The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) (DVD)

“Who is that masked man?”

It’s interesting how some films fall into obscurity. At the time of its release, 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a big-budget action blockbuster. Some sources say the movie bombed, while others allege that it performed moderately well. Whatever the case, it’s a cowboy movie shoot ’em up in the old-fashioned B-Western tradition, and it’s finally arrived on DVD.

It’s the Old West. When John Reid was a boy, he saw outlaws kill his parents. He was raised for a while by the Indians, until his older brother found him. Years later, a grownup John (Klinton Spilsbury) returns to the West with a law degree, hoping to start his own practice and also reunite with his brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry, Fools Rush In), a Texas ranger. John strikes up a romance with a local lady (Juanin Clay, WarGames), whose father is killed by members of the Butch Cavendish Gang. So John suits up and rides with his brother and the rangers to bring justice to the sinister Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future). But Cavendish, a former U.S. military man, has a trap waiting for the rangers, and he ruthlessly kills them all…or so he thinks.

John barely survives the attack, and is nursed back to health by his childhood pal, Tonto (Michael Horse, Twin Peaks). John tames a wild white horse, naming it Silver. He then swears to stop Cavendish’s evil ways by hiding his true identity behind a mask and becoming, that’s right, a lone ranger. Cavendish has big plans, though, with President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards, All the President’s Men) about to arrive by train. Can the Lone Ranger and Tonto save the president and bring law to the lawless West?

Ta-da-dum, ta-da-dum, ta-da-dum-dum-dum…

This is a fun movie. Is it perfect? No, but there’s still fun to be had. It hits all the big points for a B-Western: Gunfights? Check. Horse chases? Check. Bundles of dynamite blowing up at opportune moments? Check. The cavalry riding in to the rescue? Check. An out-of-control stagecoach? Check. Gratuitous use of Monument Valley? Check. A stampede? Uh…they must have been saving that one for the sequel.

This is the Lone Ranger’s own version of Batman Begins. We get to see who this guy is when he’s not running around in a mask, and we get to connect the dots as the various parts of the character’s mythology are introduced bit by bit. Some purists didn’t like how aspects of the character were changed from his old radio and early TV days, feeling that a detailed origin story removed some of the Ranger’s cool mysteriousness. I’m willing to look past that, personally, because this is merely one adaptation of many, and there are plenty of “classic” Lone Ranger images and moments in the movie that should delight a lot of nostalgia fans.

According to IMDb, this movie is Klinton Spilsbury’s sole film acting credit, and his voice was dubbed. Still, he’s not a bad action hero. He’s got the right iron-jawed, broad-shouldered look, and it’s easy to believe he’s this good-natured wants-to-make-a-difference type of guy. Michael Horse maintains his dignity in the often thankless role of Tonto. As written here, Tonto is more of an equal to the Lone Ranger, he gets to kick some bad guy butt, and he makes plenty of speeches about living off the land, and how all men should be free, etc. Christopher Lloyd hams it up as the villain, as well he should.

How’s the action? Not bad. Again, this is a throwback to the old-style B-Westerns, so there’s minimal blood and guts, but there are a lot of gunfights, chases, and explosions. The entire movie zips along at a quick enough pace so that even if it’s obvious where the story is going, you won’t get impatient for it to get there. There are some big set pieces as well, including an elaborate train heist and a million-things-going-on-at-once finale.

What doesn’t work? Spilsbury looks right for the part and he comes across as likable, but he is a little wooden in some of his more dramatic scenes. The “Man in the Mask” country tune by Merle Haggard is cheese in the cheesiest possible way. Even worse is Merle’s state-the-obvious narration, which the movie doesn’t need at all. When Cavendish, wearing a black cape for crying out loud, sentences two innocent men to death by firing squad, there’s really no reason for a narrator to tell us Cavendish is “everything that’s bad.”

Again, this is a B-Western at heart, so I can forgive less-than-stellar acting, dated cheese, and needless narration. What I can’t forgive is releasing this movie in a weak, fullscreen-only DVD. Not only has it been clumsily panned and scanned, but the picture is covered with specks and scratches throughout. The 1.0 mono is simple, but at least it’s free of any obvious defects. There are no extras whatsoever, so the chance to learn anything about the movie or about the Lone Ranger’s long history in various media makes this disc an enormous missed opportunity.

Be warned: If you watch this movie, you’ll get the freakin’ William Tell Overture stuck in your head for days afterward.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger is old-fashioned B-Western fun, and it’s nowhere near as bad as some have said. It deserves to be rediscovered by fans of cowboy adventure flicks. Unfortunately, thanks to this shoddy DVD, I simply can’t recommend a purchase.

The Verdict

The movie: Not guilty, kemosabe. The DVD presentation: There’s gonna be a hangin’ at sunup.

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