The Lone Ranger galloped into our lives first via a radio series in the 1930s, followed by two serialized movie adaptations, novels, comic strips and an animated series.
The story: a do-gooder lawyer named John Reid is ambushed by the devilish Butch Cavendish. He’s left for dead and nursed back to life by the noble Native American Tonto. Now, with his trusty steed, Silver, he fights injustice under the masked guise of The Lone Ranger!
“HI-YO SILVER, AWAAAAAAAY!”
Modern audiences were either burned out by the wildly hyped 2013 version or are among the apologists slowly building a cult following for that Johnny Depp vehicle (no snarky retort here, as Depp and that film’s level of flamboyance were the best thing about it).
What may surprise some is that the Depp and Armie Hammer-led franchise non-starter wasn’t the first major effort to shine the spurs and tighten the mask of Reid’s horse backed crime fighter. There were the fifteen-chapter movie serials from 1938, in which Reid was played by Reid Powell, and the beloved televised version, in which the character was embodied by Clayton Moore (and, briefly afterward, John Hart), alongside Jay Silverheels as Tonto.
Then there’s Klinton Spilsbury, a name that any Trivial Pursuit or “Jeopardy!” player should know well. Spilsbury’s starring role in William Fraker’s 1981 “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” and how his work was obstructed in post-production, is just one of the infamous aspects of the notorious film.
The plot to the 1981 film sticks closely to the source material.
We witness Reid’s tortured childhood and friendship with Tonto, leading to his adulthood as an attorney. He’s later shot by some bad guys and resuscitated by Tonto, leaving him hungry for justice.
It’s all played with a straight face.
The film’s brutal opener is strikingly similar to the beginning of Scott Cooper’s 2017 western, “Hostiles.” It’s an alarmingly tough way to begin a PG-rated movie.
The film is only a few minutes old when we get to the first big problem with the whole enterprise: Merle Haggard’s ballad narration, titled “The Story of the Man in the Mask,” plays over much of the film. Haggard’s silly spoken word accompaniment is unintentionally funny in part but a drag to endure for the entire running time.
How painful is Haggard’s narration? Here’s a sample lyric:
“Some say he was a monster, and others called him mad. Let’s just say that Butch Cavendish was everything’s that bad.”
FAST FACT: Spilsbury landed the job that could have changed his life had “Legend” not bombed in every possible way. Still, he beat out a number of high-profile actors for the role, including Stephen Collins, Bruce Boxleitner and Kurt Russell (who read the script in question but did not audition).
How is Spilsbury’s performance? I have no idea. He’s been dubbed by James Keach, whose deep vocals overshadow anything Spilsbury does. It’s unfortunate that Spilsbury won a Golden Raspberry award for his work here and became a one-and-done, George Lazenby-like figure.
Andie MacDowell suffered a similar indignity in her big breakthrough role, as the love interest in “Greystoke The Legend of Tarzan, King of the Jungle” (1984), where she was dubbed by Glenn Close.
Whereas MacDowell survived the experience and has had a long and successful career, the handsome and capable Spilsbury never acted in film again.
Far better is Michael Horse (also in his film debut) as Tonto; Horse is best known for his authoritative performance as Deputy Hawk in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” He brings appeal and dignity to a character that, in a lesser actor’s hands, could have been a demeaning sidekick role. Also appearing in a debut turn is Juanin Clay, playing the love interest -- she’s a likable presence that the film keeps forgetting about.
Playing Butch Cavendish, the main villain and the traditional key enemy of Reid, is a post-“Taxi” Christopher Lloyd. He’s the most interesting character here, though he’s defined solely by his surface-level evil deeds and has no depth.
It helps that Lloyd occasionally wears a massive black cape that exudes Bad Guy.
Lloyd is trying for a Snidely Whiplash-level of heavy but every bad guy he played subsequently (in “Star Trek III,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and even “Dennis the Menace”) exuded far more danger. John Hart, who played The Lone Ranger for 54 episodes of the 1950-1953 television series, notably has a cameo as Lucas Striker, father of the female lead.
It helps immensely that Laszlo Kovacs is the film’s cinematographer and that William Tell’s music still has the power to get us on the edge of our seats. However, they play the William Tell Overture four times during the third act and it’s still not enough.
I found myself rooting for the film and liking the story, even as the obvious dubbing of Spilsbury, uneven performances, slack pacing and especially Haggard’s ridiculous recitation undermine it.
This was made during the 1980s, when the western genre was experiencing a major drought. What was the top grossing western of the decade? Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider” (1985). Otherwise, the Me Decade gave us westerns ranging from the studio-destroying “Heaven’s Gate,” the ridiculed Charlton Heston vehicle “The Mountain Men,” the respected Walter Hill-directed “The Long Riders” (all from 1980), Lawrence Kasdan’s failed attempt at genre resurrection, “Silverado” (1985) and the popular, beefcake-infused “Young Guns” (1988).
As the first big budget adaptation of the source material, years-removed from its glory days as a radio fixture and serialized film and TV attraction, “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” is a dud but every bit as interesting as the even more extravagant live-action Disney version that would emerge 32-years later.
Comparing this to the 2013 Gore Verbinski-helmed remake makes for some interesting contrasts and similarities: both provide origin stories of Reid and Tonto versus Cavendish, and both climax with big locomotive sequences and explosions, as well as last minute utterances of “Hiyo silver, Awaaay!”
At least Fraker’s film isn’t embarrassed about this latter touch, unlike the Disney film (complete with Depp’s Tonto telling The Lone Ranger, “Don’t ever do that again”). The ’81 version has no overly-busy CGI or narrative bloat but also lacks the elegance and grace notes found within Verbinski’s elephantine but not unwatchable version. Also, in both films, Tonto is the far more engaging figure than John Reid.
While “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” is surprisingly brutal, there’s too much moseying around and not enough giddy-up. There are far too many dead spots in the second act, with Reid’s slow-motion training of Silver taking far too much time. It takes 58-minutes (yes, I clocked it) before Reid dons the mask and the William Tell overture finally shuts Haggard up.
Once our hero is The Lone Ranger, the action snaps the movie into high gear. Also helping is Jason Robards, bringing wit and a welcome bluster as Ulysses S. Grant. Alongside Robards (albeit too briefly) is the late, great Richard Farnsworth as Wild Bill Hickock; to think what a Robards/Farnsworth western could have been.
The attempt to revive a classic serialized adventure during the same summer as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman II” hit a major snag in the publicity department. In David Rothel’s splendid (and out of print) book, “Who Was That Masked Man? The Story of the Lone Ranger” (1981), he goes into detail about the troubling news that greeted the film: a surprise controversy wound up undermining the release, as the studio demanded that Clayton Moore, the original actor to play The Lone Ranger, was not permitted to wear his mask in public, in order to keep the ’81 image of the character youthful.
The 65-year-old Moore was allowed to make appearances but only as himself and not in the mask. This led to the “Return the Mask” petition in favor of Moore who, according to Rothel, was surprised he wasn’t offered a role in the film (unlike Hart).
The trailer for “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” declared, “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.” If only the character weren’t so antiquated, particularly in the gloss of the ‘80s, and the film itself wasn’t such a malnourished horse.
With its total lack of post-modernist touches or ’80s movie conventions, I give it a slight edge over Verbinski’s overlong 2013 botch, though at least that film allowed us to hear what the actor playing The Lone Ranger actually sounds like.
Spilsbury and the film itself deserve better than becoming a cheeky footnote.