My first reaction after finally reaching the end of this seemingly interminable movie was, “I hope people don’t play movie theatre prices to see this film.” On the most basic level, it’s just not a good movie. There are funny moments, but the plot is contrived, the jokes predictable, the characters one-dimensional and it’s at least 45 minutes too long. It appears I needn’t have worried, since the movie bombed in its opening weekend and could cost Disney $150 million dollars.
My second reaction was, “I really hope young people don’t see this movie and think Tonto is real.” The character of Tonto is problematic at best for all Americans, not just the native ones. He was created in 1933 for the radio show "in order to give the Lone Ranger someone to talk to". There are some stories in which Tonto is wise and intelligent, but most scholars agree that Tonto is a stereotypical protrayal of a native who never masters the English language, is totally devoted to his white friend who rescued him from racist bullies (in one version of the story). Tonto doesn’t keep to his native rituals or spiritual beliefs, he doesn’t really interact with his people, and he basically defers to the white guy in the white hat in all things. He uses a fake native word that’s supposed to mean “faithful friend” in Potowatomi but make no mistake, “kemosabe" is not a real word and it doesn’t mean anything. Tonto is a stereotype and that stereotype was so popular during the 1950’s TV show that, for many white Americans, the false image of Tonto became the only image of native Americans that they had.
As of April 2010, less than 1% of the US population identified as FBI, or Full Blooded Indian. There are many people who believe they are part Native, as Johnny Depp does. Mr. Depp explains it this way: “”I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian.” I have special knowledge about Johnny Depp’s background, but I do know that DNA testing shows that less than 10% of African Americans who claim Native ancestry actually have it. My point is that most Americans have never had any significant contact with a real Native American. Their concept of how a Native person looks and behaves is created entirely out of images in the media, books they may have read, movies they’ve seen, etc.
For decades, the image of Native American in the US was Tonto. And that’s a false image. Tonto is maybe Potowatomee, possibly Comanche, but if we judge by his dress, habits and speech, he is neither. Happily, when the TV show went off the air in 1957, the Lone Ranger and Tonto began to fade into obscurity. Portrayals of American Indians on film have improved: Last of the Mohicans, The Black Robe, Dances With Wolves are among dozens of good examples. Tonto should have remained a relic of our ignorant, stereotypical past.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do. Although it’s called “The Lone Ranger,” Tonto is really the core of this film. Also, the story is clearly designed to call attention to the injustice and cruelty suffered by the Comanche in the 19th century. The bad guys are especially bad because they steal from the Comanche, enlist the Army in slaughtering an entire tribe, and see the Native Americans as less than human. This is a much more nuanced and culturally sensitive treatment than we saw in the 1950s-era TV series.
Is this Tonto an improvement over the black-and-white TV Tonto? Yes. Is it a good Tonto? No. This character is still racist, it’s still detrimental and it’s still damaging to the general understanding of our Native brothers and sisters.
WARNING: SOME SPOILERS
Tonto is crazy, granted. In the film, his mind became unhinged when he did a terrible thing as a child. Supposedly, that explains his pidgen English, his ridiculous antics and the dead crow that sits on his head. Sorry, Bruckheimer, doesn’t work for me. Tonto also thinks the John Reid (the Lone Ranger) is a spirit warrior sent to help him in his quest for revenge. That’s supposed to explain why he turns away while an entire tribe of his people is slaughtered and instead focuses all of his energy on saving the white guy. Sorry, Bruckheimer, no dice. It also doesn’t justify Tonto’s loyalty to Reid throughout the film despite the fact that Reid treats him like crap and would have left him to die at one point if he didn’t need Tonto to give him directions.
In a climactic moment, Tonto finally has the despicable Butch Cavendish at his mercy, he will at last be able to exact justice. John Reid stops him, saying, “I’m not a savage.” Tonto answers that he is a “white coward.” Personally, I wouldn’t have the word “savage” come out of my hero’s mouth in a movie that’s meant to portray Native Americans in a positive light, but I certainly wouldn’t have the hero use it to distinguish himself from Tonto. What’s more, Tonto is the “magical Indian” that’s so often descried by both Native tribes and scholars. The scene in the jail cell could have been taken directly from a 1950s spaghetti western.
The costume has been ridiculed, especially the dead crow. How could they get that most basic of elements so wrong? Quite simply, they used a painting by a white guy as inspiration, a painting that the artist himself has said is not historically accurate or even historically based. But perhaps the most egregious part of the film is the framework, the conceit on which the telling of the tale is based. Tonto is part of a 1933 carnival sideshow exhibit, telling the story of his adventures to a young boy in a cowboy costume. Every time he speaks, we hear the faint echo of native drums; he is constantly feeding the dead bird on his head, who magically comes to life at the end of the film. Tonto himself disappears from the exhibit when his story is done, wearing a full suit and bowler hat. We are supposed to think, wink-wink, that 1930’s were so racist that it was acceptable to display a Native American as a museum curiosity, labelled “The Noble Savage.” Instead, all I thought was, “Why choose to do this when they could have shortened this two-and-a-half hour monstrosity and left this crap out entirely?” Bad choice, Bruckheimer.
Look, I don’t think Jerry Bruckheimer is a racist. I certainly don’t think Johnny Depp is one, either. But their arrogant presumption that they have the power to transform a racist stereotype from the past into a positive role model for Native kids is staggering. No Native people played major roles (to be fair, the female characters were abyssmal as well and as Adrienne K points out on her “Native Appropriations” blog, the film fails the Bechdel test quite definitively) and while the Comanche were smart, reasonable and articulate, they were on the screen for a very brief time before they rode over the hill to be gunned down by the US Cavalry.
Tonto is not a positive or constructive character. Tonto is a stereotype. Tonto needed to remain in obscurity where he belonged. So please, don’t pay money to see the film. Let “The Lone Ranger” bomb at the box office to discourage filmmakers from ever making another movie about the great white man of justice and his loyal Native sidekick.