With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Noah Gittell: Lone Ranger "Like a Western as Told by Howard Zinn"

Noah Gittell is the editor of ReelChange.net, where he writes about film, politics, and culture. He is a former independent filmmaker and political-campaign staffer.

...In discussing the progressive politics of The Lone Ranger, most critics have focused on the depiction of Native Americans, and with good reason. Over the history of the American Western, Native Americans have often been depicted as faceless savages whose efforts to defend themselves were merely obstacles to America's Manifest Destiny. Some cinematic efforts have been made to subvert this convention (The Searchers and Dances with Wolves are probably the most famous examples), but The Lone Ranger takes things a step further, making Tonto and John Reid (who will become the eponymous hero) dual protagonists. There is room for debate on this; some critics still feel that Depp's performance, with its use of "red face" and halted speaking style, is dehumanizing, but the increased role for Tonto is at least a step in the right direction.

This depiction of Native Americans in The Lone Ranger actually serves an even deeper revision of the genre, as it posits war as the underlying oppressor in American society. Here's how it's done: In making Tonto and Reid equals, the filmmakers are able to give them a mutual enemy. This is Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a railroad magnate trying to lay tracks from Texas to California. A treaty between the U.S. and the Indian tribes has prevented him from building on tribal lands, so he makes it look like the Comanches--Tonto's tribe--have broken the agreement, thus opening up their land for train travel. The turn of events will lead to war--and Indian genocide at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry. But who could make a fuss over the survival of an indigenous people when there are American dollars to be made?

It comes across like a Western as told by Howard Zinn, a shocking change for a genre that has leaned conservative in all things. Unlike previous Westerns, in which Indians were seen as an obstacle to American economic expansion, the historical perspective inherent in The Lone Ranger shows the same story from the other side and suggests that American business interests were the driving force behind the Indian massacres. There may be a lot of professors at liberal arts colleges who agree, but you'll be unable to find that point of view in more than a couple of movies through the Western's long history...

Read entire article at The Atlantic