Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Is Disney's The Lone Ranger the New Munchausen? - How Film History repeats itself.

Is The Lone Ranger the New Muthe New Mnchausen?
By Abel Diaz

Since I wrote the original ‘Defending The Lone Ranger’ video & article, I’ve had the chance to go back and rewatch The Mask Of Zorro (1998), from Ranger scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, as well as the Terry Gilliam cult favourite The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), the latter I had brought up in the aforementioned work. Like Zorro, Lone Ranger uses the backdrop of real historical events (the building of the Transcontinental Railroad) against a tale of adventure & derring-do, while also having villains abusing the land and people for monetary gain: in Zorro, the corrupt governor was secretly mining gold in order to buy California from the Mexican government, and then fearing reprisals, planned to blow up the mine, along with all the workers. In Ranger, Cole and Cavendish find a hidden vein of silver, thanks to young Tonto, and massacre the local Comanche to keep it secret. 

However, it is Munchausen that Verbinski’s film owes a larger debt to, and shares similar fortunes with. Much like Ranger, it was a troubled film, enduring a chaotic production with an ever fluctuating budget, and even when released, was met with indifference by the public (though Ranger got the shorter, and considerably more vitriolic, end of the critical stick), and it’s not remotely hard to see why: it’s a very oddball fantasy, meshing various fantasies, like Central European folklore, Ancient Roman myth and even a dash of science fantasy, all wrapped up with Gilliam’s unmistakably anarchic sense of humour, going from dark comedy & innuendo to bright, Looney Tunes-ian slapstick and sight gags. Sound familiar?

There are, of course, other elements: it too was marketed rather ineffectively, in part due to in-company tensions & changes over at Columbia, with the changing of studio heads trying to bury the film as it was viewed as a symbol of the old regime. This is akin to how the combined failure of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (2012) and Disney’s acquisition of Marvel killed Ranger’s chances of being taken even remotely seriously by Disney executives, in spite of Bruckheimer & Verbinski cutting down budgets and salaries, as well as exorcising a number of costly elements from the script, such as werewolf cowboys and an overall stronger presence of the supernatural. The times had just changed. Furthermore, both feature bombastic, lively scores by respected composers (Zimmer and Michael Kamen, respectively) that become especially, almost indulgently, operatic during the last major action set piece, with Geoff Zanelli’s reworked William Tell Overture pumping up the last Train chase in Ranger, while Kamen’s blaring music adds even more to the already larger-than-life madness as the Baron and his men singlehandedly annihilate the Turkish invaders in all its cartoonish glory.

But, as important as all this background and neat little trivialities are, what else could honestly link the dark, quasi-satirical Western and the bright, eccentric tale of a German noble together? Well, let’s take a butchers’ at the story & themes: Much like Tonto, the Baron is an eccentric older man telling a story, or rather, performing on a stage to an audience, and each chapter of the tale takes on a different dimension and flavour, much like Tonto’s incorporation of elements from what's around him in the museum or when the boy points out an inconsistency. Also like Tonto, the Baron does incredible, if not outright, impossible things, such as sail to the moon, meet gods and even have friends with varying superpowers, such as superhuman strength, tempest breath and dead-accurate sharpshooting (he even has a white horse that can leap and run incredible distances, much like Silver). And then the child, here a girl called Sally, is often used as the anchor point of reality and any semblance of sense against all these fantastical elements, reminding the Baron of the gravity of their situation, and to stay focused on saving her town. The films even open with both mens’ respective worlds being put on display as public amusement; The Old West in a carnival museum, and the Baron’s life in the form of a rather lanky stage production, and them, in turn, responding to the distortions, though Munchausen is considerably more vocal and upset about the play’s portrayal of his life as pure fiction, and takes more direct control compared to Tonto, who tells the story as more of a response to the boy’s doubts about the legitimacy of the Ranger than any need to correct the present belief.

And as for the thematic, both very much partake in an oddball skewering of ‘the Establishment’ and ‘the accepted view’, with Ranger jabbing at American History and the grand myth of the West, while Munchausen, much like Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), looks at the sometimes absurd mindsets of people in power, and how the power of individual imagination can stand up to that and aim for more in life than just the same, regulated, sanctioned and tame existence that those in authority would like us to lead, and in this case, inspire others, even when all hope seems non-existent. And to a certain extent, both contrast fantasy, in effect, an older world view & belief, with the need for progress and modernity, though this is more prominent in Ranger than in Munchausen, the world of ‘mysticism’ and Native Americans being cast out, even wiped out in battle, in favour of change symbolised by the Railroad’s construction and the new Industrial Age of Steel and Steam. In Munchausen, the town’s representative, played by Jonathan Pryce, is sort of like a computer, seeing everything in terms of logic and a sort of human mathematics, tossing out battle plans for ‘complexity’ and executing a heroic soldier because they do not ‘fit in’ with his design of the world and the mundane lives the townsfolk should lead. The Baron’s eccentricity and the inspiration he imparts onto the people threatens this careful balance in his mind, and thus he tries to take any opportunity to silence this sudden burst of ‘wild light’, this ‘new thought’ or ‘mood’ among his people, whether it be shutting down the play, shooting down the Baron’s balloon, or even ultimately trying to assassinate the Baron.

However, it is where the two deviate that becomes really interesting: in Munchausen, the story proves to be real and the Turks are destroyed, freeing the town. In Ranger, however, though Cavendish and Cole are dead, and the stolen silver is buried at the bottom of the local river, the heroes haven’t really made that great of a difference: the Comanche are still dead, the Railroad is still in operation and ultimately, progress continues, the populace ultimately none-the-wiser or aware of all the corruption and backstabbing, save for Cole’s attempted takeover, that was around them, and we see the after effects of that since the boy, and presumably the rest of the world, don’t know this darker side of the story, only the sanitized version of two men righting wrongs in the ‘Old West’. Furthermore, Ranger’s authenticity is more ambiguous, with Tonto’s final word to the boy being ‘Up to you’ when asked if it was real at all, reflecting the way myths and stories are created, as well as the known distortions of history in public consciousness, while Munchausen’s is ultimately true, humorously ironic as well as a little left-field considering the Baron’s image as an enormous liar, and his constant claiming that he never does so.

Wrapping up this affair, it’s always fun to see how history, especially cinema’s, has a wonderful habit of repeating itself in some shape or form, sometimes for the better (the constant attempt at reviving pirate films with the likes of Swashbuckler, Savage Islands and the especially infamous Cutthroat Island before Pirates of The Caribbean showed up) and well, sometimes for the worse (directors riding high on hubris then producing indulgent ego projects, like Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Verhoven’s Showgirls, Snyder’s Sucker Punch and most  recently, Burton’s Dark Shadows). In time, like Munchausen, I imagine Ranger will find its audience. It may not be flawless, nor does every single aspect work, but it’s a major motion picture unlike any other, pouring a sizeable budget into a strange blend of Sergio Leone and Tex Avery that, on paper, must’ve seemed more like an elaborate April Fools than anything. Regardless if you are among the many who reviled it, or the few who adored it, Verbinski and his team have created one of the most unique blockbusters in recent memory, and as Munchausen proved, things can change quite a bit in the aftermarket.

With that, thank you all for taking a read of my humble efforts, and well, till next time.

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