This summer brought us not only one of the most high profile westerns in a long time, but it also brought us what is arguably the genre’s biggest flop.
Disney’s The Lone Ranger is projected to lose its funding company somewhere around $150 million when all is said and done. It was a big budget, highly advertised western that came on the heels of surprise breakout hits like True Grit and Django Unchained.
Many expected the film to bring the western genre back and bring it back hard, but it seems it’s done more harm than good to the genre. It’s time for western fans everywhere to ask themselves whether the $215 million flick flopped because people don’t want to see men on horses with six shooters anymore, or whether it’s just because Hollywood forgot how to make a real western.
I’m going to go with the latter.
It’s hard to argue that westerns have endured a long, dusty dry spell. In many cases, they have simply modernized themselves. For instance, you can take any Die Hard flick and break down exactly why it’s a western film at its core. Westerns are simply movies that celebrate the individual, set up a match between good and evil and they usually push some old-school values even when they are toeing the line when it comes to violence and promoting anti-heroes.
Still, the oater has struggled in recent years. It’s a homegrown American genre so it’s hard to sell in a film market that is becoming more and more global. Every few years a modestly budgeted one manages to gasp through and some are actually pretty good. A few even make money.
Such was the case for True Grit and Django Unchained. The excitement for those films no doubt led Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to believe they could maximize profits with Lone Ranger by appealing to a wider audience than the previously mentioned films.
However, it all backfired. Lone Ranger failed to get western fans excited and to even start to think about the financial losses is to get a throbbing headache. But, if audiences came out in droves for a Tarantino western and a Coen Brothers’ western then what is the problem?
It’s certainly not that audiences are tired of westerns. I’ve already mentioned the previous two films were hits, but let’s not forget other recent western hits like Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma or how about the record setting miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys? Then there’s the hit AMC television series, Hell on Wheels, currently airing its third season.
No, sir. People are certainly not tired of westerns. In fact, they seem to crave that grit and individualist celebration if anything. The problem with Lone Ranger is that it forgot about what audiences crave from a western. Bruckheimer and company seemed to think horses, trains and cowboy hats were enough. That’s all superficial though. John McClane never jumped on a horse in Die Hard. Although, that would’ve been pretty cool.
I didn’t hate The Lone Ranger as much as other people. In fact, I enjoyed it. Never, though, did I think it was a true western. It was a film that was trying far too hard to appeal to the biggest audience possible. It was goofy, strangely dark in places and it attempted to be deep on some level by shifting the focus to Johnny Depp’s Tonto. The last thing the film did, however, was try to be a western. Never did we get the sense of the individual above all else in the flick. The movie could never even decide who the main character was or what the exact motivation for each character really was. We also didn’t get any sense of old school grit or overall values when it came to freedom or anything else examined by most westerns. The Disney flick kinda just made us want to smile and not much more.
Our hero, John Reid, walks around in the beginning of the film spouting early theories about government and eventually learns that a gun is sometimes the right way even when the law doesn’t approve. It’s a cool theme for a western to examine, but Lone Ranger glided right over it. That was something Grit and Django didn’t do. The first brought us an anti-hero that fought for real values and justice and an innocent and strong little girl. He was a drunk that still believed in something. The latter film brought us a character fighting for freedom above all else. It was a spaghetti western celebration of the individual’s right and right to fight for that right.
That’s why those westerns won at the box office and Lone Ranger didn’t.
The other two were true blue westerns while Ranger was just trying to fill seats by showing us cool stunts and throwing green paper at the screen.
Real westerns are hard to manipulate into mass appealing Disney certified fast food entertainment. Old John Wayne westerns celebrated heroes and real American values while old Clint Eastwood westerns celebrated the individualist mentality. It’s all very American, very cool and very fun to watch. Lone Ranger didn’t get it unfortunately. It cost too much and tried to be too innocent in its nature which is unfortunate for the overall genre because Ranger was seen as the film that could invigorate the genre thanks in large part to its big names, giant studio backing and huge advertising push.
So it seems we will have to recede to the times when we just got modestly good westerns every few years and occasionally someone like Tarantino entered the genre and really got it. That’s where western fans are at again. Ranger stalled any real progress the genre had made with audiences and studios. However, while studios and big name artists have forgotten the exact American, individualist celebrating formula that made Westerns what they are, television seems to be starting to get it. The dark Hell on Wheels is rocking its third season on AMC and Dances with Wolves director and star, Kevin Costner, gave us the historically brilliant miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, which aired on and broke records for History Channel.
Let’s hope the western takes its progress and moves more towards television where the folks still seem to get exactly what makes a western a true American tale.