations,” he explains, “exploiting the spotlight that my curious profession affords.”

Depp’s Tonto is a broken man seeking revenge and a salvation that will not come. He is the main character in The Lone Ranger, not the white man on the white horse.

The Lone Ranger: Behind The Mask recounts the story’s origins in 1933 as well as the incumbent delight generations have experienced through a persona who could have stepped out of a murder ballad. The paradox of looking like an outlaw but not being one is one of America’s primary cultural vectors. The radio series made its 1933 debut on WXYZ in Detroit, written by Fran Striker and directed by James Jewel, who helmed every program through 1938, by which time it was a national phenomenon. Tonto was introduced in episode 11 and was present throughout the 2,956 radio episodes.

The Lone Ranger moved to television on ABC in 1949 and ran until 1957. It inspired four theatrical feature films and countless comic books, works of fiction and, recently, graphic novels. But not until Michael Singer’s text has the history been assembled with a cultural perspective revealing the grim reality staring at us from behind the mask. Prior to this summer’s movie, Indians had virtually no existence in the Lone Ranger saga and Tonto was merely an exotic sidekick to the western hero—Gabby Hayes with a headband and a feather. In this sense, the Lone Ranger played into the myth that North America was essentially an empty continent ripe for settlement, with indigenous people as insignificant stragglers with little claim to the lands from which they were displaced. Tonto was nothing more than the mute witness to the destruction of a way of life.

In Depp’s hands, Tonto has agency and, at long last, a tribal identity as a member of the Comanche Nation desperately trying to preserve his people’s traditions. “Unfortunately, we’re living in a time where the Comanche people have fewer traditionally knowledgeable people…” Singer underlines. This brings the genocidal history into a commanding prominence, and while Singer writes a book that is parallel to a movie, he also helps complete the movie’s historical portrayal of America’s fascination with that which it has murdered. 

Viewers of Depp’s movie obviously did not “watch closely,” so readers of Singer’s book should read closer. We have a brilliant, second opportunity in print to get the right take on the tale that has finally taken a proper turn.

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