10 great westerns that inspired the terrible 'Lone Ranger'

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

The Lone Ranger is not a very good movie, and it’s currently making negative dollars at the box office.

But give credit to the filmmakers: They might not have made a very good western, but they definitely know what good westerns look like. Although nominally based on the radio show and TV series of the same name, the film is draped in references to several eons of movie-western iconography. At times, it almost feels like a greatest hits collection: Now That’s What I Call The Western Genre!, with several different western plots piled on top of each other like ill-fitting Tetris blocks. Here’s a list of ten films that inspired the film: I recommend watching them several times and never watching The Lone Ranger ever again.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Director John Ford is best known for his widescreen cinematic vistas, but this talky black-and-white western is a sly, talky deconstruction of the western myth. Jimmy Stewart plays an east-coast lawyer who wants to bring civilized justice to the west; John Wayne is the cowboy who teaches him that law gets fuzzy on the frontier. In The Lone Ranger, protagonist John Reid (Armie Hammer) returns from his east-coast law school and tries to follow the letter of the law; his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and eventual partner Tonto (Johnny Depp) teach him that there’s no law except for the way of the gun.

The Searchers: Did someone mention widescreen cinematic vistas? Here’s John Ford constructing the western myth, with the tale of a vengeful John Wayne going into Comanche country to pursue his brother’s murderer, and rescue his niece; it’s strongly implied that Wayne had a thing for his brother’s wife. In The Lone Ranger, Reid and Tonto go into Comanche country to pursue Reid’s brother’s murderer; Reid also has to rescue his nephew, and everyone is very aware that Reid has a thing for his brother’s wife.

Once Upon a Time in the West: One of several evil plots in The Lone Ranger hinges on the advance of the Transcontinental Railroad, which sows corruption and pushes out the old western ways as it crosses the frontier. The railroad is a common theme in westerns — see also Hell on Wheels, or maybe just don’t — and it’s at the center of spaghetti-western auteur Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. Like the corporate baddie in West, Tom Wilkinson’s nefarious tycoon works employs outlaws as muscle and keeps a groovy HG onboard his train.

Little Big Man: In Arthur Penn’s counterculture anti-western, Dustin Hoffman plays a centenarian describing his life story in the Old West. Johnny Depp dons a similar swath of old-age makeup in the 1930s sequence that bookends Lone Ranger, regaling the story of the Old West to a young boy. Like Little Big Man, Lone Ranger also pays close attention to the plight of Native Americans.

The Wild Bunch: The violent and melancholy Sam Peckinpah film features a climactic sequence where lots of people are gunned down in slow-motion using a machine gun, a sequence that explicitly portrays the death of the Old West in favor of new technology. Lone Ranger features a similar scene where the Comanches charge the Cavalry and are gunned down by a machine gun in slow motion. (In the context of a movie that’s supposedly a franchise-baiting Disney family film, it’s a bit weird.)

High Noon: The Lone Ranger features a scene where characters wait for a train. Any scene in a western where characters wait for a train is basically a by-default homage to High Noon, even if it’s also an homage to the train-waiting scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. Also, there are lots of close-up shots of watches. High Noon is awesome, guys.

The General: This Buster Keaton classic is essentially a 75-minute long train action scene that is simultaneously funny and thrilling. The movie is older than your grandparents and hasn’t aged a day. The Lone Ranger ends with a 25-minute train action scene that is simultaneously funny and thrilling, and unfortunately comes after like a hundred hours of boring people doing boring things boringly. You could watch The General twice in the time it takes you to watch The Lone Ranger. (Bonus: The effects in The General look more realistic.)

Dances With Wolves: It’s become easy to hate on Kevin Costner’s western in the last couple decades, mostly because it’s become easy to hate on the whole notion of Kevin Costner as a director. But Dances With Wolves is a harsh and necessary corrective to the western genre’s tendency to overlook (or even demonize) the history of Native Americans on the frontier. And Lone Ranger, to its credit, doesn’t scrimp on the harsh details, with images of Comanche villages destroyed by white men’s lust for power.

Hang ‘Em High and High Plains Drifter: Okay, these are actually two Clint Eastwood movies, and neither of them are great; they’re both pale imitations of the trio of Man With No Name westerns he made with Sergio Leone. But taken together, they make a fascinating duet: In both films, Eastwood plays a man left for dead who seeks vengeance on the men who did him wrong. (In the latter, Eastwood actually is dead.) Hammer’s Lone Ranger is left for dead by the movie’s villains and reinvents himself as an avenging angel. As Tonto explains it: “People think you are dead. Better you stay that way.”

Rango: You could look at this animated curio as a dry-run for Lone Ranger. It’s also directed by Gore Verbinski and stars Johnny Depp; it also plays around with western iconography, simultaneously reconstructed the myth for children and deconstructing it for their parents. And, like The Lone Ranger, Rango adopts the old “Print the Legend” ethos of John Ford: In both films, the lead character becomes a hero only because they pretend to be a hero. But Rango is actually a much better, richer film than Lone Ranger, at once more cerebral and more emotional. And for film fans, Rango is also more fun to study. For instance: Timothy Olyphant plays Young Clint Eastwood playing The Man With No Name playing Old Clint Eastwood. In a golf cart.


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