One Last ‘Lone Ranger’ Question: Does History Matter?

The “Ranger's" filmmakers took liberties with the true story of the West that are howlers — at least to anyone with a even a cursory, sixth-grade understanding of history.

In Jerry Bruckheimer’s new film “The Lone Ranger,” history takes a back seat to entertainment — but what entertainment it is!

Despite the critics, everyone I saw it with this weekend thought it a stunning effort — epic in all senses, both as a story and a filmmaking venture. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Last Tycoon,” in the entire history of moviemaking there are only a few men who came claim to have held the entire equation in their head — and can you imagine the moving pieces of story, characterization, performance and logistics Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski kept in line as they traversed the West from Monument Valley to the edge of Mexico?

They deserve credit — and the millions earned — just for finishing, let alone allowing it to be sweet and funny. (Recent examples of films where the logistics overwhelmed narrative and performance? Well, let’s see: “After Earth,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” “White House Down”….) In Calabasas, the audience, young and old (though, honestly, that may have been parents and kids) gave it the ultimate accolade, standing in the exit aisles while the last of the credits rolled, as though willing it to last longer.

Also read: Johnny Depp Can't Save 'Lone Ranger' From Being 'John Carter'-Sized Bomb for Disney

That enthusiasm won’t save Disney, of course, which abandoned the movie long ago … if it’s possible to abandon a quarter-billion (with a “b”!)-dollar baby! But it does look like they just put it in the proverbial marketing boat and pushed it downstream. For instance, in the Valley, “The Lone Ranger” was on just as many screens at the multiplex as “World War Z” or “Man of Steel,” which opened nearly a month ago — or exactly one!

Worse, Wednesday (before it opened!) the business news pundits were all speculating how big a write-off Disney would take … and as a former business reporter, I can tell you that if those “independent” analysts all share the same opinion that’s because that’s what the company is leaking to them. The kiss of death for the poor, lonely “Ranger”: Like “John Carter,” he was was being blamed on the previous studio regime!

Which is a shame because as the warm reception it got in Calabasas shows the picture deserves better. (Nationwide, it got a “B-plus” from CinemaScore — unusually strong for an action movie.) Still, there is one issue to discuss: What place does history have in an historical epic, even one about a mythical, if not quite mystical, figure?

We know there was no actual “Lone Ranger” — he was one of those pre-packaged Western heroes created a long after the closing of the frontier by a radio-station owner and a writer in Detroit, of all places. Perhaps because it was the height of the Depression, the myth they concocted — a white-hatted/black-masked believer in truth, justice and the American way — succeeded, running for a score of years on radio and nearly a dozen on TV.

Since he’s already “ahistorical,” it would be picky to worry how today’s Masked Man (and trusty sidekick Tonto) differs from the “creation myth.” But the “Ranger's" filmmakers did take liberties with the true story of the West that are howlers — at least to anyone with a even a cursory, sixth-grade understanding of history.

“Yes” or “no” answers only, please.

Easy: Was there ever a chance under any plan that the transcontinental railroad would go through Texas? Duh … no! Starting points were considered from St. Louis to Chicago — in the end Omaha was selected–but all envisioned a straight run to San Francisco (L.A. was at the time not even a cow town but a sheep one!) But you knew that

Tougher: Did the struggle to reach completion at Promontory Point in Utah (a couple weeks’ hard ride from Texas) involve Indian wars? No, because it was largely the settlers the railroad brought that caused the battles over the next two decades

Toughest: Were the silver mines that were the impetus for the route anywhere near Texas? No — they were 1,500 miles northwest at the socalled Comstock Lode in Nevada under the control of an entirely different railroad company.

For extra credit: Can anyone explain how those Chinese coolies (who landed in San Francisco) got to Texas before the railroad was finished?

A lot of that is irrelevant — even seasoned hands get it wrong. For instance, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (who should know better) embraces the notion that Lincoln pushed the railroad through in the first year of the Civil War as an act of leadership when in fact it was a desperate attempt to get at that great lode out West to finance the war.

In like manner (one of the great untold stories of the Civil War!) the Confederacy, too, sent teams of raiders riding halfway across the continent to seize that silver. Of course, the war ended before either effort came to fruition. Still ….

Having said that, I’m now of the mind that I really don’t care. Forget sixth-grade history — if you wanted, you could find the answer to every question above in minutes on the web. On the other hand, if “Ranger” scenarists Elliot & Rossio and Justin Haythe had spent any more time explicating things, their already two-and-a-half hour entertainment would be pushing “Lawrence of Arabia” in length (and require an intermission!)

So, does history matter in movies anymore?

The answer, I think, is “no” — the internet has rendered the question moot. There was a point, half-a-century ago when it did, when films carried the weight of history. The year was 1962, and the historical epic reached its apogee with the release of both “Lawrence” and the equally magnificent “The Longest Day.”

Before the internet, for example, if you wanted to know more about Lawrence than the cursory line or two in a World War I history book, you’d have to travel to a major university research library which might have, well, one copy of Lawrence’s 1,000-page “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Similarly, if you wanted an overview of ‘Operation Overlord,” the culmination of Eisenhower’s half-decade battle to defeat Nazi Germany, you’d have to pore through Ike’s own 12-volume “Crusade in Europe.” 

Try finding that in your local library. So the veracitude with which Darryl F. Zanuck approached “The Longest Day” was important.

Similarly, prior to the invention of photography, it was equally as important that paintings  be figurative and realistic — it was the only image we had of much of the world. After photography, painting was suddenly freed to become more “impressionistic” (in both the small and large cap iterations), abstract and, ultimately, “pop.”

That’s what the internet has done for film — freed it from the freight of facts. As we used to say when I was on the sports desk: When the facts get in the way of a good yarn, print the legend–it’s only sports. In like manner, today, movies are, more than ever, well, just movies.

Let’s simply enjoy them as such.