Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tonto: the silly one

You don't have to be a kid of a certain age to appreciate the new Lone Ranger movie, with Johnny Depp as Tonto, Armie Hammer as John Reid (the Ranger's alter ego) and William Fichtner the human-heart-eating villain Butch Cavendish. You don't have to be old enough to remember the television series, or even older to know that the first stories were made for radio in the 1930s. But you do have to have a developed sense of humour, a sense of the absurd, appreciation of the bon mot delivered dead pan or sotto voce. If you love bad puns, and ironic twists, if you are happy to talk back to the screen, giggle hysterically at silliness, laugh out loud, and thrill to the theme song, you should see The Lone Ranger on the big screen. Get your popcorn and sweet drink, scrunch down in a comfy seat close to the front, and two and a half hours will fly by.

Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger; Johnny Depp as Tonto:
not exactly Abbot and Costello, but a well-matched pair!
In the old days of radio or black and white television, the escapades of the ranger and his apache sidekick Tonto were told in truncated episodes between the bookends of a rousing musical theme and "Hi ho Silver, away!" The horse reared up on his hind legs as the masked hero waved before riding into the sunset. This full feature version directed by Gore Verbinski attempts to tell the whole story - at the very least, to set the scene for Lone Ranger sequels. And this telling comes direct from Tonto. We meet him late in life, in a museum attached to an amusement park. Tonto is spending his days posing as "the noble savage" in a Wild West diorama. He comes to life and advises a youngster dressed as the Lone Ranger: "Never take off the mask..."

Without attempting to be revisionist, we learn why Tonto - the Spanish word means silly or foolish - wanders without family or tribe. He is more than a cypher for the native American; he becomes a symbol for the loss of innocence, but with no loss of humanity. And so if John Reid is the lawman to tame the wild west, is the chosen "spirit walker" - the one who cannot be killed - then Tonto accepts that he must be the guide because even a foolish Indian is wiser than a principled white man. When Tonto calls his charge Kemo Sabe, he might as well have called him stupid stubborn or naive. Silver also appears at the right moment, a horse with a mission!  On the other side, the bad guys have a singular objective, and all their actions - ambushing the rangers, building the railway, and provoking conflict so that the Indians are persecuted for breaking the treaty - are motivated by greed.

So, Tonto steps out of the shadow of the ranger. And who better than Johnny Depp to play the wise fool. Certainly, it seems that all his other roles were leading to this: the quirky quirkier quirkiness of Jack Sparrow, the tortured soul of Willy Wonka, and the timid unlikely hero chameleon Rango (also directed by Verbinski and Depp as the title character).

Tonto with "dead crow" and face lines like railroad tracks

Kirby Sattler's depiction of the "noble savage"

The character of Tonto comes - according to  Depp - from many other sources, among them a great-grandmother with native American heritage. He wanted the technicians to mould his face into hers. Another influence was the painting by an artist called Kirby Sattler. In this image, a crow flying behind the warrior's head seems to be part of the head-dress. Tonto uses his "dead crow"to channel his living spirit. The lines on the face are railway tracks in uncharted territory. And portends the climax of the action: the 20 minute train chase that involves moving through and riding horses on top two moving trains. We won't say more.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger's "spirit horse" 
This Lone Ranger and this Tonto, together with Silver the spirit horse, interact at a level of play and imagination that most of us leave behind in childhood. This movie - true to the spirit of the Lone Ranger radio and television series - allows us to suspend reality and enjoy childishness. It entertains us with more than a bit of silliness, the theme of that other deeply felt Depp movie, Finding Neverland. Ultimately, this may be Johnny Depp's gift - the silliness of a wise and playful heart.

(All photos from the publicity albums for The Lone Ranger 2013. Additional information from

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