The bad decisions and public relations misfires that doomed a big-budget Western comic book movie to ridicule and obscurity.
We all know the story. A high profile, big-budget attempt to reinvent The Lone Ranger for modern audiences that begins to gain a bad reputation while still in production. When it finally comes out, it’s savaged by critics and bombs at the box office.
Except that we’re not talking about the 2013 Gore Verbinski film here, but rather the 1981 The Legend of the Lone Ranger, the downfall of which so parallels that of the more recent film, you could almost start to believe in the idea of movie curses.
The movie should’ve been a sure thing. It was made at the height of the comic book action, Saturday Morning Serial inspired boom of the time – hell, it opened just a few months before Raiders of the Lost Ark – and was based around what was still a much-loved property. In fact, that would turn out to be a major part of its downfall. The 65-year-old actor Clayton Moore had played the Lone Ranger on and off between 1949 and 1957, and was – amazingly – still milking that fame in 1981, making public appearances in the iconic mask and costume. The film’s producers, not unreasonably you might think, considered that a pensioner version of the character opening state fairs would not be helpful for the movie, and so took legal action to stop him. This was probably not a great idea in retrospect. Moore, who seems to have been slightly delusional and obsessed (he thought he should’ve been offered the lead in the new movie), swapped the mask for dark glasses, stopped overtly calling himself The Lone Ranger and milked the sympathy vote for all it was worth, creating a lot of ill-feeling towards the film – after all, who would you support? The greedy Hollywood producers or the old guy entertaining sick kids in hospital? A savvy PR move would’ve been to give him a cameo in the film and rope him into the publicity drive, but instead, he became a symbol of the little guy being crushed by corporate greed.
The film was probably doomed the moment the producers took out the injunction against Moore, but it also wasn’t helped by leading man Klinton Spilsbury. Inspired by Superman, the producers cast the unknown Spilsbury in the lead role, but there was a major difference between him and Christopher Reeve. Reeve was unknown, but not inexperienced. This was Spilsbury’s first (and, as it turned out, last) role. Possibly feeling the pressure on his shoulders, he reportedly behaved like a prima donna and got into bar brawls during production. And while he had classic Hollywood good looks, his performance was considered sub-par enough for James Keach to be hired to overdub him entirely. Naturally, the media were only too aware of this development, and only too keen to share it with the public.
And so with all the elements in place, The Legend of the Lone Ranger duly became a legendary bomb. Audiences stayed away, critics hated it and the toys gathered dust on the shelves. It essentially hammered the final nail into the Western genre that was already on its last legs (and which has never really recovered in subsequent years). But the question remains: is it really that terrible?
Well, no. Let’s be fair – the film could’ve been a masterpiece (it isn’t) and the Moore effect would’ve still seen critics lining up to rip into it. It certainly isn’t a lost classic, though. At best, it’s a passable enough affair, though oddly TV-movie-like in appearance, and fails mostly for two simple reasons – it takes the best part of an hour before the title character actually appears, and then the film struggles to find very much for him to do. Little kids watching this (as they could when it was an A/PG-rated film in the UK; now, it’s a 12) would’ve been deeply frustrated, I suspect.
In this version of the story, we first see John Reid (Spilsbury) as a boy, rescuing Tonto (Michael Horse) from a mob and so cementing a lifelong friendship. Years later, Reid returns to a town plagued by ambitious crime lord Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), and joins a posse to smoke him out. But the men, led by Reid’s brother, are ambushed, and all killed – except for Reid, who is left for dead but then rescued by Tonto. Deciding that he should stay officially dead, he tames wild white stallion Silver, gets a feel for ‘more accurate’ silver bullets and dons a face mask and rangers uniform, hoping to strike fear into Cavendish’s men and bring the villain down. Cavendish, meanwhile, has come up with the fantastic supervillain idea of kidnapping President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards), meaning that a rescue plan has to be put into action.
The scene where the Lone Ranger is revealed, complete with the William Tell Overture and cries of “hi ho Silver, away” is pure comic book stuff – unashamed and guaranteed to have audiences cheering (if there had been any audiences). But it comes after a curiously plodding hour in which Reid tentatively romances Amy Striker (Juanin Clay) in a subplot that fizzles out once he is ‘dead’. There are a few action scenes, but nothing really pushes the story forward, and you dearly want them to get on with it. Building anticipation is a delicate balancing act, and this film doesn’t get it right. And when the Ranger is revealed, the film mainly has him sneaking about rather than getting into the thick of the action. And running throughout is a dreadful folksy narration from Merle Haggard, who also sings the shockingly bad theme tune.
But there are things to admire, too. The action scenes are well handled by director William A. Fraker, and outside of Spilsbury (who, dubbing aside, seems very stiff and unconvincing until he puts on the mask) the performances are very good – Horse is the first Tonto not to be a broken-English speaking subservient character, and he brings a solid dignity to the role, while Lloyd is having fun as the wild west version of a Bond villain. John Barry’s score is suitably sweeping and ensures that the film feels bigger than the oddly flat visuals try to make it. It’s not, by any means, a terrible film. It’s just not a very memorable one.
It might be wishful thinking for this film to ever be fully rehabilitated – and perhaps it doesn’t really deserve to be. It’s certainly no overlooked classic and doesn’t even work on a camp cult movie level. But if you approach this aware of its limitations and free of historical external baggage, you might find it to be a lot more fun than you had expected.