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Six-shooters, Storytelling, and the Sublime Folly of The Lone Ranger

Written by Matt Denny.

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The task of picking a favourite blockbuster, whilst certainly pleasurable, has proven far harder than I’d anticipated. These difficulties were both personal and professional in nature. Personally, there is the agony associated with any declaration of preference between loved objects. Professionally, I felt it important to pin down exactly I meant by the term “blockbuster”. I’m a great lover of Hollywood action cinema, and briefly considered this as an opportunity to share my love for the criminally under-appreciated artistry of Tony Scott. Yet as glorious as Scott’s films are, something didn’t feel right about declaring them blockbusters - let alone granting them the prestigious title of favourite blockbuster.

What then, does blockbuster mean to me? In the driest, most academic terms I’d define a blockbuster as a big-budget, tent-pole film; based on a pre-sold property, aimed at the broadest possible demographic, and with an eye to lucrative merchandising tie ins. This is only the benchmark test for being considered a blockbuster, and I like to think I’d require more from a film than merchandise deals and (whisper it) synergy for it to rank as my favourite.

However uninspiring the above taxonomy may be, there is a film that springs immediately to mind: Jurassic Park. In particular, I’m put in mind of a scene where, the camera pans through the gift-shop of the eponymous theme park. All the items on display appear to be items that we, the audience, could actually buy: I’m sure I had the lunch box. Elsewhere, Jurassic Park epitomises the film-as-ride, constantly situating its characters as spectators - only for the characters to break from their bonds and become part of the experience, moving off the fixed tracks and wantonly ignoring “do not touch” signs. The characters are able to do what we, the audience, cannot: they can transcend their status as viewers and become part of the action. We remain safely locked in the ride - but what a ride!

<i>Jurassic Park</i>
Jurassic Park
If I were to teach Blockbusters 101, then Jurassic Park would be the core text. It ticks all the boxes of my definition, and even fits the model of film as theme-park-ride so often used to describe blockbusters. The film also has moments of true, spectacular, wonder - such as when Sam Neil and Laura Dern encounter their first dinosaurs. It is, when all is said and done, the perfect blockbuster.

But am I really interested in perfect? I’m far too much of a Romantic to be truly invested in such neo-classicist ideals. Not for me the values of balance, proportion, and unity; my taste is for the untamned, the fragmentary, the ruined. Why settle for perfect when you can have Sublime?

There is another film that comes to mind, an outlaw film, a film that eschews arbitrary rules in favour of serving a nobler purpose. A film that meets all the blockbuster criteria but is just a little more … wacky. That film is The Lone Ranger: a film that many critics seem happy to write off as a ruin, or at least a folly. To them I say: you need to look differently. Where you see a tumbledown relic of a forgotten age (or worse, a modern reproduction of a tumbledown relic), I see something that is at once playground and school-house, something that both indulges myth, and is highly critical of it. Where you see a mess, I see a masterpiece.

In fairness I'm stretching the meaning of "sublime" rather close to breaking point here, quite possibly just for the sake of a play on words. Even a cursory glance at the work of Messrs Burke, Kant, Schopenhauer, & Lyotard will reveal that the only aspect of the sublime I take up is it's opposition to the beautiful - and even that I do poorly, setting up a dichotomy of perfect/sublime instead. In truth, my opposition is perhaps better rendered as Classical/Romantic, or even Classical/postmodern. The implied similarity between postmodernism and Romanticism is not accidental: Both Romanticism and postmodernism share a delight in the fragmentary, each in their own way resurrect dead styles. It is, I'll admit, more accurate to describe The Lone Ranger as a postmodern film - but that doesn't allow me to have fun with the slippage of meaning from Sublime in the Romantic sense to sublime meaning "of great excellence". Permit me, I beg, this playful indulgence before I commit myself to more serious ponderings. For it is, as you shall see, entirely in keeping with the spirit of the film.

Like so many examples of postmodern cinema, The Lone Ranger is a film about stories. Jurassic Park may effectively align its audience and characters, but it doesn’t really do anything with that. The framing narrative of The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, situates the audience precisely as an audience, and then utilises the critical vantage point afforded by such a position. The film is a virtuoso work of deconstruction, demonstrating the deceptive nature of stories, of history. Deconstruction should not, however, be confused with destruction. For all that The Lone Ranger is suspicious of the power of stories to do harm, it also believes in the potential of stories to do good. Just as importantly, the film tells a damn fine story; albeit an unconventional one.

Old Tonto tells the story of The Lone Ranger to a young boy, but it’s not the story the boy knows. Throughout the telling, Tonto will deviate from the “official” history. Does this mean Tonto’s story is the True History? It’s hard to tell, for Tonto is a quintessentially unreliable narrator. The film’s use of the fantastic also muddies the waters, for woven through a revisionist Western narrative acknowledging the brutality of manifest destiny and westward expansion are tales of Spirit Walkers and Wendigos. Tonto’s tale is one of a boy retreating into fairy-tales rather than face the horrors of genocide.

If not the truth, what then is Tonto teaching us - for surely he is teaching, we only have to watch his young audience to see that. Throughout the telling, the boy becomes increasingly critically engaged. His early interjections are those of a child annoyed at being told the wrong story ("But isn’t Dan the Lone Ranger?"), next he is critical of Tonto’s skill as a story teller ("you’re lost, aren’t you"), later he is able to unpick Tonto’s disjointed narrative and predict what happens next (“the bridge?”, “What Bridge”). Finally, the boy has to know: Was it all just a story? Tonto’s response sums up the moral imperative of the film: “You decide”.

It is not enough merely to be suspicious of the “official story”. What Tonto teaches his audience, and what The Lone Ranger teaches us, is that stories have power, and we must choose carefully which ones we sanctify as “truth”. The collapse of truth/untruth isn’t the collapse of morality, it is in fact a moral call-to-arms. We might be able to choose our story, but we must still choose wisely. Captain Fuller is called upon to choose his truth at a crucial moment in the film, a Mexican stand-off between the hero and villain. Fuller chooses the version where he is a hero exacting vengeance on the barbarous natives, not a monster responsible for wiping out an entire people. The boy makes his choice too, vowing to “never take off the mask”, because when the law is on the side of evil men, a good man has to be an outlaw.

So much for the school-house, but The Lone Ranger is also a playground; and the value of playfulness should not be underestimated. I defy any viewer to remain unmoved by the glorious climatic runaway train sequence, all expertly choreographed to the William Tell Overture. Who couldn’t be charmed by Armie Hammer’s goofily earnest lawyer-cum-vigilante? Especially in the scenes where he’s required to express pain or outrage. The film darts and dashes at a helter-skelter pace, and (like the Pirates films at their best), the heroes are never entirely in control of the situation and never quite working together.

The Lone Ranger might be an unbalanced film. It’s certainly a strange film, wilfully so at times. It isn’t your typical blockbuster. In fact, it’s positively atypical - but its far from a broken film. Rather, it’s an example of what the blockbuster form can and (more importantly) should be trying to achieve. It is a serious film that’s also resolutely silly, a moral film that teaches its audience how to be critical rather than being critical of its audience. It’s a film that makes you want to put on a mask and fight for justice, if not always the law. For all those reasons and more, The Lone Ranger is my favourite blockbuster.


In addition to being an editor and contributor for Alternate Takes, Matt Denny is an evangelical poststructuralist and a closet auteurist. He is currently writing a PhD thesis in an attempt to reconcile these opposing interests. Matt has a particular fondness for supernatural teen films, classic British horror, and the films of Tony Scott.

This article was published on August 07, 2014.