A Point of View: Hi-yo, silver screen
- 23 March 2012
- From the section Magazine
Can box-office bait Johnny Depp save the Western now he's signed up for a remake of The Lone Ranger? Or are the golden days of this genre long gone, asks historian David Cannadine.
It's recently been announced that a big screen adaptation of The Lone Ranger will be released in May next year, starring Armie Hammer in the title role, and Johnny Depp as his native American sidekick Tonto.
If this film finally sees the light of day, it will be a triumphant and unexpected outcome after what has euphemistically been described as a long development period.
The idea of making such a movie was first mooted 10 years ago by Columbia Pictures, and since then the project has been passed from studio to studio, screenwriter to screenwriter, and star to star, before ending up at Walt Disney.
Meanwhile, the budget has ballooned to a sum in excess of $200m (£126m), and there has been criticism that Johnny Depp, rather than a Native American, has been cast to play Tonto.
And if this isn't dispiriting enough, the precedents for such a venture are not encouraging. The last Lone Ranger film, made 30 years ago, was both a critical flop and a commercial disappointment, which hardly bodes well for the current enterprise.
How very different this seems from the days of my youth, when The Lone Ranger was a significant icon of American popular culture, and was compulsive television viewing on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1950s and the 60s.
Played by Clayton Moore, the masked Lone Ranger was the last survivor of a group of Texas Rangers; and, with his loyal companion Tonto, played by Jay Silverheels, he devoted his life to seeking truth and fighting injustice in the old American West, and also to preserving his own secret identity.
In these endeavours, the Lone Ranger invariably succeeded: every week, at the end of each episode, having righted wrongs and restored order, he would gallop off the screen on his white stallion, to the rousing finale of Rossini's William Tell Overture, shouting "Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!"
One of the beneficiaries of the Lone Ranger's good deeds would then inquire: "Who was that masked man, anyway?" - but no answer was ever forthcoming.
So close, indeed, was the association between the music and the man that David Frost once suggested the best definition of a cultivated person was someone who could listen to the William Tell Overture without immediately thinking of the Lone Ranger.
Despite its title, The Lone Ranger was far from being the only such show on British and American small screens from the 1950s to the early 70s; for these were the golden years of TV Westerns, poured out by Hollywood studios in seemingly limitless supply, and avidly acquired and repeated by the networks:
- For young children, there was Champion the Wonder Horse and Roy Rogers
- For those who wanted fact and fiction mixed up, there was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
- For those who liked the narrative literally to keep moving across the country, there was Wagon Train and Rawhide
- And for those who preferred their Westerns to be about a family, there was Bonanza
Yet these were but a small sample of the genre, which also included The Cisco Kid, Cheyenne, Hopalong Cassidy, Bronco, Laramie, The Range Rider, The Virginian, Gun Law and many more.
This glut of small-screen Westerns was accompanied by big-screen versions inaugurated by John Ford's classic Stagecoach, made in 1939. And once again, the 50s and 60s were a golden age, which saw the production of such movies as High Noon, The Magnificent Seven and How The West Was Won.
Like the TV shows proliferating at the same time, most of the big-screen Westerns were simple morality tales: there were the good guys, who were on the side of law and order, latter-day knights errant, who were brave and strong, and treated women with chivalry and courtesy; there were the bad guys who might be cattle thieves or murderers, or just drunks and gamblers.
And there were the Indians, as Native Americans were then called. They were usually depicted as illiterate savages, from whom the West had indeed to be "won", by driving them from their lands and their livelihood, and by killing as many of them as possible. And a few of them, like Tonto, had the wit to see the way the wind was blowing, and signed up with the all-conquering white man whose country the American West was fast becoming.
These Westerns didn't just appear out of nowhere. Some, The Lone Ranger included, had already been long-running radio shows in the US during the 30s and 40s, and before the talkies, there had been silent Westerns going back to The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903.
And there were many other ways in which the Western had earlier impinged on popular consciousness earlier in the 20th Century. Well before Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Oklahoma, Puccini had composed a cowboy opera entitled The Girl of the Golden West, which had premiered in New York in 1910.
Before that, Theodore Roosevelt, who'd organised a voluntary cavalry known as the Rough Riders to fight in the Spanish-American War, had seemed the very essence of the cowboy as president, while Buffalo Bill's Wild West circus was enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic as the late 19th Century morphed into the early 20th. Often featuring tableaux which set cowboys against Indians, his shows are widely regarded as beginning the whole Western tradition and aesthetic.
Drawing on such earlier precedents, the decades from the 1900s to the early 70s were truly the high noon of the American Western. The era of cowboys and buffalo herds, of wagon trains crossing the prairies, and of gold rushes and of wars against the Indians: all this was largely over by the end of the 19th Century, and it cannot be coincidence that in 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced that the American frontier was now closed.
The real West, of hard, lawless, struggling life on the edge of existence was finished. With the frontier's closure, its transformation from fact to fiction was about to begin.
And so the Western was born: in the opera house and on the wireless, and later on the small and the big screen - and it was in full flower and abundant flow in the unprecedentedly affluent and television-viewing world in which I was lucky enough to grow up.
But it could not last; it didn't last. By the early 70s, most of the TV Westerns which I and my generation had watched had ceased production. One explanation may simply be that of boredom and overkill: there had been too many Westerns, they were too much alike, and many of them just weren't very good.
But it was also that the mood of the times was changing. In the troubled decades of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the easy certainties of the cheerleading all-American Western seemed at best naive, at worst dishonest.
In the era of the civil rights movement, and at a time of growing racial awareness, the treatment of native Americans as sub-human savages or as self-interested collaborators no longer seemed right. And to a new generation of feminists, the depiction of women as either passive wives or active brothel-keepers was equally offensive.
The result was that by the 80s, the golden age of the Western was over, and it was small wonder that attempts to revive The Lone Ranger at that time failed to gain much traction.
Yet although conventional Westerns now seem politically incorrect and are no longer as popular as once they were, the appeal of the mythical West has remained a powerful force in American political life, almost down to our own time.
Ronald Reagan had appeared in Westerns during his years as a Hollywood actor, and as president he liked to be photographed riding a horse on his Californian ranch. George W Bush wore cowboy boots in the White House and, in the language of a Western wanted poster, determined in the aftermath of 9/11 to get Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive".
But even that presidential fashion, harking back to the world of Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, now seems distinctly on the wane. Whatever fate may befall the current attempt to rehabilitate The Lone Ranger, it's impossible to imagine Barack Obama, or even Mitt Romney, saddling up his horse and riding off into the sunset to the strains of the William Tell overture, shouting "High-Yo Silver! Away!"