Head ‘Em Off At The Past
With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty “Hi-Ho, Silver!”, The Lone Ranger rides again!
(cue: “cavalry charge” finale of Rossini’s William Tell Overture)
–opening of The Lone Ranger television series, 1949-1957
Everything I know about truth, justice and fair play I learned from The Lone Ranger. That and the importance of having your horse dry-cleaned on a regular basis.
Alright, perhaps I’m exaggerating a little but The Lone Ranger, the first television show that I’m aware of seeing and the seed of my life-long love of Westerns, was my introduction to a clearly moral universe.
I guess I must have been 5 or 6 when the masked man (played by Clayton Moore) and his second-banana Tonto (played by the matchlessly wooden Jay Silverheels) first rode into my life.
Everything about The Lone Ranger enchanted me, from the stirring introduction (until the day I die The William Tell Overture will only mean one thing to me: the thunder of hooves and a masked man in a white hat) to the show’s unvarying ending (“…who was that masked man?…cain’t say but he left this here silver bullet…”). The show utterly absorbed me.
Watching it now one can only laugh. Clearly meant to represent America’s view of itself in the 1950’s–just, egalitarian and heroic–it unwittingly approves a subtle racist and imperialist agenda. More obviously, the whole premise was laughable.
Each episode followed a formula as rigid and pre-ordained as a Japanese Noh play. We’d open at The Lone Ranger’s campsite. The LR, who presumably subscribed to some sort of wire-service for heroes would inform Tonto that nefarious doings were afoot in Putzville but his information was vague. In every episode, The LR would instruct Tonto (which means ‘fool’ in Spanish) to: “…ride into town and see what you can find out.”
Whereupon Tonto would gallop into Putzville or Scum City and take up position outside the saloon. Standing immobile and expressionless, he would await developments. They were never long in coming.
Within minutes, the villains would congregate roughly 2 feet from Tonto’s flapping ears and outline their dastardly scheme.
Now, given that they were surrounded by millions of square miles of empty Old West where a man could, if he chose, recite the complete works of Sir Walter Scott at the top of his lungs without being heard, the choice of venue seemed odd. But it never varied. When the bad guys decided to huddle, nobody ever suggested riding out into the sagebrush for the confab. No. Evidently, someone said “…let’s stand next to that Injun outside the saloon and be really indiscreet.” Maybe they thought Tonto was a wooden cigar-store Indian, an excusable mistake.
Having absorbed the intel, Tonto would ride back to the campsite where The LR was waiting for his horse to come back from the local Sketchleys. Seriously, Silver was so eye-wateringly white that dry-cleaning was the only explanation. Ditto The LR’s outfits. By all accounts, the Old West was a dirty, dusty place and sartorial splendour was not a priority but The LR always looked like he’d just had a shave, haircut and manicure and his clothes were just back from the cleaners. Even as fastidious an old maid as Henry James would have been happy to bunk with him.
Tonto would bring The LR up to speed, employing the standard injun-speak of 1950’s Hollywood: “ Keemo-Sahbee, bad men drinkum fire-water, talk bad medicine with forked tongue, they go rob great iron horse…” etc, etc.
Having taken in this double-talk, The LR would, for no logical reason, slip into disguise.
According to wiki: “…he was a master of disguise. At times, he would infiltrate an area using the identity of “Old Prospector”, an old-time miner with a full beard, so that he can go places where a young masked man would never fit in, usually to gather intelligence about criminal activities.”
Where a young masked man would never fit in? As opposed to where? The Venice Carnevale?
In point of fact, the Old Prospector disguise is the only one I ever remember seeing but no matter. As to gathering intelligence, well, he pretty much knew what there was to know already. In truth, it was just a chance for The LR to demonstrate his versatility and to put a gloss on the American penchant for spying on people.
After various tiresome machinations and stratagems, the villains would be thwarted, order would be restored and The Lone Ranger and Tonto would ride off into the sunset, leaving people scratching their heads before heading to the local pawnshop with the silver bullet.
The Lone Ranger was absurd, inept, laughable. Bady written, badly acted and badly directed. The premise was risible. A masked man who roams the Old West doing good and leaving behind silver bullets? How was this being funded? Silver bullets cost money, you know, and his dry-cleaning bill must have been startling. Why the mask? Nobody knew who the hell he was anyway. And why did Tonto, a genuine Native American seem so implausible an Injun and so much more plausible as a guitarist for Buffalo Springfield? I have no answers
But I still regard The Lone Ranger with great affection. He taught me that it’s the duty of the strong to defend the weak, that evil must be fought, that there are better reasons than money for our actions. He stood for loyalty, justice, honesty, bravery and selflessness…and the value of efficient dry-cleaning.
And that can’t be a bad thing. Hi-Ho Silver… Away!
(a revised version of this piece appeared on The Daily Kos website on Sep.30, 2012)
Coming Soon: Clint Eastwood and the pure distillation of the Western.