Consuming the Past: The Lone Ranger

HALLOWEEN 2016: BY RACHEL KOVACINY

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When I first went to see the 2013 film version of The Lone Ranger, the last thing I expected was a film that involved people coming back from the dead, a horse that could fly, and cannibalism. Especially the cannibalism. Tonto and Silver working some kind of magic to heal the ranger’s wounds wasn’t a big surprise. After all, the original radio and TV series both involved him being nursed back to health by Tonto after being left for dead. And Silver has always been an exceedingly intelligent, powerful character in his own right, so him being portrayed as a spirit horse with special powers didn’t feel like a big stretch either. Besides, the whole film is a legend being told by a very old Tonto to an impressionable, credulous little boy, so those changes seem more like embellishments old Tonto uses to make the story more exciting, rather than strictly factual occurrences.

But the cannibalism — that’s something else entirely.

Obviously, it’s disgusting. The villain Butch Cavendish cuts out Dan Reid’s heart and eats it in front of his dying brother John. Previously, Cavendish cut off another character’s leg and ate it. That’s beyond gross, and I’m forever grateful that we don’t actually have to watch either of those on screen — the first is seen only vaguely in reflection, and the second is merely implied.

But unlike some of the strange and supernatural elements of this film, the cannibalism is an integral part of the plot, not just weird details added by an unreliable narrator trying to impress his audience. In fact, the theme of cannibalism runs all through the film in some very interesting ways. Besides Butch’s literal cannibalism, and a bunch of freaky bunnies that prey on each other in one startling scene, the film has all kinds of metaphorical cannibalism going on. Character after character destroys one or more of their own kind, consuming them in a less literal way, but still somehow benefiting from their demise.

It all begins with Tonto. In this film, Tonto was responsible for the death of everyone else in his village — as a young boy, he unwittingly traded their lives for a pocket watch. In a way, his desire for something shiny consumed not only his family, but everyone he knew.

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Likewise, John Reid is somewhat responsible for his brother’s death — if Dan hadn’t suspected his wife Rebecca still had feelings for John, Dan would not have taken John along on that fateful manhunt. John wouldn’t have been in deadly peril, and Dan wouldn’t have been killed trying to rescue him. John’s feelings for his brother’s wife, even though he did not act upon them, cost his brother’s life.

Then there’s Mr. Cole, the film’s other villain. His greed causes him to take over the entire railroad venture, injuring and killing the railroad’s other investors in the process. Cole’s need for power demands that his erstwhile colleagues be either subdued or destroyed. Cole also desires a family and heir, and decides to acquire Dan Reid’s wife and son, presumably orchestrating the Ranger’s death to facilitate absorbing Reid’s family into his own.

In many native cultures around the world, cannibalism was practiced not as a source of food or to satisfy a weird and creepy personal craving, but as a ritualistic way to gain power. Some cannibals would consume specific parts of their enemies in order to absorb their power, and the literal cannibalism that Cavendish practices fits with that. He eats a ballet dancer’s leg, and later a brave and loyal Texas Ranger’s heart, as if he wanted their agility and strength for his own. In other ways, that idea is also upheld, as when Cole and John get nearer to what they want. But it is sometimes subverted, especially when Tonto loses his family and friends. Cannibalism doesn’t always get you what you expect.

It’s a fitting theme, isn’t it, for a movie remake of a TV show from the ’50s, which was itself a remake of a radio show from the ’30s. As the TV show took what it needed from the original radio show and replaced it in the public consciousness, so the movie takes what it wants from the TV show and transforms it into a new entity. In a way, every remake is a product of cannibalism, which makes The Lone Ranger a commentary of sorts on the Hollywood obsession with making new versions of old material. Sometimes a remake improves on the material it has consumed and remade. Sometimes it only destroys the original in the public’s opinion. But sometimes it transforms the original idea in a radically different and interesting way, creating something at once familiar and new. And that can be powerful.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s story “The Man on the Buckskin Horse” appears in the Five Magic Spindles anthology now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com

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