One of the sources for the controversy surrounding Disney’s Lone Ranger reboot has been the decision to feature Johnny Depp as the titular hero’s American Indian sidekick, Tonto. Reactions have ranged from supportive – including leaders of the Navajo Nation – to skepticism about Depp’s asserted Cherokee/Creek heritage – and even outcries that Depp playing Tonto is tantamount to the actor going “Redface.”
The first image of Depp as Tonto didn’t help, especially given the surface similarities between Depp’s Lone Ranger getup and his well-known Jack Sparrow costume. However, it was quickly pointed out that Depp’s look was more than simply another example of the A-lister’s artistic eccentricities; instead, it’s seemingly inspired by “I Am Crow”, an artistic representation of the Crow people from the American midwest, painted by Kirby Sattler.
“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean… There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.
“It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top. I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.”
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The actor also re-iterated his own previous statement(s) on why he wanted to portray Tonto, saying he aims “to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant. As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”
Depp’s claims echo those of director Gore Verbinski, who likewise has expressed an intent to subvert the traditional Lone Ranger mythos in the upcoming reboot. Their approach to said task (so far) looks to include making Tonto the narrator who recounts “the true story” about the eponymous masked cowboy’s adventures – and incorporating elements of American Indian mysticism that gave rise to the much-ballyhooed werewolf rumors – all brought to life in a “photo-real” representation of the Old West, as detailed in recent photos leaked from the Lone Ranger‘s “set” in the New Mexico desert (see below):
Whether or not Depp and Verbinski – working from a screenplay originally penned by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), then reworked by Pirates of the Caribbean series writers Ted Eliott and Terry Rossio – will ultimately manage to pull off the task they’ve set for themselves… well, we’re all curious to find out the answer to that question.
The actor and director team managed to create a memorably odd inversion of the Western genre with last year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar-winner Rango, while their success at reinvigorating the swashbuckling adventure genre with the Pirates series is well-documented – to say nothing of Verbinski’s previous (successful?) attempts to infuse some new life into the crime/caper genre with The Mexican and integrate Japanese horror elements into an American context with The Ring.
That’s all to say: Lone Ranger should likewise be an “interesting” demonstration from Verbinski in how to dust off an old-fashioned (outdated?) approach to storytelling – and refurbish it for the 21st century.
Lone Ranger rides into theaters around the U.S. on May 31st, 2013.