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Can the Lone Ranger put Westerns back in the saddle?

Johnny Depp and the “Pirates” team hope to make the Western genre ride high again with “The Lone Ranger.”
BY GEORGE LANG Modified: July 3, 2013 at 5:37 pm •  Published: July 5, 2013

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.

Sentimental favor

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.

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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.”

Jerry Bruckheimer,
executive producer, “The Lone Ranger”


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