If Johnny Depp and Disney persuade millions of people to return with them to those thrilling days of yesteryear, then “The Lone Ranger” will succeed where so many movies have failed in the past three decades. It might just revive the Western.
This is no mean feat, but for executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, it is a dream that goes all the way back to his childhood, when he watched “The Lone Ranger” and “Gunsmoke” on television.
“I wanted to be a cowboy,” Bruckheimer said during a Comanche Nation-sponsored red carpet premiere for “The Lone Ranger” in Lawton with Depp and director Gore Verbinski. “We lost that Western genre, and we've got to bring it back. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are two ways to bring it back.”
But even with star power and the full faith and credit of Bruckheimer and Disney, it might take a lot for Hollywood to get back in the saddle.
Return to yesteryear?
It's been a long time since the commercial clout of Western movies rode off into the sunset, but for decades, cowboys were the backbone of the Hollywood film industry.
It all began 110 years ago with Edwin S. Porter's “The Great Train Robbery,” and the Western became a staple of the silent film era when stars such as Tom Mix ruled the matinees.
And when the “talkies” took over, the Western entered its classic era in which great directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks brought the genre to new levels of artistry with “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo,” all of which starred the quintessential Hollywood Western star, John Wayne.
Western movies maintained their popularity, thanks in part to Sergio Leone's “spaghetti Westerns” starring Clint Eastwood, and television brought cowboys into America's living rooms on shows such as “Rawhide,” “Maverick,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “The Rifleman.”
But the genre's popularity in movie theaters began to recede in the 1970s, and with John Wayne's death in 1979 and Eastwood increasingly moving into other genres, the Western lost its big-screen luster. In 1981, filmmakers tried to bring back the Masked Man in “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” but its failure had as much or more to do with poor moviemaking as it did with the dwindling popularity of the Western. Meanwhile, scenarios that used to play well on horseback were moved into galaxies far, far away.
But Hollywood never really gave up on the Western, partly because of the sentiment of power brokers such as Bruckheimer, who grew up shooting cap pistols and watching “Have Gun — Will Travel.”
In 1985, the Western attempted a comeback with Lawrence Kasdan's “Silverado,” a kind of “yuppie Western” starring Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum from “The Big Chill,” and Eastwood's “Pale Rider,” which explored much of the same territory as Eastwood's “High Plains Drifter.” While both films performed well at the box office, the returns were not strong enough to stage a full-scale Western revival.
Eastwood's “Unforgiven” won an Oscar for best picture eight years later, and “Wyatt Earp” and “Tombstone” found solid success, but Western revivals were always short on the big screen, never generating enough critical mass to build into a full-fledged trend.
Even so, Westerns continued to pop up regularly on the small screen, notably with 1989's wildly popular miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” based on Larry McMurtry's novel, and then 15 years later with “Deadwood,” David Milch's critically acclaimed revisionist Western series for HBO. Recently, A&E also has enjoyed success with its modern Western “Longmire,” starring Robert Taylor and Katee Sackhoff.
The new film version of “The Lone Ranger,” based on characters that first turned up on radio serials 80 years ago and later on television with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, comes after a recent trend of gene-splicing the Western with science fiction — the genre that essentially replaced it in the Hollywood hierarchy.
This was tried with 1999's “Wild Wild West,” starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline, and again two years ago with “Cowboys & Aliens,” starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. Neither film earned back its production costs: the $170 million “Wild Wild West” only brought in $113.8 million at the theaters, and “Cowboys & Aliens” barely scraped $100 million, falling well short of its $163 million budget.
But Depp, Bruckheimer and Verbinski have been in a showdown with a seemingly moribund genre before. Back in the early 1980s, both “The Pirate Movie” and “The Pirates of Penzance” walked the plank at the box office, and in 1995, director Renny Harlin's “Cutthroat Island,” starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, became one of the most notorious box-office disasters of the modern era, a $98 million movie that only earned back about one-tenth of its costs.
Few people in the industry wanted to cast their lot with swashbucklers, but then “Pirates of the Caribbean” became a massive franchise — the four films in the series totaled over $1.3 billion in tickets, and a fifth is due in 2015.
Despite the pedigree for “The Lone Ranger,” neither Verbinski nor Bruckheimer said he is willing to place any bets on this latest foray into the West — at least, beyond their already huge investment of time and money.
At this point, it all comes down to whether audiences choose to ride along with this time-honored hero of the frontier.
“It all depends on the audience,” Verbinski said at the Lawton screening. “Let's see what everybody thinks.”
“I'm never confident,” Bruckheimer said. “I'm always expecting the worst, hoping for the best. I never know. If somebody says they made a hit movie, they don't know — the audience decides what a hit movie is. Luckily, they're much smarter than me.”
I wanted to be a cowboy. We lost that Western genre, and we've got to bring it back. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are two ways to bring it back.”
executive producer, “The Lone Ranger”