Movie Review: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)
WARNING: HI-YO SPOILERS
According to the press kit, “Klinton Spilsbury comes to the role with no acting experience whatsoever.” And he leaves in the same pristine fashion.
--from Bob Lundegaard’s review of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” Mpls. Star-Tribune, 1981
The above line, written by my father, is one of the greatest cuts I’ve ever read. But now that I’ve actually seen the movie, 31 years later, I wonder if everyone wasn’t a bit hard on Mr. Spilsbury.
Yes, he was awful. But he didn’t direct “The Legend of the Lone Ranger”: William Fraker, who would go on to direct many TV movies and TV series, did. Spilsbury didn’t photograph it, either, in the washed-out, grainy fashion of 1970s movies: László Kovács did that, and by the time of his death in 2007 he was a legendary, beloved cinematographer. Spilsbury didn’t write the horrible lines he says—credit four screenwriters, all of whom kept working—and he didn’t even say the horrible lines he says, since his voice was dubbed, replaced, with the flat line-readings of James Keach, Stacy’s brother, who would not only keep working in the industry but eventually marry actress Jane Seymour, she of the crooked, sexy smile, which is the type of fringe benefit only Hollywood can offer.
What about composer John Barry? There’s an early scene where recent law-school grad John Reid (Spilsbury) is on a stagecoach to Del Rio, Texas, with a few other stock characters, and the coach gets attacked by bandits. The driver tries to outrun them while his second, the shotgun messenger, exchanges gunfire with the bad guys. One of the stock characters, the grumpy one, cries with alarm, “He’s going to get us all killed!,” at which point we get a distant shot of the chase: beautiful sandstone buttes dominating the background, while in the foreground, careering down a dusty path, pursued, comes the stagecoach. And on the soundtrack? Something like the opening theme to “Big Valley” or “Bonanza.” It’s expansive, generic western music rather than, you know, chase music.
How about Merle Haggard? Or do we blame John Barry for this, too? Or William Fraker or one of the screenwriters or some doofus studio-head at Universal Pictures? Exactly who came up with the idea that throughout the movie we’d get the story-song of the Lone Ranger, sung and told, but mostly told, by Haggard, with lyrics from Dean Pitchford, who at this point was mostly known for writing the theme music to the weekly lip-synch fest “Solid Gold.” Who thought these words were good words?
The legend started simply
Just a boy without a home
Taken in by Indians
But still pretty much alone
He had to struggle with strange customs
And his own fears from within
He learned the wisdom of the forest
He learned the ways of the wind
On that last line, by the way, Haggard draws out the word “ways”: He learned the waaayyys of the wind. Yeah.
But Haggard prospered. And that year Pitchford won an Oscar for writing the song “Fame.” A few years later, he would be nominated for “Footloose,” and a few years after that for “After All” from the movie “Chances Are.” People still come to him for work.
Casting directors? Except Jane Feinberg and Mike Fenton also cast “Godfather Part II,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Breaking Away,” among other acclaimed movies, so they seemed to know what they were doing. Their credit right before “The Lone Ranger” is the TV miniseries “East of Eden,” with the aforementioned Ms. Seymour, and an up-and-comer, Hart Bochner, as Aron Trask. Bochner also played the dickish fratboy in “Breaking Away.” He was tall, dark and handsome, and athletic, and he had a firm jawline and was only 24 years old. Hello? Or did someone feel the Lone Ranger had to be a complete unknown—as Christopher Reeve had been in “Superman: The Movie”?
Jesus, how about Michael Horse? In the beginning of the film, a young Tonto is chased by bandits and saved by a young John Reid, whose parents are subsequently killed by the bandits, and who then spends several months among the Indians before his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry), arrives to send him to his aunt’s home in Detroit. (Detroit? The Lone Ranger was raised in Detroit?) As they part, Tonto calls him kemo sabe, trusted friend, and gives him an amulet necklace. Cut to: a few decades later when an adult Tonto, now Michael Horse, happens upon a massacre of Texas Rangers in Bryant’s Gap. He checks to see if any of these white men are still alive. Hey, one is. Hey, he seems familiar. Hey, here’s that amulet necklace I gave that kid who saved my life so long ago. My kemo sabe. And what look passes over Tonto’s face at this incredible moment? A small smile. No real concern. No real anything. It’s as if he’s looking through a photo album, rather than at the bloodied, barely alive face of his childhood friend.
This was Horse’s first role, as it was Spilsbury’s, but Horse now has 68 credits, including the TV series “Twin Peaks,” while Klinton Spilsbury has ... one. Just “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” He appeared out of nowhere and disappeared into László Kovács’ washed-out, grainy sunset. He did this movie and took the blame and we never saw him again.
Who was that dubbed man?
The revenge of Clayton Moore
Success may have many authors while failure is an orphan, but the massive failure of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” was given a single father, Spilsbury, who hardly acted alone. Or lone.
Was it the goofy name? Was he an ass on the set? I’ve read there was a fistfight or something. Was he gay? I’ve read that, too. There are rumors that his voice was too high and girlish—that’s why the dubbing—but he seems to deny it in this AP piece from 1981. “They wouldn’t have hired me if they hadn’t liked my voice,” he says. Some truth there. And surely his voice couldn’t have been much worse than the nothing line-readings of James Keach.
Was it the Clayton Moore controversy? Moore, a former stuntman, was the most famous Lone Ranger of them all, having played the character on radio and for most of the long-running 1950s TV series. And he didn’t stop. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, he made commercial appearances as the Lone Ranger. He dug it. But in 1975, the Wrather Corp., which owned the copyright on the masked man, was looking to create a movie, this movie, and didn’t want the public confusing the old and the new, so it sued Moore to get him to hang up his mask. He refused but lost at the trial-court level. The verdict pissed off everyone. A corporation has done what no villain could do: It made the Lone Ranger take off his mask! The mojo was awful, the vibes shitty, and all the fans never bothered to show up for the usurper. The reviews were rightly devastating. The movie was supposed to be big, “Superman” big, but it grossed only $12 million, the equivalent of $35 million today, and $122 million shy of “Superman”’s 1978 take.
El bombo. El stinko. Who to blame? Hey, pretty boy’s got a funny name. Plus he was so mean to that Clayton Moore. Remember?
Of silver bullets and kemo sabes
Let’s talk updates. The Lone Ranger was created in 1933 by Fran Striker and George W. Trendler, for WXYZ radio, Detroit (ah, that’s why Detroit), but you need to update this shit. A lot of cultural changes in those 50 years. In “Superman: The Movie,” for example, they made the “S” on Supes’ chest his Kryptonian family crest, which just happens to look like our “S,” and which allows Lois Lane, that giddy, cynical schoolgirl, to name him Superman. That’s smart. That’s a good update.
So what kind of updates do screenwriter Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Michael Kane, and William Roberts give “The Legend of the Lone Ranger”? How about the silver bullet? Why did this guy start using silver bullets anyway?
Well, after Tonto rescues Reid from Bryant’s Gap and restores him to health, Reid—a lawyer in this version rather than a lawman—is attempting target practice. He misses and the Indian kids laugh at him. So Tonto hands him a silver bullet. “Silver is pure,” Tonto says. “It’s a symbol of justice and purity since the year of the sun.” And sure enough, boom, Reid hits the target dead center.
Which means the Lone Ranger uses silver bullets ... because he’s actually a lousy shot.
The mask? It doesn’t make much sense if Reid’s a lawyer instead of a Texas Ranger, does it? What’s he hiding? That Butch Cavendish didn’t kill him? Does Butch even know he was there? And why not “The Lone Lawyer?” “The Lone Ranger” feels like false advertising here. Dude wasn’t a Ranger.
My favorite update may be the Tonto update. It’s 1981 now, not 1933, and white America is a little less gung-ho about, you know, the slaughter of Native Americans and all that, not to mention having minorities in subservient roles. The Reagan years would assuage some of this collective guilt with a big “Screw you back again,” but in the meantime: How do you solve a problem like Tonto?
Well, first, they have a young Reid save a young Tonto. So he’s cool. Then they have a young Reid learn Indian ways. So he’s really cool. Then they have an adult Tonto save the adult Reid. So they’re even. Then they have Tonto bring Reid back to his camp, where the elders object to the presence of this white man, and where Tonto defends him. Sort of. This is what he says:
Nobody has reason to hate the white man more than I. He has taken from me my wife and my child. But the man I brought here is my brother. ... And if I am wrong, and he proves to be an enemy, then I, Tonto, will decorate my lance with his white man’s hair.
Playing cowboys and Indians
Here. Here’s an example of the tone-deafness of the movie. On the one hand, you’ve got this hard-edged, 1970s-era stab at racial verisimilitude; on the other, during the massacre at Bryant’s Gap, you have this 1950s-era TV-show dialogue. It’s like lines kids come up with when they’re playing cowboys and Indians:
SCENE: Many Texas Rangers and John Reid, the lawyer, are trapped in Bryant’s Gap, fighting for their lives. Bullets are flying everywhere.
TEXAS RANGER WHOM WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE (to John Reid): Hi, kid. How do you like being a Ranger? (bang bang)
J. REID: More than anything. (zing, zing)
TRWWNSB: Yeah, great life, ain’t it? (bang bang)
CUT TO: Another Ranger getting shot, falling off his horse, and getting dragged along by the horse.
TRWWNSB: I’ve been a Ranger longer than you’ve been alive. Been in San Anton with big Sam Houston. Fought alongside McCullough in the Mexican War. Rode with Kit Carson and John Coffee Hays. All those years, kid, I learned one thing. (bang, zing)
J. REID: What was that? (bang bang)
TRWWNSB shoots. CUT TO: member of Butch Cavendish gang, who grasps heart and falls into valley.
TRWWNSB: It ain’t the bullet that gets you. It’s the fall.
Do I need to add that, a second later, a bullet gets him?
There’s a girl, Amy Striker (Juanin Clay), named after Fran. John Reid saves her from lechery during the stagecoach robbery. Then her uncle, a newspaper publisher, is hung by the Cavendish gang for his news reporting. Then John Reid joins big bro and the Rangers to go after Cavendish, but before he leaves he and Amy share a good, sloppy kiss. Then... Actually, that’s it, isn’t it? Later, John Reid, or the Lone Ranger, pretends to be a priest to communicate information to her, or get it, I forget which, and he leaves behind a silver bullet, so she knows that... what exactly? At this point, the Lone Ranger hasn’t done shit. No one knows him. No one knows the meaning of the silver bullet. So why does she smile knowingly? She doesn’t know what it means, or who he is, or that he’s John Reid, or that John Reid is still alive. None of it makes sense.
Riding off into the sunset
So, yes, it's tough to wrap my mind around the beginning-to-end awfulness of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” Its lack of energy and excitement. Its overexposed graininess. How its tone veers wildly. How it marginalizes its hero, and makes his strengths (silver bullet) result from his weaknesses (bad shot), and how interspersed throughout we get yet another verse from Merle Haggard reading Dean Pitchford’s words that explain the awful thing we’re watching:
What is it that brings two friends together
Or sends the waves to the sand?
And what is it that drives a creature of nature
To reach out to the world of Man?
Just such a creature was this Great White Horse
As wise and as wild as a runaway
And the moment John first laid eyes on it
He swore he'd ride it someday
Just don't tell me you think this was all the work of little Klinton Spilsbury.