Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale

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by Tony Dayoub
July 9, 2013 8:35 AM
2 Comments
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As The Lone Ranger shifts from the point of view of its hero, John Reid (Armie Hammer), to the first-person narrative of his Indian sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), the tired pulp story becomes a postmodern picaresque. A type of story with a long literary tradition but seldom seen on film, a picaresque is usually episodic in nature, a fact that contributes to what many perceive is the messiness of The Lone Ranger. Tonto exemplifies the typical picaresque hero (or picaro), noble in intentions but misguided and perhaps even unreliable in his perception of the events in which he is usually at the center. Like Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, this film begins with a rather decrepit Indian as a dubious storyteller, spinning a yarn full of non-sequiturs and magical realism that both uncomfortably overlap with heinous atrocities in order to subvert the typical white victor's perspective of the American western. The first appearance of Depp, made up to look a hundred-odd years old, is itself a metatextual reference to Little Big Man’s protagonist, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). Crabb is a white man raised by the Cheyenne who encounters famous figures like Wild Bill Hickok and George Armstrong Custer (who, in The Lone Ranger, finds his own visual parallel in a cavalry officer played by Barry Pepper), just before their grand, untimely ends. 

Tonto’s pseudo-mysticism is one exaggeration highlighted in his narration, later revealed to Reid by his sidekick’s own people as the mad ravings of a fool. But Tonto’s skewed imaginings serve to leaven the social commentary with humor as is typical in other picaresques like Don Quixote. A dark flashback showing the extermination of Tonto’s tribe by plundering strip-miners backs up against a hallucinatory image of the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver standing comfortably at the tip of a branch of a tall tree. “There’s something very wrong with that horse,” says Tonto, an odd laugh line at that point of his story. But isn’t it also a bit of humor meant to both mitigate the horror that precedes it as well as heighten it in sharp relief? It certainly inspires Reid to take the role Tonto has bestowed on him more seriously than he does initially, if for no other reason than he fears the crackpot may not be up to the task.

Still, Reid is more of a milquetoast here than in any previous iteration of the Lone Ranger character. Consequently, Tonto becomes a tragic hero looking for redemption. He is indirectly responsible for the genocide of his own people, but he strives to make amends by stymieing the advance of the railroad (and attendant whites) into Indian lands, ultimately with no success. This the film makes clear even before the story proper starts. Our introduction to the wizened, old Tonto is in a travelling circus sideshow display behind a racially charged nameplate that reads "The Noble Savage." Even Tonto's name, as alluded to when Reid asks him if he knows what it means in Spanish, befits that of the typical picaro. "Tonto" is Spanish for "idiot,” an apt description for other picaresque heroes such as Redmond Barry Lyndon or Forrest Gump.

Much of the gleeful critical piling-on directed at The Lone Ranger is conflated with politically correct hand-wringing, involving Hollywood's depiction of Indians and the casting of Depp to play the Masked Man's Indian sidekick, Tonto. One camp is offended by the very existence of Tonto, a mishmash of Hollywood's stereotypes of indigenous people. Of Depp’s performance, Mark Dujsik says, “…speaking in broken English and gratuitously mugging for the camera—perhaps it's for the best that a Native American actor has been spared the indignity of the role…” Another sillier group's outrage seems to stem from nostalgia for the television Tonto they grew up with. Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci says “… The Lone Ranger is a movie that seems to be embarrassed of its own source material…. Unwilling to just degrade The Lone Ranger himself by making him a buffoon, the movie also makes Tonto a gibbering lunatic.…”

Critics are insulted that Depp, whose claims of Indian ancestry are remote if not entirely questionable, was cast as a quite evidently made-up Indian icon. However, before the previous 1981 disaster, only one Indian actor had ever played Tonto, TV's Jay Silverheels (a Canadian Mohawk whose real name was Harold J. Smith). Silverheels did his best to imbue a character that was basically an expository soundboard with elements of his own heritage in order to position the character as a hero his people could look up to. But at his foundation, Tonto is still a thin character. Being upset that the mutable Depp is playing Tonto is like feeling insulted that British chameleon Peter Sellers played the faux-French Inspector Clouseau.

Depp's performance as Tonto is a memorable tragicomic creation, made perfectly viable by the framing device utilized by director Gore Verbinski to tell the movie's story. Indeed, when seen as a picaresque told by an anti-establishment fool, it becomes clearer that Depp and Verbinski are not only not denigrating the Indians; by rehabilitating the subservient character of Tonto, they are elevating the Indian people to their rightful place as the central figures of the story of the American West. As if to bear out this idea, Verbinski offers us, as the final credits roll, an elegiac, silent crane shot of Depp's aged Tonto shuffling off into the sunset, not in his stereotypical buckskin but his titular partner's now-threadbare black outfit. He has become the hero of his own tale.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Wide Screen, Opposing Views and Blogcritics.org. Follow him on Twitter.

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2 Comments

  • zig misiak | August 5, 2013 10:38 PMReply

    I think Depps portrayal will in the long term prove an icebreaker within and outside the Native community. Depp's interpretation is not that far out of line with historical documentation as far as his appearance is concerned. I just launched the 1st documentary of Jay Silverheels ever written TONTO: The Man in Front of the Mask and you have to know the original TV version to make an informed decision. (realpeopleshistory.com) People are nervous about Native/First Nations comedy and humour even though there have been excellent movies in the past with Native actors like Farmer. I think one of the biggest issues is that Depp's Sparrow character came on in his Tonto character. I think Depp's intent was good and there are a few forgivable 'costuming' errors but its not a historic documentary its an old 'character' being portrayed as a 'new character'. Baby boomers take a look a Superman and Batman; then and now. I think Jay would have liked to have played the 'new' Tonto. I think Jay would have enjoyed showing people that Natives have a 'great' sense of humour and one way to educate is through respectful humour which I think the new Lone Ranger. Is ........ its entertaining with no malice intended. Read my book.

  • Lisa Nesselson | July 9, 2013 5:26 PMReply

    This is a smart take on a movie that has a lot going for it as entertainment and as (light) food-for-thought.

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