Perverting Tonto: Magical Realism?

The Lone Ranger

The other night I watched the movie, The Lone Ranger, starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. Before the movie premiered I saw the trailer and was eager to see it, as I’m a fan of both actors. The movie got generally panned, which I usually ignore when making my viewing choices, but I never did make it to the cinema to see it. When it showed up on HBO I decided I’d indulge. A friend had seen it and said she thought it was actually pretty good.

The Lone Ranger first originated in 1933 as a radio show. The show’s writer used the success of the series to spawn a number of books, including comic books, and eventually a TV series that ran from 1949-1957. The recent film was the first theatrical filming of these characters in 32 years. It is challenging to translate stories that are well known, be they historical and factual in nature like Titanic, or comic book tales with millions of devoted fans. And of course, the conversion of any story into film suffers from the usual criticism: it’s never as good as the original.

After about a half hour, I decided the critics were right. I’ll admit to being an avid fan of the TV show when I was a child and had preconceived notions as to the characters and general storyline. However, the writers added a mystical element and gave backstory that they either invented or perhaps had been part of the original story. Immediately it became apparent that the writers chose to use magical realism and I wondered as to the reason. Was it to make some important commentary, or were they just so consumed with being original that they chose to distort the story/characters to absurd lengths?

Magic realism, is an aesthetic style that blends magical elements and reality in order to reach a deeper understanding of the real world. These magical elements are usually explained like normal occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that allows the “real” and the “fantastic” to be accepted in the same stream of thought. It has been widely considered a literary and visual genre. *

The Components of Magical Realism.

 Contains fantastical elements.
 The fantastic elements may be intrinsically plausible but are never explained.
 Characters accept rather than question the logic of the magical element.
 Exhibits a richness of sensory details.
 Uses symbols and imagery extensively.
 Emotions and the sexuality of the human as a social construct are often developed
in great detail.
 Distorts time so that it is cyclical or so that it appears absent. Another technique is
to collapse time in order to create a setting in which the present repeats or
resembles the past.
 Inverts cause and effect, for instance a character may suffer before a tragedy
 Incorporates legend or folklore.
 Presents events from multiple standpoints – ie. alternates detached with involved
narrative voice; likewise, often shifts between characters’ viewpoints and internal
narration on shared relationships or memories.
 Mirrors past against present; astral against physical planes; or characters one
against another.
 Open-ended conclusion leaves the reader to determine whether the magical and/or
the mundane rendering of the plot is more truthful or in accord with the world as
it is.

Excerpted from

The opening scene depicts a statue of an aged Tonto at a Wild West sideshow in 1933 and a young boy, sporting the famous mask, intently fixated on the iconic Comanche Indian. Tonto suddenly comes alive and begins to explain how the Lone Ranger came to be. The incidents of magical realism are evident in Silver, a horse with reindeer-like and other-worldly abilities, and Tonto, in scenes reminiscent of Night at the Museum and the Masked Man himself, who is now a “spirit walker.

I knew who the Lone Ranger and Tonto were, and suddenly they had powers and abilities I couldn’t accept. Based on the definition of magical realism above, I concluded that there were plenty of fantastical elements, lots of symbolism, and extensive distortion of time. For example:

  • The Lone Ranger winds up dead but then is identified as a “spirit walker” by the ghost horse, Silver.
  • Silver brings him back to life.
  • Silver tells him (through Tonto) that as a spirit walker he has been to the other side and returned as a man who cannot be killed in battle.
  • The Lone Ranger reawakens on a rickety platform and we have no idea how he got there. Suddenly he’s on the ground and we have no idea how he got down.
  • As things aren’t going according to plan, Tonto keeps feeding the bird on the top of his head, saying he’s waiting for the spirits to return and reignite their powers.
  • Time shifts from 1933 back and forth on too many occasions to count.
  • The dynamic twosome sit around a campfire roasting some “bunny meat” when a gang of ferocious hares appear. They bare their teeth in a horrifying and threatening manner then devour the meat (of one of their brothers?) that Tonto throws them. Ick. (I have no idea what the point of that was.)
  • Symbolism: the white hat, the silver bullet, the mask, the silver watch, turning silver into birdseed, the hare eating a scorpion then looking at the audience. Tonto makes the silver bullet from the stars of the massacred Texas Rangers (one of whom is the Lone Ranger’s brother) and the mask from the leather of his dead brother’s vest. The white hat is just a red heron, it’s too big and everyone makes fun of it. Again, not sure what the point of that was.

The movie sums up as the boy questions the truth of the tale (as did I). But I’m not sure what “deeper understanding” of the real world was explored through the use of magical realism. It might have been the discussion between the boy and Tonto when he asks, “They really killed the innocent Indians and the settlers for silver?” Or when he comments on nature being out of balance and if the masked man is real? Tonto gives him a silver bullet and tells him to decide for himself and the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off into the vastness of the western plains. I’m not convinced this was an effective use of magical realism. Instead it felt as if the writers were simply going for a shock factor. But to what level do we take it, and what makes the story, or our take on it, one that people will accept and enjoy versus one that turns a viewer/reader off?

I think these writers were mostly consumed with being original to the point of absurdity. I’m okay with it being campy but, honestly, a magical Tonto was just too much for me. I saw no value in perverting these characters. 🙁

* Wikipedia








Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

4 thoughts on “Perverting Tonto: Magical Realism?”

  1. I think the people that like the film are not people that grew up watching the tv show. That’s fine for them, but as I, like Caryn, have an image of the Lone Ranger in my mind that I want to protect, I think I will take a pass on this film. Thanks, Mrs. McGill.

    1. Excellent point. Those not acquainted with the well-known icon of our childhood might have been entertained, but not me. Thanks for stopping by!

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