Missing a knight's zeal

Stolid star dooms ranger's return

Published: Apr 15 2015, 01:01:am

Wednesday, June 3, 1981.
THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER. Written by Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Michael Kane, William Roberts and Jerry Derloshon. Based on characters created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. Music by John Barry. Directed by William Fraker. Running time: 98 minutes. Mature entertainment.
     Why would John Reid want to bury his identity, don a mask and become the nomadic frontier vigilante known as "the Lone Ranger?"
    The best answer to that question was spoken on a children's record,  a 78-rpm disk released by Decca in 1951 (Deccalite 88065 — He Becomes the Lone Ranger): "ln the ranger's eyes there was a light that must have burned in the eyes of knights in armour, a light that through the ages lifted the souls of strong men, men who fought for justice, for God!"
    Divine obsession. Although they may not have known it, the shade of Miguel de Cervantes hovered over Detroit radio station MKYZ on the evening of January 20, 1933.
    The station's owner, George W. Trendle, had an idea for a new western adventure show. Copywriter Francis H. (Fran) Striker was hired to create the scripts, and actor Brace Beemer to speak the words.
    The Lone Ranger was a young Don Quixote. Played straight, he was an American knight errant whose "impossible dream" of justice and frontier democracy had national appeal through the difficult days of the 1930s and 1940s.
    Nearly 50 years later, the appeal is still there. The Legend of the Lone Ranger producer Walter (All the President's Men) Coblenz started out with a powerful, potential blockbuster of a film property.
     On the whole, his instincts were right.
    Former cinematographer William Fraker's direction is straightforward and uncluttered. He acknowledges a visual debt to the late John Ford with an effective stagecoach chase through Utah's Monument Valley. Overall, he keeps things moving along at a brisk pace.
    Fraker benefits from a well-considered screenplay, a committee effort bearing the names of Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Michael Kane, William Roberts and Jerry Derloshon. What the boys in the back room worked up is a story that could just as easily have been called "the legend of Tonto."
    l've always suspected that Tonto was the real brains of the operation. Here, that suspicion is brought to life by Los Angeles-born Michael Horse, a part-Indian actor who makes it clear that Tonto's relationship with Reid is a partnership whose terms have been set out by the native American.
    In a pre-credit sequence, young Reid (Marc Gilpin) sees his parents killed by outlaws. Young Tonto (Patrick Montoya) takes the orphaned Reid to his village. They eventually part as blood brothers when Reid's older brother Dan (John Bennett Perry) comes looking for him.
    Years later, the adult Tonto finds Reid (Klinton Spilsbury) critically wounded in Bryant's Gap. Since their parting, the Indians have fallen on hard times and Tonto is personally embittered by the loss of a wife and child.
    Although he is bound by his blood-brotherhood, Tonto tells his tribal elders that, if Reid proves false, he himself will kill his "kemo sabe." Here, it is Tonto who makes the decision to ride free and pursue justice.
     Restored to health, and with his own sense of mission enflamed, Reid joins his old friend.
    For the purposes of the big screen presentation, the screenwriters have beefed up the subsequent storyline. "Butch" (for "butcher") Cavendish, the outlaw responsible for the Bryant's Gap massacre, is also presented as a man obsessed.
    Introduced as Major Bartholomew Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), he is a renegade Union Army officer with Aaron Burr-like pretensions. He is plotting the dismemberment of The Republic and the creation of his own independent kingdom in Texas.
    To that end, his gang kidnaps President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards), whom they intend to ransom for a territorial cession. So far so good.
    Although Merle Haggard's theme-song ballad, The Man in the Mask, is inconsequential, composer John Barry's more robust music works well. Barry, who scored nine of the James Bond pictures, knows just when to defer to Rossini's William Tell Overture, and cut loose with the Masked Man's blaring signature tune.
    The framework is solid enough. Unfortunately neither Coblenz, Fraker nor their mob of screenwriters confronted the tale's essential question. As a result, The Legend of the Lone Ranger is a film without an intense central focus.
    Absolutely nothing burns in the eyes of novice actor Spilsbury. With no previous feature acting credits, he's thrust into the difficult and demanding role of a man consumed by his noble mission, a man who must personify righteousness and dedication without looking ridiculous.
    Nobility is a quality that few contemporary actors can convey. With the notable exception of Christopher (Superman) Reeve, few performers know how to ignite those sparks.
    For the most part, today,  such good guys are played for laughs. Strong and silent has come to mean musclebound and dumb. Sam J. Jones's 1980 impersonation of Flash Gordon lurches to mind.
    Spilsbury's problem is that he lacks a commanding presence. Without that fundamental star quality, his characterization hasn't got a chance. In virtually every scene, he is upstaged by his fellow actors. When there's no other human on screen his horse steals his scenes.
    The Legend of the Lone Ranger is an entertainment package with enough colour and action to hold the attention of the youngsters. Older Ranger fans, unfortunately, are likely to be disappointed.
    *    *    *  
KLINTON SPILSBURY IS THE ninth actor to play The Lone Ranger. On radio, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains was voiced by George Seaton, Jack Deeds, Earle Grader and, of course, Brace Beemer.
    In 1938, Republic brought the character to the screen in a 15-part serial called The Lone Ranger that starred Lee Powell. Bob Livingston took over the role in a second serial, 1939's The Lone Ranger Rides Again. (A 1940 feature, Hi-Yo, Silver, was a cut-down version of the first serial.)
    From 1949 to 1957, there was a Lone Ranger television series. John Hart (who has a small role in the current film) played the title role in 54 of the 166 half-hour episodes. The TV Ranger most people remember, though, is Clayton Moore. A former stuntman and serial star, Moore was also seen in two earlier theatrical features, 1956's The Lone Ranger and 1958's The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Not mentioned in the above chronology of live-action Lone Rangers was the character's success as a newspaper comic strip. His long run on radio (1933-1954) was matched by an even longer run in the funny papers (1938-1971). The release of a major motion picture led to a revival that ran just three years (1981-1984) before wearing out its welcome. Then there were the comic books. Lone Ranger titles began appearing in 1939 and new titles have appeared regularly in comic shops ever since.
     In 1981, filmgoers were eager to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear — Stephen Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark
was the year's top-grossing film — just not the ones recalled in The Legend of the Lone Ranger. A box-office flop, it failed to make a star of Mexican-born Klinton Spilsbury (whose on-screen speaking voice was dubbed by established actor James Keach). It was Spilsbury's single feature film appearance, and he disappeared from view until reporters sought him out to comment on director Gore Verbinski's 2013 The Lone Ranger, the one that starred Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. Spilsbury refused to offer an opinion, but probably noticed that the recent feature was an even bigger failure than his own, a monumental financial disaster that currently ranks fourth on Wikipedia's list of Biggest box office bombs. His absence of charisma notwithstanding, Spilsbury does not lack for a sense of humour, as I discovered last January when a discussion of Johnny Depp's avian headgear in The Lone Ranger led to the question "whatever happened to . . . ?" According to Internet sources, Spilsbury has coached actors at Vancouver's Sylvia Herpolscheimer Academy of Performing Arts. Really? I'm still trying to decide who's being punked here — Vancouver or the Internet?