Thursday, July 18, 2013


I really wanted to start this piece off with “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!”. But every other critic in the world has already done that recently, mostly to set up their savaging of 2013’s The Lone Ranger reboot starring Johnny Depp as a “Sorta-Tonto”.

So I’m not gonna do that. Instead, I will present to you the Lone Ranger’s creed:

"I believe that to have a friend,
a man must be one.

That all men are created equal
and that everyone has within himself
the power to make this a better world.

That God put the firewood there
but that every man
must gather and light it himself.

In being prepared
physically, mentally, and morally
to fight when necessary
for that which is right.

That a man should make the most
of what equipment he has.

That 'This government,
of the people, by the people
and for the people'
shall live always.

That men should live by
the rule of what is best
for the greatest number.

That sooner or later...
we must settle with the world
and make payment for what we have taken.

That all things change but truth,
and that truth alone, lives on forever.

In my Creator, my country, my fellow man." 
 (NPR, “The Lone Ranger: Justice from Outside the Law” by Fran Striker. January 14, 2008)

Please, athiest friends, put your fists down, the Lone Ranger is making a point here. This is strictly a deist creed. I think it would be very difficult to argue against this creed, even in this cyni-hip day and age. This is the American Exceptionalism everyone likes to talk about but few aspire to, this is the antithesis of “Nothing personal, it’s just business” which lurks invisible on our money like a fnord. Like Doc Savage’s similar speech, it’s meant to be something aspiration. Something our young men and women were meant to grow up with—if you can’t do good, at least do no harm.
It’s very easy to look at these proto-pop culture ideals askance and find them dismissable because for the last two decades Americans have stopped believing in heroes. Perfectly understandable, of course. But we live in a culture of anti-heroism, people who do good because it’s in their best interest. A modern prototypical hero that comes to my mind is John McClain, played by Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies. He started as a regular guy who did the right thing because he was the only one who could. He was constantly frightened, stressed out, but brave five seconds longer than most other good people would be. (That’s the way it started, anyway, and the “real” John McClain is still in there despite the character assassination of A Good Day to Die Hard.) Certainly McClain is a distillation of our “classic” heroes, but passed through the emotionally-fried filter of the ‘70s and ‘80s. McClain aside, who do we aspire to be in our post-9/11 world when our most recent heroes can’t even bear to be seen in public with white hats? 

The Lone Ranger first rode into culture in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, where radio was really the only thing that was free. WXYZ (Detroit) radio station owner, George W. Trendle, and writer Fran Striker, conceived of the masked man and his “trusted Indian companion” as a window into an even simpler time. At a time when Wall Street had failed the entire country, once a week, The Lone Ranger looked out for the interests of the “little people”. He wore a mask for the same reason as Batman—to strike fear in the hearts of superstitious and usually uneducated criminals, generally men made mean by the world or, mostly, out of simple stupid greed. He wore a white hat, rode a “firey white horse”, shot silver bullets, looked out for the oppressed and his best friend, a member of the Potawatomi (which would make him, in Texas, very far south of his tribe’s normal territory, I believe, but what do I know?) who was constantly the target of simple-minded racism and prejudice. The Lone Ranger never killed. He shot guns out of villains’ hands and treated every arrest as a teachable moment. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s—and then again throughout the ‘50s once the characters transitioned to television—little boys (and tomboy girls) wore official and unofficial domino masks, the General Mills-sponsored premium rings and deputy badges, having devoured boxes of Cheerios to amount the boxtops needed. They named their bikes and broomstick horses and announced their comings and goings with “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!” This is all a matter of cultural record. 

On the radio, he is most associated with the throaty voice of Brace Beemer. On television, he and Tonto were brought to vivid life by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, the best-remembered depictions of the characters. (There was an awkward season where the Ranger was played by John Hart and, for some reason, those were the episodes most often in syndication when I was growing up, mixed with the fifth season which was the only one in color.) 

After a couple of full-length television movies starring Moore and Silverheels, the world was suddenly empty of the duo from 1956 until the early ‘80s. There was an animated show on CBS between ’66 and ’68 that thrust the Ranger and Tonto into a steampunk reality and suffered from a bizarre and arty stylistic design. When I was growing up, a few of these would sneak in with the Filmation The Lone Ranger and Tarzan Adventure Hour. But growing up with parents who’d grown up with The Lone Ranger, I was well-versed in the masked man by the time 1980 rolled around, bringing to audiences a new introduction to the stalwart heroes: William A. Fraker’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger

With a screenplay credited to no less than five writers (Ivan Goff, Michael Kane, Ben Roberts, William Roberts, Gerald B. Derloshon (as Jerry Derloshon), and a rumored three or four more brought on during shooting, not even to mention bafflingly uncredited George MacDonald Frasier), this was meant to be the new Lone Ranger for a new generation, for the kids that knew only Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest and especially Star Wars, the post-moon-shot generation who seemed to be looking more to the heavens than to the west. It was meant to launch the career of a carefully-chosen “It Boy” wonderfully-named Klinton Spillsbury in the title role, white hat and mask. Tonto underwent the most radical transformation. Gone was the halting pidgen English he’d been known for (which drove genuine Native American actor Jay Silverheels crazy). As portrayed by the handsome Yaqui actor Michael Horse, Tonto had no trouble with the “white man’s tongue”—neither did any other Indian character for that matter—and far from the “stereotype servant” the hippies had dismissed him to be in the late ‘60s, Horse’s Tonto was fully The Lone Ranger’s partner (even though Moore and Silverheels made this pretty clear already, but political correctness has deep roots). It was to be the difinitive re-establishment of the characters’ origins. Toys, tie-ins and, especially, costume accessories had been prepared more than a year in anticipation of the premiere. Indeed, seven year-old me was not the only kid in the theater wearing that scratchy plastic domino mask put out by Gabriel Toys.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger faithfully recreated the “second” origin of the title character (he was much more vaguely drawn in the early episodes of the radio show) and goes even further, starting with a ten-year-old John Reid rescuing a same-aged Tonto from a group of masked vigilantes. Hiding the young brave in a culvert, John hears the men proclaim that the Reid family was probably harboring the filthy savage and arrives just in time to watch his father bloodily gunned down, his mother dragged around the ranch from behind a horse (and then shot) and see his entire home burned to the ground. Tonto takes the young John back to his tribe where he learns the ways of the (now) Comanche. (Let’s set the history of the Comanche aside for a minute and try to forget just what a bloodthirsty group they were—towards whites and anyone else that happened to be standing where they wanted to walk.) Before long, John’s older brother Dan finds him and sends him back East “to learn”. Before bidding his new family farewell, John and Tonto become blood brothers and Tonto gives him a silver amulet, declaring him to be forever “kemosabe” aka “Trusted Friend”. 

A decade later, adult learned lawyer John Reid is on a stagecoach traveling to Texas. On the stage he meets the lovely Amy Stryker and behaves chivolrously. When the stage is suddenly attacked by men wearing burlap hoods who want the postal bag containing land deeds, John is one of the first to act. (This sequence contains a number of really great practical stunts, including stuntman Terry Leonard performing an undercrawl beneath the horses’ post and the coach itself—a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s stunt originated in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), and nearly identical to a stunt he would further recreate in a little movie later that year: Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Reining in the horses, John and the other passengers manage to subdue two of the bandits—John convinces the others not to simply kill them but to bring them back to Del Rio for lawful justice. 

John to a Deputy as he delivers the bandits: “Will you require a deposition?”
Deputy: “I dunno. You got one you wanna get rid of?”

Now, as Merle Haggard tells us during his narration, “Del Rio was a town with a gun in its back”, under seige by the villainously mad former Union Captain Butch (for “Butcher”) Cavendish and his behooded gang. We are also told that the sheriff is crooked and on Butch’s take (since he’s played by Matt Clark, we already know something is up) and that the half-dozen Texas Rangers, led by John’s bro Dan, have their hands full. After the malicious murdering of Amy’s newspaperman uncle (over a disparaging editorial of Cavendish), John joins the posse to run the gang down, deputized along the way. 

One of Dan’s friends and trusted men, guy by the name of Collins, leads the men into a box canyon, rides ahead and betrays them. Cavendish’s gang swarm over the hills above and blow the Rangers to pieces with Henry rifles, plummeting dynamite wagons and a friggin’ gatling gun! This sequence is also rife with terrific stunts including some blood-curdling high falls (during which one seasoned Ranger quips, “It ain’t the bullet that kills ya, it’s the fall!”). Butch, himself a sharpshooter, personally puts down Dan with four shots then shoots John in the head.
Miraculously, John is only grazed by the lead and is therefore still alive when Tonto happens by and finds him. After converting a cave into a sweatlodge to heal his friend, Tonto once again brings John Reid back to the Comanche, who are at this point pretty damned sick of white guys (and everyone else since the Spanish arrived in 1706) and broken treaties. Still, John is kemosabe and Tonto will always care for his friend. A few weeks of mending, which includes rescuing a wild albino horse from a deep ditch and then riding it to a standstill (which in itself is a pretty exciting sequence), John has made up his mind. He digs a sixth grave alongside the others in Bryant’s Gap and chooses the way of the spirit warrior. As staged in the film, we see John, his back to the camera, pledging his duty to his dead brother, sketching out his plan to go back to the world disguised but still wearing his badge. Spillsbury stands, places his large-brimmed white hat on his head and turns into his close-up, face bisected by a black leather mask. And then the William Tell Overture kicks in!

(I’m going to return to this famous piece of Rossini music in a minute, but everyone in America has heard it. They may not know what it’s called or who William Tell was aside from the apple-on-the-head thing, but everyone knows that the William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger’s theme song. And it’s one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written.)

With the origin over, finally, at the 56:00 minute mark, The Legend of the Lone Ranger finally kicks to life. John and Tonto and Silver and Scout (Tonto’s horse; “Victor” is John’s nephew’s horse. Everybody knows that.) thunder across the plains. They discover that Butch’s big evil scheme is to hijack a train car containing the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. The “why” of this has something to do with Cavendish’s court martial and his plans toward enacting his own form of Manifest Destiny but, really, who cares? The President is in danger!

Following a rousing introduction to the town—the people have decided that Tonto is somehow to blame for something terrible and aim to hang him—The Lone Ranger shoots the rope of Tonto’s noose before the long drop, shoots the guns out of the hands of damned near everybody, rescues his buddy and then off they are again to stop Cavendish from doing that voodoo Cavendish does so well. Which is not to imply that he performs any voodoo in this movie. 

The last twenty minutes of The Legend of the Lone Ranger are knock-down, drag out, good old fashioned excitement and adventure. Dams explode, the Cavalry rides in, John and Butch face off for the first and last time. Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill join General Custer on the rescue (they were on the same train so they felt obligated)! Everything magical about the old west comes to brilliant chaotic life, beautiflly captured by Laszlo Kovacs’ photography and all set to that famous music of maestro Gioachino Rossini. By the end, justice has been delivered, peace restored, and The Lone Ranger, sadly leaving Amy Stryker behind thinking John Reid dead, bellows “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!” and off go the Ranger and Tonto into the sunset. President Grant, fingering a silver bullet, wonders aloud, “Who is that Masked Man?” Merle Haggard wraps things up and the credits roll. 

Between 1980 and the film’s release in ’81, The Legend of the Lone Ranger was frought with problems, as one can tell from the platoon of screenwriters kicking the thing into place. Production delays were considerable and the film’s new star, fresh out of a brief stint at Brigham Young University, was, to put it mildly, a bit of an asshole. Reportedly hard to get along with, Spillsbury picked fights with both cast and crew and was quite the social carouser off-set. (Andy Warhol reported in his Diaries (published in 1989) that during his interview with the actor, Spillsbury was drunk and rambling about his unrequited crushes on Dennis Christopher and Bud Cort, in Warhol’s words, “blowing his whole image”. 

Worse still—if not worse than anything else in the history of ever—Universal Pictures gave their blessing to producer and Lone Ranger TV producer/character rights-owner, a millionaire robber baron named Jack Wrather, to “sue the mask off” Clayton Moore. Moore, who had, in his own words, “fallen in love” with the character, frequently wore his costume and mask to events, charities, and childrens’ hospital wards. More than once he broke up altercations with strangers on the streets. The man was The Lone Ranger and a hero in his own right. Yet neither Wrather nor the studio wanted to give anyone the impression that the then 65-year-old actor was reprising his part in the film (or would have anything to do with it at all). So they got a court order to stop Moore from making any public appearances wearing the mask. Moore fought back and in the meantime adopted a pair of dark Foster Grant sunglasses, only slightly altering the costume. Public response was a disaster. Moore was one miracle short of sainthood in the eyes of the people and they held this grudge against the movie. 

Meanwhile, with their drunken jerk of a star making a drunken jerk of himself, Universal opted to distance themselves from Spillsbury and brought in James Keach to redub all of Spillsbury’s dialogue. Keach—whose sole “good” performance to date (as opposed to his brother, Stacy, and his career of genius) was as Jesse James in The Long Riders, but let’s face it, he had a lot of support in that film—turned in a dazzling performance that rivaled Harrison Ford’s original Blade Runner narration in terms of excitement. The dubbing is poor and even now sounds like John Reid’s voice floats somewhere else while interacting with the other characters. 

Now combine all of that with an over-burdened and sluggish—and surprisingly violent and bloody—first hour and what you wind up with is box office cyanide. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, “If people don’t wanna go to [a movie], you can’t stop ‘em.” Despite some really cool action figures (which I still have), the costumes, the lunch boxes, the Underoos (remember those?), The Legend of the Lone Ranger landed with a thud, with a worldwide gross of only $12M against an $18M not-insubstantial budget for the time. After a brief summer run and a take-home of three Golden Raspberry Awards, the movie revived zombie like on HBO and home video for a while, but left behind a legacy with a bad aftertaste, still ridiculed to this day. 

But something magical happened in July, 2013. Having acquired the rights to The Lone Ranger and all characters, Disney decided way back in 2007 that they would redo The Lone Ranger for the even newer post-millennial generation. Their ace-in-the-hole was box-office busting Johnny Depp, who would “rescue” Tonto from the disgraceful role of step’n fetchit “sidekick” (as he described the faithful Indian companion over and over again despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, pidgen English notwithstanding). Depp, on a career high due to his inarguably brilliant creation of “Captain Jack Sparrow” that led the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise to monumental riches, was proclaimed to be unable to do no wrong. 

In between 2007 and 2013, however, Depp grew abjectly weirder in his role choices, actually infusing weird where weird wasn’t there originally. His Willy Wonka creeped out virtually everyone who witnessed the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory train wreck; his Barnabas Collins (which was, in my opinion, speaking as a non-fan of the original series) enraged Dark Shadows fans (especially after the passing of original Barnabas Jonathan Frid just prior to the release of Tim Burton’s newest flop reboot). In between those Burton-Depp pairings came also a less-than-successful (but nonetheless brilliant) Sweeney Todd, the ill-advised Alice in Wonderland, and the grudgingly-accepted Pirates: On Stranger Tides, mothers began to whisper Depp’s name to their children in order to get them to eat their vegetables. By the time the first stills of the masked man’s latest incarnation were released, the only thing people could focus on was that Depp’s Tonto, for whatever reason, wore a dead crow on his head. 

Almost a year before its release, the Gore Verbinski-directed The Lone Ranger was declared to be a future flop of John Carter-esque proportions. Unlike the much-maligned John Carter, however, this might not have been the declaration of bloodthirsty critics eager to see the fall of Disney. If you’ll allow me further digression, the latest Lone Ranger film does, indeed, place The Legend of the Lone Ranger in a better light, though it does bear resemblance to its most recent past incarnation.

First and foremost, Depp and Verbinski’s Lone Ranger also features a bloated script, this time from Pirates scribes Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, with some last-minute rescuing by Revolutionary Road writer Justin Haythe, who managed to expunge the former’s script of its pre-occupation with werewolves. As John Reid, Armie Hammer has far more charisma than the Hasselhoff-esque Spillsbury (though the bar was already pretty low), but this story is told by an elderly Tonto to a young Lone Ranger admirer, from the confines of an exhibit in a traveling circus, circa 1930. Tonto’s version of the story prevails and allows for comic asides, gags, and cartoon logic. We’re not supposed to take it literally when, for example, he and Reid are hurled from a moving train and tumble for a couple of miles amidst iron and wood train track debris and are spared being crushed by the inertia-defying engine by a happily-placed wheel rod that impales itself between the two of them. That neither of them have been atomized or even bruised by this adventure is because of the spritely and saggy old Tonto’s imagination. Which also allows for other leaps of logic. 

Not to mention several Princess Bride moments where the kid, speaking for the audience, exasperatedly accuses Tonto of “telling it wrong”. For in this version, gone is the childhood bond, the reaching out of races, the “trusted brother”. In This Tonto’s memory, John is a pale comparison to his heroic brother Dan. In This Tonto’s translation, “kemosabe” means “Wrong Brother”. In Depp’s Tonto’s telling, it is still the Indian (and still Comanche, though a tribal exile) that nurses the young Reid back to health following the even more violent ambush at Bryant’s Gap. It’s still Butch Cavendish that’s the bad guy—only this time he’s no dignified mad military man but rather the greasiest outlaw this side of Lonesome Dove’s Blue Duck, with a cruelly scarred face, committing the sadistic of cutting out and eating Dan Reid’s heart while the Ranger lies dying. He’s also responsible, along with the movie’s “secret” obvious villain, of massacring a younger Tonto’s tribe after brought there at the edge of death by none-other than Tonto. 

Let’s pause to let that sink in. A young Comanche brave finds two dying white guys in Texas, during the midst of a seemingly endless Comanche War, and instead of building bonfires in their crotches, he brings them back to the rest of his Comanche settlement, replete with adult male Comanches taking a brief respite from murdering whites, Mexicans, Spanish and other tribes. And instead of hollowing out the skulls of these two white dopes for use in ersatz hockey games, the tribal elders not only nurse the clowns to life, but are unaware that Tonto has led the men to a silver mine in exchange for a tin watch (echoing, of course, the idea that Indians are attracted to shiny things in exchange for land—when the  Indians themselves were laughing at the very notion of “selling” land and believed to be getting the better end of the deal—“Hey, I just “sold” some morons that entire island over there. No, that one. What’d Drunken Buffalo call it? ‘Manhattan’. Yeah, that one. They gave me some shiny rocks in exchange. It was the strangest conversation I’ve ever had!”). And THEN we’re supposed to believe that these two white guys, not even smart enough to pack water for lengthy trips into the desert although they remembered to bring their heavy black leather duster coats, massacred an entire Comanche encampment by themselves, leaving only Tonto alive. Not exactly the Sand Creek Massacre involving mostly women and children, these idiots were up against healthy male Comanches who, even in 1854, knew what rifles were and possessed them! But, anyway, back to senile Tonto’s story. 

To combat all the universally negative reaction to the bird-hat, the screenwriters turned it into a motif during production. The bird on his head may or may not be a spirit animal. He feeds it grain just in case. In fact, he gives grain to everyone he meets, sort of like “Aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye” and “what time is it?” The Lone Ranger is pretty much a bumbling dunce in Tonto’s eyes and while he’s certainly no step’n fetchit, this poor, half-crazed-with-guilt Tonto still hasn’t grasped the use of personal pronouns, prepositional phrases or linking verbs and sounds even worse than Jay Silverheels—and it wasn’t Jay’s choice to talk that way to begin with. I found less problem with his constantly wearing “war paint” (as the media consistently harped on) because Tonto’s mind is trapped between Earth and Spirit, and seems more like Hopi medicine mask than anything else (and I don’t really know that much jack about American Indians). 

Now, once you get past all of the above. One you get into whatever hole Verbinski and Depp have dug for themselves, it becomes more or less a groove. But there’s still the sluggish nature of the origin story. It takes just as long for John to don his mask and dig the extra grave. Tonto has practically no respect of or confidence in Reid and only hangs out with him because the white spirit horse keeps telling him to. (The horse(s) playing Silver—as in The Legend of, a combination of geldings and mares—is marvelous and actually has more chemistry with Depp than Hammer does during the endless second act.) Let’s set aside, again, the idea that many tribes considered albino horses to be extremely bad luck and usually avoided them because, c’mon, what’s The Lone Ranger without Silver? 

As opposed to Christopher Lloyd’s Cavendish (and let’s not underestimate the disconnect we kids of the ‘70s had seeing Taxi’s Reverend Jim ordering two of his own men executed), William Fichtner is depraved both outside and in, as a visual shortcut for evil, mainly because Cavendish the character is mostly wasted and forgotten by the third act, relegated to third-banana in the villain line-up. 

Where The Legend of  triumphs over Lone Ranger is in two areas: first, the former plays the story straight. It trusted the audience to accept the adventure as it stands. Verbinski and Disney had no such confidence in todays attention-deficit moviegoers, so, in spite of many clever moments, the gags and jokes flow even more egregiously than in any of the Pirates films, yet still injects some, quite frankly, shocking amounts of bloody violence. Verbinski borrowed more heavily from Leone and Peckinpah than Fraker, and Fraker had Reid’s parents murdered in front of him. 

Second, when Spillsbury’s Reid first dons his mask, turns into his close up and reveals himself to be THE Lone Ranger, The William Tell Overture erupts from the soundtrack. 56 minutes in, that score covers the movie like a blanket of awesome. 2013’s Lone Ranger waits until almost 95 minutes before finally unleashing that famous score. In both instances, the music transforms the films. The music, those famous galloping trumpets, gives both movies permission to be what they are. No matter how impossible the task or ridiculous the stunt (or even, in the recent case, how stunningly clumsy the CGI), The William Tell Overture paves over the improbable. By the time it appears in 2013’s Lone Ranger, the film has already devolved into a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with its crossing runaway trains, magical leaps and outstanding marksmanship. But it doesn’t matter. Because “the song” is playing. 

The Legend of the Lone Ranger doesn’t become so until the music starts. As integral as Tonto, silver bullets and the mask, it’s that music that announces that The Lone Ranger has arrived. At this point I’d like to posit that The William Tell Overture is part of both our cultural and physical DNA. My five-year-old neice, while still growing up under the “yesteryear” eye of my father, knows what that music means, even if she wasn’t immediately clear who the Lone Ranger was. More than anything, The William Tell electrifies the American bloodstream. It more than brings out the seven-year-old kid in all of us, it erases cynicism to a very large and instant degree. NSA, IRS, CIA, Republicans, Democrats, foreign wars, lousy economy—it’ll all be okay because, right now, The Lone Ranger is here, and he’s telling us we can do something about all this too. The William Tell delivers unto all of us a white hat and a black mask, tells us to earn friends by being friends, that a bullet-to-the-head is not the way to bring in the bad guy and that John McClain was correct in adopting as his catch phrase “Yippie-Ki-Yay”. In fact, as fellow journalist Mike Haushalter told me at the screening we attended, if that music had played over the endless trailers, the 2013 Lone Ranger would not have bombed on its opening weekend. That music draws Americans to it like iron filings to a magnet, and just as naturally. 

It’s been 80 years since that music first thundered into living rooms from the tinny speakers of torso-sized radios and economically the world isn’t much different. We still mistrust our governmental officials, determined to put us all into Hoover camps and keep the poor ground under the heels of corporate progress. Once again, Bankers put their own interests ahead of the greater good and went unpunished for it. 

In 1981, the economy was climbing out of a recession, we were still more or less at war with others, only in this case, Middle Easterners and not Comanches (just like today). And in all three cases, we needed The Lone Ranger. But after the ‘60s, we had lost faith in the Masked Man. He wasn’t enough to stop the march of distruction and poverty. Neither the ’81 Lone Ranger nor the 2013 incarnation were conceived and executed in the seeming purity of the man from the ‘30s or ‘50s. “American Exceptionalism” doesn’t mean what it used to. We’re no better or worse-off than we were when the two men first rode, but heroes have come to be redefined. 

Fraker made an admirable stab at reintroducing the archetypical hero. By ’81 we had Luke Skywalker instead of Popeye Doyle and the former was easier for the seven-year-olds to swallow. But we also had Indiana Jones and he seemed to stand a little taller than our masked man. At least we had Indiana Jones. Our heroes today seem to be heroes in spite of themselves. As of right now, the number one movie at the box office is the animated Despicable Me 2, about a man who, despite his greatest desires, sucks as a supervillain so becomes a hero. Even Superman flies with a heavy conscience. There are quotes around Truth, Justice and, especially, The American Way, where there didn’t use to be. It’s nothing to mourn; culture changes. Times change. 

Both recent Lone Rangers failed for different reasons. The former because greed wished to replace the original, the man who embodied the character, with a shinier, younger version. The latter because the shinier star can no longer hear the word “no” because it’s never uttered in his direction. Depp’s Tonto isn’t offensive but it is disingenuous, no matter how much or how little Choctaw or Cherokee his blood possesses, he made the decision for whatever reason to deliver halting sentences and give us all the bird. Michael Horse rewarded Jay Silverheels. Johnny Depp couldn’t bear to be off-center of attention. Neither Fraker nor Verbinski could see that The Lone Ranger isn’t about grand sweeping change. John Reid’s story is not an epic. It’s about one man—in this case, two—overcoming cultural prejudices and making tiny changes by showing others how they, too, can affect the world in a positive way. There’s no need for apologies for the Lone Ranger or Tonto of yesteryear, no matter how “quaint” they seem to be now. What they symbolized is what mattered. The absence of irony and cynicism. Still, in the end, 2013’s Lone Ranger gets John Reid as right in the end as he’s ever been. He does not take a life. He does not succumb to the vigilante justice that constantly befell his best friend. Right to the end both Spillsbury’s and Hammer’s John Reid stayed pure to the notion of justice. Sinking to the level of the villain may be emotionally satisfying, but is it moral? Of course not. But decades of Charlie Bronson Death Wish clones have continued to give us the easy way out. Neither Reid nor Tonto ever made the easy decisions and that is what made them heroes. 

And it isn’t wrong or old fashioned to think that way, so long as you have The William Tell Overture playing in your ears. 

No William Tell Overture, no box office.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


“In the universe there are things man cannot hope to understand.
Powers he cannot hope to possess.
Forces he cannot hope to control.
The Four Crowns are such things.
Yet the search has begun. A Soldier of Fortune takes the first step.
He seeks a key that will unlock the power of The Four Crowns
and unleash a world where good and evil collide.”  
So decrees the Star Wars scroll opening of Treasure of the Four Crowns, just before it hits you with the scariest things the movie has to offer:  
Cannon Film Group.
A Golan-Globus Production.
Cue mind-shattering terror. 
I kid. I kid because I love. 
As soon as the titles are done rushing out at you, screaming “3-fucking-D!”, we are introduced to our hero, J.T. Striker, clad in his red satin jacket, lighting a cigarette against the wind, standing in front of a grand forced-perspective castle. Possibly Spanish. So far, we appear to be on an adventure with That ‘70s Show’s Bob Pinciotti, adventurer, outfitted by Jackie Chan’s Asian Hawk.  
Minutes later, he’s inside the castle, its interior transformed into a live-action Scooby-Doo set, and he’s immediately beset by vultures and rubber pterodactyls. Spears stab out of the walls, tunnel doors slam shut behind him. Ropes dangle over obvious trapdoors. A boa constructor lowers towards him. He grimaces in fear as it slithers over him. A guard dog chases him across crumbling edifaces, where it is joined by more friendly German Shepherds, tails wagging. He leaps through a glass window, runs past a bubbling volcanic cauldron, drops through a skylight, rolls down a tunnel, which conveniently explodes allowing him to do a daring flip over a pile of wood. While a skeleton and a suit of armor point at him courtesy of wires attached by phone linemen, he blows up an entombment and finally retrieves a key from inside a brass scepter. This, took, launches more booby traps, and wonks out the soundtrack, speeding up and slowing down ominous voices that bubble up from a dry ice cabinet. Nearly killed by a thrice-repeated shot of a fired spear, he’s then shot at by some laughing pottery and manages to dodge a spiked rolling pin swinging from the ceiling. And then come the fireballs (!), one of which he tries to catch. Finally comes the obligatory burning boulders—about the size of hefty pumpkins—that chase him around the room. The message here is to not concern yourself with all this precious archaeology.  During rape and pillage, temples have a way of shutting that all down.
Obviously, this is a very important key. Once he gets back to whatever he calls home, he stoically yells at his friend and partner, Ed, for not telling him how dangerous the place can be. As it turns out, the key fits one of the “legendary” four golden crowns forged by the Visigoths in the 6th Century, some time after their conquest of Spain. Inside they find a little scroll that says, basically, “The very existence of this scroll supports the legend.” Or, “The legend is true because I, the scroll, say so. QED.”
Now for the tricky part. Stryker is hired to put together a team to find the rest of the crowns, which lie deep within the bowels of The City of Love and Unity and the Temple of the Crowns. It’s the sorta-secret lair of “Brother Jonas” (aka Leo Green, from Brooklyn, who served a goodly amount of time in Sing Sing) who has begun his own religion. Has his own pig-mask-wearing Indoctrination Squad to round up willing (or not) Apostles and stuff them into his heavily-guarded mountain retreat. Brother Jonas says things like, “I want you to see what I see. Be what I am. And if you will not, then go to Hell!”
Edmond whips out a brilliant scale-model of of the fortress to plan the job. “For Jonas, the crowns are a source of destructive power. Weapons of fear. But I want to preserve that power for the future of mankind. They are part of an incredible legacy.” Only JT Stryker can pull off a job like this. So of course he refuses.
Until the very next scene where he and Edmond are shown recruiting a team. Let’s go to Video Junkie for a summary: “His team consists of an alcoholic electronics expert Rick (Jerry Lazarus), an over the hill circus strongman Socrates (Francisco Rabal), and his nimble and nubile daughter Liz (Ana Obregon). Also, Edmond (Gene Quintano), the operation’s liaison insists on tagging along to keep an eye on things and generally be a pain in the ass.” (“Scribbled” by Thomas T. Sueyres.) Rick describes them as “A tired old man, an inexperienced female and me, a guy with 90 proof courage.”
Mr. Sueyers also describes the Crowns’ potential: “They are believed to contain secrets of unimaginable power. So unimaginable that the five credited writers couldn’t come up with anything.” And let’s not forget to mention the very power of the stupid key! Without warning, the crazy thing will shoot out of Stryker’s hands, blow up crockery, knock over furniture and explode windows, letting all the snow in. The key can also create unmotivated red light. While it jiggles in JT’s hands, the others are attacked by lens flares.
As to be expected, the Crowns are protected by state-of-the-art technology and heavily-armed guards. Pressure-sensitive floors and walls, laser eye alarms, an intricate matrix of security the likes of which won’t be seen again until all the parodies of Mission: Impossible
Skipping the rest of anything resembling a second act, our insipid—sorry, intrepid—team has been air dropped onto the Citadel of Silliness. For the next twenty minutes, we’re actually treated to an actually tense and non-silly sequence involving the team rappelling across the ceiling beams, trapezing over the laser beams, electric fences and the pressurized floor. Sequence involves the occasional guard popping in for a spot-check during lots of dangling and trying to be quiet. The acrobatics in this sequence are actually worth your time.   
To break that up, we go behind-the-scenes with Brother Jonas as he collects chunks of Apostle hair to burn and help the Crowns heal a diseased “lost lamb” and bring her back into the fold. Part of the healing process has the masked guards rattle tambourines in the faces of the other cult members. Curiously, once the chanting and hysterics have passed, the little “lost lamb” winks at Brother Jonas and starts to peel off her facial wounds. Don’t get hung up on this as it’s never addressed again and the producers really wish you’d all stop bringing it up. 
Now, normally I wouldn’t do this, but I will now reveal to you the ending. Just the same, I promise you that I’m not giving anything away because, like the preceeding scenes, it doesn’t make a damned bit of sense. Swinging down from the beams, J.T. mounts this ugly blob of an idol--“Here I come, you magical son of a bitch.”—and uses the key to unlock the Crowns just as Brother Jonas and his guards burst in to spray bullets in random directions. The second he touches them, his head spins around like a malfunctioning Linda Blair doll and when it comes to rest, JT’s face is covered in lizard scales, cloudy eyes, and an even dopier expression than he’d worn at any previous point. He also becomes a subhuman flame thrower, spewing fire from the crystals he’d taken from the crowns and setting ablaze Jonas, his acolytes, his minions, his grunions and also his onions. Being special, Brother Jonas doesn’t just catch fire, but his skin falls off of his skull in little chunks at a time. Stryker is only changed back by Liz’s screams and sobs, which seem to be her specialty. Triumphantly, and with only the majority of his team dead, JT claims the Crowns, having more or less saved the day from evil. Or perhaps good. It’s hard to tell.
In in a final coda, a thrice-repeated shot of a snake-head bursting forth from a pulsing lump of goo, never glimpsed before in the film. Or since.
The best and most accurate review I’ve ever read of The Treasure of the Four Crowns comes from the wonderful website, KinderTrauma, and it goes like this: “[…] it’s mostly not boring.” And it’s impossible to argue with that assessment. If anything, the blessed few slow parts allow the viewer time to attempt comprehension of what he just witnessed. Please bear in mind that I have not come here to trash Treasure of the Four Crowns, for to do that would be like booing the Special Olympics. Honestly, this movie just doesn’t know any better.   
The team behind Treasure were more or less responsible for kicking off the brief 3-D boom of the early eighties with the reasonably enjoyable Spaghetti Western, Comin’ At Ya!. This golden era came to a head in 1983 with a Summer glut of poke-a-vision like Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D, Steve Guttenberg as The Man Who Wasn’t There, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, and Metalstorm: The [Non-] Destruction of Jared-Syn. (God, what a wonderful summer that was!) Because of the success of Comin’ At Ya!, Treasure was rushed into production by Canon using the same team of Tony Anthony, Gene Quintano and director Ferdinando Baldi. Conceived as a blatant rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the most Treasure had to boast was a score by none-other than Ennio Morricone who, judging by the laconic orchestration, must have done the composing at gun point.   
At the time of Comin’ At Ya!, Anthony (best-known to his schoolyard chums as Roger Pettito) was a familiar face to Spaghetti Western fans, largely due to his coincidental presence in Europe at the time of Sergio Leone’s world-wide success with the Dollars trilogy. Anthony starred as “The Stranger”, a shotgun-weilding anti-hero, in the moderately-successful A Stranger In Town, The Stranger Returns and The Silent Stranger, as well as a Zatoichi rip-off titled Blindman, which also starred Ringo Starr as a Mexican bandito. 
More interesting than the films themselves is the fact that Anthony achieved this by partnering with MGM stockholder and record producer Alan Klein. Klein is a notorious personality in ‘70s entertainment history for a number of reasons. For one, he re-negotiated a contract between The Beatles and EMI, garnering them higher royalties per records sold ($.69) and assisted George Harrison’s Apple Records financially by basically turning the company into a factory, complete with time clocks and an on-site kitchen, cancelling take-out meals and personal charge-accounts for the Beatles’ many hangers-on. He also assisted in the finishing of one of the most uncomfortable documentaries ever made, Let It Be, with help from future-murderer Phil Spector. In the end, as McCartney and Lennon chose to dissolve The Beatles (McCartney in particular disliked the producer and felt that the his cutthroat business methods were diminishing The Beatles’ legacy), Klein more or less successfully sued the band in what he called a “divorce”.
Perhaps more notatble, Klein was personally responsible for the long 30-year period of unavailabilty of Alejandro Jodorowski’s esoteric masterpieces, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Persuaded by John Lennon to buy the rights to El Topo and bankroll Mountain, Klein intended to partner with Jodorowsky’s next film as well. Instead, after witnessing the financial success of “art pornography” like The Devil in Miss Jones and the infamous Deep Throat, he tried to persuade the avante guarde director to direct an adaptation of Pauline Réage's S&M bestseller The Story Of O. To Klein’s surprise (if no one else’s), Jodorowsky refused. Klein’s revenge was to withdraw all prints of El Topo and Holy Mountain from US distribution, denied all film festival requests for screening and reportedly flipped off the posters every morning before work (I may have made that last part up). This led to Jodorowsky’s public endorsement of any and all bootlegs of his films. It wasn’t until Klein gracefully died in 2009, that the director reconciled with the Klein heirs that the films were finally released to the eager public at Cannes and on gorgeous Blu-Ray.
But I digress. 
The point is, despite looking like the first guy to be rubbed out in any given gangster movie, and even after the world-wide failure of his final “Stranger” film, Get Mean in 1976, Tony Anthony’s star was still hovering above the horizon in the ‘80s thanks to Comin’ At Ya! But have no fear, Treasure of the Four Crowns put an end to all of that. But not for lack of trying.
As Roger Ebert wrote at the time: “It's fun to find a 3-D movie that doesn't beat around the bush. Within 60 seconds after Treasure of the Four Crowns begins, the movie is throwing things at the audience. This is, of course, in the great tradition of 3-D movies that began in 1953 with Bwana Devil" a horrible movie that made a lot of money by throwing stones, spears and elephants at the audience. You want to get your money's worth. […] In fact, with its cheerful high energy, Treasure of the Four Crowns may not only be the first of the 1983 3-D wave but one of the best.”
The sad fact of the matter is that, while Treasure was not a failure financially and went on to become an HBO staple (in 2D of course) for more than a year after, it suffered from the timing of its release. As popcorn movies go, it probably was a high point during that ridiculous summer. But when you get down to it, it was a gimmick movie, and a rip-off gimmick movie at that. By August, audiences had grown weary of having their eyes poked at, actors picking up tools for the sheer purpose of having things emerge from the screen (Treasure was particularly guilty of this, with more than one instance of one character handing a magnifying glass and the like to  another by waving it back and forth in front of the lens like SCTV’s Count Floyd), not to mention the intense migraines that came from having their rods and cones batted around for 90 minutes. 
The 3D “craze” continued sporadically through the summers of ’84 and ’85, the animated Starchaser: The Legend of Orin one of the final straws and then disappeared to obscurity. With no demand, Anthony and Baldi saw the cancelation of their own science-fiction follow-up (hinted at by Treasure’s non-sequiter coda), alternately known as Escape from Beyond and Seeing is Beliving. Baldi returned to Italy but Treasure basically marked the end of Anthony’s career, at least as far as acting goes. He did produce the Zalman King-directed Wild Orchid with Mickey Roarke, but mostly he concentrated on running an optics company, specializing in lenses that worked with the so-called “over-and-under” 3D technique. In 2009, he oversaw the transfer of Comin’ At Ya! to digital 3D and has hinted at giving similar attention to Treasure of the Four Crowns
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is in the crossed-eyes of the beholder, but the timing seems perfect. What with the “immersion” use of 3D in modern-day blockbusters, it might actually be a nice change to have spears jump out at us once again, even if the wires do come with them.

Brain Dead (1990)

“How do we really know that we exist? What if we’re some sort of computer program, predestined to live out our lives in a certain way? How do we know if we’re awake or in some hyper-real dream and when we wake up, that will be ‘real life’?”
There are two types of people who frequently ask these questions: science fiction writers and people trying weed for the first time. Actually, the question of existence and reality is the fundament of most philosophies. How do we ever know what we’re experiencing is real. As Abraham Sofaer as “The Swami” put it in Head:
“We were speaking of belief. Beliefs and conditioning. All belief can be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus the study of history is simply the study of one system of belief deposing another. And so on and so on. A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, conscious and subconscious, is unable is unable to discern between the real and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference. And most of us believe there is. Am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To experience the ‘now’ without preconception of belief. To allow the unknown to occur and to occur requires clarity. For where there is clarity there is no choice, and where there is choice there is misery. Then why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak? For I know nothing!”
In the Julie (wife of Roger) Corman-produced Brain Dead (and not the alternative title to Peter Jackson’s Dead*Alive), Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman) is a brilliant neurosurgeon studying the part of the brain that produces paranoia. He spends his days in a dim storage room (Number 8, the number constantly flipping upside down)surrounded by shelves upon shelves lined with human brains in glass jars, the kind you’d find in Young Frankenstein or The Man With Two Brains. His assistant treats these brains like office supplies, thinking little beyond the mess it makes when he happens to drop one. “People, Birkovich. Individuals. Minds, souls. Every brain is a living record of a journey taken,” Dr. Martin tells him. “Who knows what journey they’re on now?”
Martin’s new journey begins when he gets a visit from his old friend, Jim Reston (Bill Paxton), an executive climbing the ranks and upgrading suits. The company Reston works for, The Eunice Corporation, wants Martin to meet with and diagnose John Halsey (all hail Bud Cort), a mathematician institutionalized for murdering his entire family. Halsey created an elaborate mathematical formual that the Eunice Corporation desperately requires. The problem is that Halsey is so wracked with the paranoia that drove him to kill, the formula is locked away deep inside his mind. Indeed, Halsey has invented a false persona for himself in which he believes he is being persecuted by his “former boss” at Conklin Mattresses, who was having an affair with Halsey’s wife. Halsey believes that Conklin spied on him through money, “Instead of Ben Franklin I saw Conklin’s greasy face staring up at me.” His plastic wallet is filled with home made construction paper dollars, to fool Conklin and any of his agents still snooping around.
Returning to Reston, Martin is skeptical that he could do anything surgically to remove Halsey’s paranoia. “We can’t all do good, but at least do no harm.” Eunice Corp suggests an alternative then: cut into Halsey’s brain and destroy the formula, ensure that no one else can ever get at it. Martin balks at this as well. “It could be worse,” Reston tells him.” You could be the patient and Halsey could be the doctor.”
That afternoon, while walking to his car, carrying one of his favorite brains to work on at home, he is accosted by a raving homeless man who insists that the brain in the jar is his. Wrestling with the man and juggling the jar, Martin is suddenly hit by a car belonging to Conklin Mattresses, their slogan: “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream.”
Suffering only a mild concussion, Dr. Martin awakes from a bad dream in his own bed next to his wife, Dana (Desert Hearts’ Patricia Charbonneau) who he believes is having an affair with Reston. He makes the decision to operate on Halsey after all, and the next morning, before the entire board of the Eunice Company (including George Kennedy in a thankless cameo), behind two-way glass, he opens up Halsey’s head and starts poking around in the man’s brain.
Whatever visions plaguing Halsey almost immediately plague Martin. He finds himself pursued by a man in a bloody white coat (Nicholas Pryor, playing multiple roles here…or maybe just one), witnesses Reston having sex with his wife on their dining room table. Martin’s behavior changes. He’s often confused, dazed, speaking and acting inappropriately. Just the same, Reston approaches him with a brand new idea: custom lobotomies, cosmetic surgery for the brain, “kinder, gentler lobotomies”, to eliminate painful memories and bolster self-esteem without the cost of therapy. “Change their personalities, their very souls.” He even has a slogan, “The new you, from Eunice.”
The next morning, Dr. Martin wakes up in the Mayside Sanitarium, his doctor is the same man in the bloody coat who has been stalking him, and that somehow his own office has been moved to this building, and now houses the new doctor, who tells him that he’s been there for days. “We can be distracted by too much detail.” Martin is told that his psyche is shattered. He has projected Halsey to be his patient and himself Halsey’s doctor. Martin resists this explanation, insists that the office is his office and he knows who he is, insisting, “I have a Ph.D from Miskatonic University!”
Worse, Reston arrives, identified as the hospital’s accountant. Martin, too, is an accountant, the prize of Conklin Mattresses. Halsey visits him at his bedside at night and each visit ends in Martin waking up from a nightmare.
Halsey: “They told me the same stinking story. That you didn’t exist. That we’re the same person!”
Martin: “Didn’t we do this before?”
Halsey: “Are we doing this now?”
The pair pass in and out of each other’s subconscious minds, each insisting they’re part of the other’s dream. Each time a dream ends, Martin finds himself in a new location and a confused state of mind. People insist on calling him Halsey. The number 8 on his door has fallen again and again he spins it, stopping halfway to ∞. “No, I’m not dreaming,” he insists. “I’ve ruled that out. It’s like I’m being dreamed. Like we’re all being dreamed by Eunice.”
Before too long, it’s Martin in that chair, his brain exposed, and at the probe is not Halsey but the man in the bloody coat, Dr. Reston, aka Ed Conklin, owner of Conklin Mattresses, a partner with (or dummy name for) the Eunice Corporation. Martin repeats, “Just do no harm. No harm done.”
Originally scripted by Twilight Zone staple Charles Beaumont, Brain Dead is how Cronenberg would handle a slapstick comedy. The writer behind such classic episodes as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Shadow Play”, involving tricks of the mind, dreams and memory, Beaumont (aka Charles Leroy Nutt) wrote short stories for Amazing Stories and other pulp science-fiction magazines, he was also the first writer to publish a short story in Playboy. His original script for Brain Dead written (obviously) some time before his death in 1967, possibly around the same time he was writing for Corman and AIP, turning out the screenplays for Premature Burial (1962), The Haunted Palace (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) (as well as Burn, Witch, Burn (1961) and 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964). So much was made out of this “new” Beaumont credit when Brain Dead was released in 1989 (in some markets as Paranoia), many fans apparently forgot that he was dead and saw this as his big comeback movie. “Big” being a relative term here, of course.
“The script was one that had been sitting around in Roger Corman’s possession for several years. It is rather amusing to picture Corman trying to get such a whacked out script off the ground in the days before [Nightmare on] Elm Street made this baffling reality flip type of film commonplace,” wrote Richard Scheib. “The final ending arrived at is amazingly bleak. While in another film all the reality bendings would collapse into meaninglessness, Brain Dead sustains them at such a dextrous series of whiplash reversals that it contrarily becomes thoroughly ingenious.” 
Brain Dead never saw much success. Released on VHS in the latter part of ’90 after playing a few late nights on HBO, it was finally dumped on DVD as part of “Roger Corman Presents: The Actor Series”, its cover showing a face stretched across a metal frame, taken from a visual non-sequitur in the beginning of the film. “The opening scene shows Dr. Martin’s assistant smiling gleefully as he wields what looks like a soldering iron above an exposed brain, connected by wires to a stretched, boneless face whose muscles the brain apparently controls. As the assistant shocks the brain in different areas, the eyes on the face turn to the left, then to the right, and finally go cross-eyed as the assistant titters to himself. Actually, this image of a grotesque, surgically removed face gone cross-eyed is a wonderful metaphor for a film whose cringe-worthy visuals are mitigated by a pervasive and singular humor.” (JonathanFoltz  ©2010
Over the years, it’s acquired a modest cult following, due to no little help from its confusion with Peter Jackson’s Braindead. Directed by (A Haunting in Conneticut screenwriter) Adam Simon, Beaumont’s posthumous movie offers a lot of mind teasing to make up for its utter lack of zombies. Aside from Foltz’s and Scheib’s reviews, it’s difficult to find a critic who doesn’t treat Brain Dead with condescension, if not outright disrespect. Much humor is to be found in the movie’s primitive effects (Cort’s open-brain prosthetic in no way resembles the actual brain-surgery footage projected in the board room during the first act surgery), and many have dismissed it as being “nonsensical”. However, as Foltz later writes, “Once the labyrinthine plot takes its initial turn, Brain Dead offers little consolation that it all makes sense, moving at a disorienting pace through realities and alternate realities. In fact there are so many scenes where Dr. Martin wakes up as from a dream that reality starts to lose its meaning, even for the viewer. This slippery, mise en abyme structure owes a debt to the script by Charles Beaumont, the legendary Twilight Zone writer whose life was cut short by disease. Indeed, Brain Dead’s contorted but campy brilliance feels like a faithful adaptation of the classic Twilight Zone aesthetic, but updated to be at once gorier and goofier.” [ibid]
Which still seems a little harsh. Maybe in these post-Matrix, post-Inception days Brain Dead has little to offer audiences who have become accustomed to dream logic narratives. But unlike modern mind-fuck movies, Brain Dead revels in its playfulness. Martin doesn’t chiropractically dodge bullets or rely on a spinning top to know when he’s awake, but wanders around in an uncomprehending daze of contradictory information, and the viewer is right there on his shoulders, looking for hints and clues amidst the film’s many details to figure out who, exactly—if anybody—is the sane party of the first part. If you decide that you did dig it the first time through, give it a second go and see if the movie changes your mind in whatever direction. It’s a fun movie filled with narrative close-up magic. And it has Bud Cort in it. Everything is better with Bud Cort.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

THE BRAVE (1997)

"He could have, had he wanted to, cast himself as the Lone Ranger, and put a qualified, capable Native American actor ... of whom there are quite a few now, in the role of Tonto," said UCLA professor Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa tribe member. Once head of UCLA's American Indian Studies program, Geiogamah had been twice consulted by Disney for their previous Pocahontas animated features and was dismayed—along with many, many others—at Depp’s portrayal of the legendary Tonto in the Mouse’s redeaux of The Lone Ranger. From the actor’s speech patterns"That sort of monosyllabic stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak.”—to his borderline ridiculous appearance “inspired” by a painting Depp ran across on the internet, "We've got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree with paint, and he looks like a gothic freak.”

On the flip side of that, Depp was honored by Wallace Coffey, chairman of the Comanche Nation, and Santa Fe activist La Donna Harris adopted Depp as “an honorary son and member of the Comanche tribe.” Depp and Disney gave the proceeds from the movie’s world premiere to the American Indian College Fund. For his own part, it’s long been a dream of his to “fix” Tonto’s reputation as simply the Lone Ranger’s “sidekick” (though every incarnation of the story refers to Tonto as the masked man’s “faithful Indian companion”) by ensuring the Native was in all ways equal to his vigilante buddy.

So why the pidgin English? More importantly, why the bird on his head?

While we may never get proper answers to those questions, it all speaks to the actor’s long fascination of Native Americans, who we like to call “the guys who were here first.” “Asked if he's Native American, Depp says he grew up in Kentucky, where his great-grandmother and great-grandfather told him he had Cherokee blood. ‘But over there, could have been Cherokee, could have been Creek, could have been Choctaw,’ he says. ‘It was always something that I always felt very proud to have.’” (This quote and info above taken from NPR article, "Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?" by Mandalit del Barco, July 02, 2013.)

Of course, Tonto is not the first Native American character Depp has tackled, but it will always be his best-known. For his first portrayal was that of Raphael, the poverty-stricken wet-brain of indistinct tribal origin who sells his life and body to a snuff film producer in exchange for a sum of money that will allow his family to survive. If this role doesn’t ring a bell for even die-hard Deppianados that can be excused. The Brave, based on Gregory MacDonald’s grim novel, was Depp’s directorial debut, notoriously booed at the Cannes Film Festival, prompting him to prevent its official release in the United States.

Best-known for the Fletch novels, MacDonald wrote the slim novel in 1991, where it received a decent audience and a notorious reputation for its third chapter, wherein McCarthy, the producer, describes in graphic detail what will happen to Raphael for the film. Two ex-wrestlers—“real monsters”—will strip him, beat him, tear out his fingernails, gouge out his eye, sever fingers and toes. It will be an hour of pain in exchange for a modest sum of money that, to Raphael, is a fortune. (The chapter, a challenge even for hardcore horror fans, prompted the author to issue a preface warning-slash-justification for its inclusion.) This is an act of ultimate desperation for Raphael. Hopelessly alcoholic, illiterate (he spells his name three different ways throughout the course of the book), at not-yet 21 he has a wife and three kids—without “knowing” how he got there—and lives with a community of junk-pickers who live on the outskirts of a city dump. They are unwanted by the dump owners, by the city, by everyone, and exist in a state of poverty that most of us can’t even comprehend. Checks “from the state” stopped coming because the man who delivered them stopped coming, or at least that’s how they understand it.

Yet, despondent and terrified, Raphael feels astonishingly emboldened with his “contract” and $200 advance from McCarthy. He has knowledge no one on Earth has: he knows exactly how and when he will die. And with this in mind, he spends the money and the remainder of his three days on Earth, trying to make things better, and more peaceful, for his family and community. Depp’s adaptation takes the central premise of the novel and takes a slightly different path towards the end. While the book is brutally straightforward, the film has a surreal quality to it, and an almost ethereal pace (which many critics found “leaden”, and from many standpoints it’s difficult to disagree). Depp’s Raphael still lives in a dump with his family and the many transients that make up their “tribe”. It’s still unclear what “kind” of Indian he is—even his father, played by Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman (who once recorded an album titled “Custer Died for Your Sins”) isn’t quite sure. Unlike his father in the book he doesn’t get offended, however, when asked. 

When not steadily framed on the plaintive Raphael watching the sun rise and fall, the camera constantly floats around the dump, focusing on the many odd details. The denizens of “Morgantown”, as they call the dump, appear more like survivors from an apocalypse. Grotesqueries abound. There’s a man walking around in a shredded tuxedo while pigs drink from baby pools. A father and son, Joe and Joe Jr. (Frederic Forrest and Max Perlich, seen at one point poking at the backend of a goat) have spent their lives drilling for oil. Like many other ancillary characters, Joe Jr. seems to have been plucked whole from Harmony Korine’s Gummo. There’s also the presence of Iggy Pop (who provided the score), so you know just how far this community has sunk.

Raphael’s wife, Rita, practically simple-minded and knowing no other life in the book, is worn to the bone in the film. She’s suspicious of the gifts Raphael brings and believes he’s returned to stealing, as are many of their neighbors. Morgantown’s sole big shot is a thief and a pimp named Luis (Luis Guzman, the one-stop shop actor when you need a vicious ethnic villain), who constantly blackmails Raphael, holding over his head some job they’d done in the past. And once Raphael is arrested and taken away, Rita will end up “working for him”. The invention of the Luis character, who is a strange composite of several novel characters ramped up for movie purposes, gives Raphael a sense of urgency. Luis is the danger that threatens his family’s chances of getting out of Morgantown once he’s paid for his services rendered.

The most glaring—and aggravating—change from novel to film has everything to do with Marlon Brando. Long having abandoned even the pretense of taking direction, Brando’s snuff producer McCarthy is a melancholy Baron Harkonnen here, wheelchair-bound and obese. He waxes philosophical about the upcoming film and is completely vague about what is to happen, or even what is happening at the moment. The McCarthy in the novel is an amoral but straightforward slug. “You look tough. You could stand an hour of pain, right? The more you can take, the better it’ll be. And you’ll be seen all over the world. You’ll be a movie star.”

Brando’s McCarthy weeps, is overcome by the beauty of what’s to come, and, in typical Brando style, is barely comprehensible during his meandering monologue. “What we have here is a little bit of shadow play,” he says, in between little blasts on a harmonica. “Maybe the more painful the death… it’s a sort of refinement. Pain is the completion of an equation. […] Childbirth is pain punctuated by joy. Watching a painful death can be a great inspiration to those who are not dying so that they can see how brave we can be when it’s time to go. It is the final measure of bravery to stand up to death in exquisite anguish.” Tears flow. “I’m sorry. But when death comes and pays us our final visit we can bid him welcome.”

In Depp’s hands—having rewritten the script with his brother, Don (billed as D.P. Depp) from Paul McCudden’s original adaptation—MacDonald’s very simple story, told from Raphael’s point of view but largely externalized and matter-of-fact—Raphael’s screen journey is turned inside. Depp is positively beautiful thanks to Vilko Filač and  Eugene D. Shlugleit’s photography. The camerawork is languid and works well with the patient editing scheme provided by Pascale Buba [by way of trivia, Buba is the brother of Romero editor and my own editing mentor, Tony Buba] and Hervé Schneid. In a sequence invented for the screen, the camera remains on Rita and the children, watching television in their trailer, while Raphael can be heard crashing around outside. When he urges them to come out, they discover that he’s built a little amusement park outside with scavenged materials and Christmas lights. The camera goes into an unbroken 180-degree pan across the various rides and games he’s constructed, and Raphael appears beside or astride each one, without a single cut (which means Depp raced around the camera for each appearance) but it’s a delightful shot, rife with love—Raphael for his children and Depp and company for the medium and the story they’re telling.

To build on that love, The Brave had a long and torturous journey to the screen. Paul McCudden licensed and adapted the novel and began shopping it around in 1993, finding a pair of first-time producers Charles Evans, Jr. and Carroll Kemp, who had just founded Acappella Pictures. They were captivated by the script and put together a package to make the film with a friend, USC film school stock room manager Aziz Ghazal. So strong was the story that the two fledglings were able to attract the attention of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, despite their negative track record and Ghazal’s position as first-time director.

Just before filming was to begin in December, 1993, Ghazal murdered his three-year-old daughter, his estranged wife and then killed himself. His body wasn’t found until a month later. First-time director Touchstone could work with. Multiple murderers are harder to spin.

Finally, after already investing half-million dollars themselves into the project, Evans and Kemp managed to get it in front of Johnny Depp. Depp’s star was on the rise thanks to the successes of Edward Scissorhands and Don Juan DeMarco, and there was positive buzz about his titular role in Tim Burton’s upcoming biopic, Ed Wood, so he had some pull and he was garnering cred at an alarming rate. Unimpressed with the script, Depp loved the central message, “I liked the idea of sacrifice for family. And I kept thinking of things I'd like to add.” (The Sad, Strange Journey of Johnny Depp's 'The Brave', LA Times, May 19, 1997 by Mark Saylor.)

In addition to co-writing and directing, Depp also sank a reported $2 million of his own money into the picture. Seeking completion funds at the Cannes Film Festival, The Brave was met with the same polarized reactions that the festival is known for. Boos and accolades. European studios began a bidding war. U.S. studios just wanted to release “A Film By Johnny Depp” and every offer came with a proviso of steep changes. "I'm prepared to listen if there's a problem with length," Depp said, but rather than be forced to make changes, "I'll put it in a vault and let it sit." [ibid] In the end, The Brave played briefly overseas and Depp kept the U.S. rights to himself, basically refusing to allow it to be seen in his native land.

Because of the nature of humans and the subhuman nature of the press, this decision led to the urban legend that Depp had been “humiliated” at Cannes, that the reviews had been “overwhelmingly” negative and that he hid the film away out of shame. Which isn’t the case at all.
Yes, The Brave is slow. It’s multiple long shots of a wistful Depp/Raphael communicate a tendency towards vanity after a while, leaving quiet contemplation behind. It has some supremely bizarre moments and there are injections of noir that seem out of place, particularly those involving McCarthy’s right-hand man, Larry (played by “Hey, it’s that guy” Marshall Bell), who keeps popping in on Raphael to make sure he returns to the cavernous warehouse studio “on time and as promised”. But so many of the quiet moments with Depp and Elpidia Carrillo, who plays Rita, intensified by the gorgeous photography, make The Brave a worthy journey. If nothing else, it will take you on your own internal meditation, however briefly—would you do what Raphael agrees to in order to ensure a better life for your family? Do you love anyone enough to die, horribly, for their future?

Call it an art film or a think piece or whatever you want, but give it a shot before you dismiss it as a Johnny Depp vanity project. Especially these days, in the wake of his off-the-rails portrayals of Willy Wonka and Barnabas Collins, The Brave is a much-needed reminder of how good an actor Johnny Depp can actually be when he doesn’t let caricature get in the way. And don’t fret that the film has never received an “official” U.S. DVD release. It’s one of the easiest bootlegs to come by, all reproduced from overseas import prints.