Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale

Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale


As The Lone Ranger
shifts from the point of view of its hero, John Reid (Armie Hammer), to the
first-person narrative of his Indian sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), the tired
pulp story becomes a postmodern picaresque. A type of story with a long
literary tradition but seldom seen on film, a picaresque is usually episodic in
nature, a fact that contributes to what many perceive is the messiness of The Lone Ranger. Tonto exemplifies the
typical picaresque hero (or picaro), noble in intentions but misguided and
perhaps even unreliable in his perception of the events in which he is usually at
the center. Like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, this film begins with a
rather decrepit Indian as a dubious storyteller, spinning a yarn full of
non-sequiturs and magical realism that both uncomfortably overlap with heinous
atrocities in order to subvert the typical white victor’s perspective of the
American western. The first appearance of Depp, made up to look a hundred-odd years
old, is itself a metatextual reference to Little
Big Man
’s protagonist, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). Crabb is a white man
raised by the Cheyenne who encounters famous figures like Wild Bill Hickok and
George Armstrong Custer (who, in The Lone
, finds his own visual parallel in a cavalry officer played by Barry
Pepper), just before their grand, untimely ends. 

Tonto’s pseudo-mysticism is one exaggeration highlighted in his narration,
later revealed to Reid by his sidekick’s own people as the mad ravings of a
fool. But Tonto’s skewed imaginings serve to leaven the social commentary with
humor as is typical in other picaresques like Don Quixote. A dark flashback showing the extermination of Tonto’s
tribe by plundering strip-miners backs up against a hallucinatory image of the
Lone Ranger’s horse Silver standing comfortably at the tip of a branch of a
tall tree. “There’s something very wrong with that horse,” says Tonto, an odd
laugh line at that point of his story. But isn’t it also a bit of humor meant
to both mitigate the horror that precedes it as well as heighten it in sharp
relief? It certainly inspires Reid to take the role Tonto has bestowed on him
more seriously than he does initially, if for no other reason than he fears the
crackpot may not be up to the task.

Still, Reid is more of a milquetoast here than in any previous iteration of
the Lone Ranger character. Consequently, Tonto becomes a tragic hero looking
for redemption. He is indirectly responsible for the genocide of his own
people, but he strives to make amends by stymieing the advance of the railroad
(and attendant whites) into Indian lands, ultimately with no success. This the
film makes clear even before the story proper starts. Our introduction to the
wizened, old Tonto is in a travelling circus sideshow display behind a racially
charged nameplate that reads “The Noble Savage.” Even Tonto’s name,
as alluded to when Reid asks him if he knows what it means in Spanish, befits
that of the typical picaro. “Tonto” is Spanish for “idiot,” an
apt description for other picaresque heroes such as Redmond Barry Lyndon or
Forrest Gump.

Much of the gleeful critical piling-on directed at The Lone Ranger is
conflated with politically correct hand-wringing, involving Hollywood’s
depiction of Indians and the casting of Depp to play the Masked Man’s Indian
sidekick, Tonto. One camp is offended by the very existence of Tonto, a
mishmash of Hollywood’s stereotypes of indigenous people. Of Depp’s
performance, Mark Dujsik
says, “…speaking in broken English and gratuitously mugging for the
camera—perhaps it’s for the best that a Native American actor has been spared
the indignity of the role…” Another sillier group’s outrage seems to stem from
nostalgia for the television Tonto they grew up with. Badass
’s Devin Faraci says “… The Lone Ranger is a movie that seems
to be embarrassed of its own source material…. Unwilling to just degrade The Lone
Ranger himself by making him a buffoon, the movie also makes Tonto a gibbering

Critics are insulted that Depp, whose claims of Indian ancestry are remote
if not entirely questionable, was cast as a quite evidently made-up Indian icon.
However, before the previous 1981 disaster, only one Indian actor had ever played Tonto, TV’s Jay Silverheels (a Canadian
Mohawk whose real name was Harold J. Smith). Silverheels did his best to imbue
a character that was basically an expository soundboard with elements of his
own heritage in order to position the character as a hero his people could look
up to. But at his foundation, Tonto is still a thin character. Being upset that
the mutable Depp is playing Tonto is like feeling insulted that British
chameleon Peter Sellers played the faux-French Inspector Clouseau.

Depp’s performance as Tonto is a memorable tragicomic creation, made
perfectly viable by the framing device utilized by director Gore Verbinski to
tell the movie’s story. Indeed, when seen as a picaresque told by an
anti-establishment fool, it becomes clearer that Depp and Verbinski are not only
not denigrating the Indians; by
rehabilitating the subservient character of Tonto, they are elevating the
Indian people to their rightful place as the central figures of the story of
the American West. As if to bear out this idea, Verbinski offers us, as the
final credits roll, an elegiac, silent crane shot of Depp’s aged Tonto
shuffling off into the sunset, not in his stereotypical buckskin but his titular
partner’s now-threadbare black outfit. He has become the hero of his own tale.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and
television for his blog,
Cinema Viewfinder. His criticism has also been
featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog,
Wide Screen, Opposing
Views and Follow him on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale”

  1. I think Depps portrayal will in the long term prove an icebreaker within and outside the Native community. Depp's interpretation is not that far out of line with historical documentation as far as his appearance is concerned. I just launched the 1st documentary of Jay Silverheels ever written TONTO: The Man in Front of the Mask and you have to know the original TV version to make an informed decision. ( People are nervous about Native/First Nations comedy and humour even though there have been excellent movies in the past with Native actors like Farmer. I think one of the biggest issues is that Depp's Sparrow character came on in his Tonto character. I think Depp's intent was good and there are a few forgivable 'costuming' errors but its not a historic documentary its an old 'character' being portrayed as a 'new character'. Baby boomers take a look a Superman and Batman; then and now. I think Jay would have liked to have played the 'new' Tonto. I think Jay would have enjoyed showing people that Natives have a 'great' sense of humour and one way to educate is through respectful humour which I think the new Lone Ranger. Is …….. its entertaining with no malice intended. Read my book.


  2. This is a smart take on a movie that has a lot going for it as entertainment and as (light) food-for-thought.


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