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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Dis List: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) review


Klinton Spilsbury (The Lone Ranger/John Reid), Michael Horse (Tonto), Christopher Lloyd (Butch Cavendish), Jason Robards (President Grant)

Directed by William A. Fraker

The Short Version: History repeats itself in reference to this early 80s LR movie and its 2013 counterpart. Both were huge bombs, but for speculatively different reasons. One had a temperamental film star and confrontational producer, and the other tells things from the Indian's perspective... an Indian who happens to have a dead crow plastered to his head. Looking back, the 80s Lone Ranger movie is both a bore and a chore to sit through; although the Dukes of Hazzard style rhyming narration from Merle Haggard is good for a few (make that a lot of) unintentional laughs.

Ambushed by Butch Cavendish, John Reid, the sole survivor of a massacre of Texas Rangers, is rescued by his childhood friend, Tonto. Nursing him back to health, Reid and Tonto go after Cavendish and his gang to rescue the kidnapped President Grant.

One of the biggest theatrical stink bombs of the 80s, the residue is apparently still lingering since there's barely any mention of it whatsoever by the media in the wake of the new, even more disastrous Lone Ranger movie (as I was finishing up this review, I did find an Entertainment Weekly article from July 2nd covering the ill-fated production and the elusive Klinton Spilsbury). Disney's version has bigger action set pieces, but thankfully, and in its defense, the older movie has no Tonto with a dead bird stuck to his head.

Despite a lead actor who'd never been the star of a movie before (but displayed a professional level of primadonna nuances), and a producer who doomed his production by suing Clayton Moore to keep him from dressing up as the LR character, Fraker's flick simply isn't very good. At approximately 100 minutes (including end credits), it feels like HEAVEN'S GATE is unfolding before your eyes. 

Moreover, for a movie with the words 'The Lone Ranger' in the title, you'd expect a multitude of rousing action scenes. You get very little of it. But you do get lots of scenes of galloping and riding around rocky and grassy terrain. As a consolation prize, the cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs is awe-inspiring and the John Barry score soars.

Unfortunately, the score occasionally feels out of place when backing one of the least engaging interpretations of the famous LR character ever presented in front of a camera. In his sole movie credit, Klinton Spilsbury never brings the role alive. He essentially sleepwalks through the entire picture. To make matters worse, most, if not all his dialog scenes were re-dubbed by James Keach; and it's still a horribly unenthusiastic performance. 

Christopher Lloyd emerges with his dignity intact playing the title villain, Union Army Major Butch Cavendish. The film could have been moderately better had we seen more of him; and especially seen more of him engaged in more dastardly deeds than what little we do get. Lloyd's Cavendish makes the picture watchable, but it's all undone by Merle Haggard's horrid rhyming narration that creeps up on ya' every few minutes. It recalls Waylon Jennings' DUKES OF HAZZARD schtick. Below is an example of this country fried, old west rap:

"Butch Cavendish lived undisturbed wagin' his private war... and men who made mistakes were simply men he could not afford... some say he was a monster... and others call him mad... let's just say Butch Cavendish was everything that's bad..." -- apparently, someone thought this sort of thing was a good idea.

End credit watchers will spy Tom Laughlin waaayyy down the credits as a member of Cavendish's gang. Fans of 70s cinema will recall Laughlin's name and persona from a quartet of boring as all hell, leftist propaganda movies about his infamous Billy Jack character. Laughlin himself headlined a crappy western of his own entitled THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER in 1975. By 1981, he was pretty much irrelevant, and his fleeting background glimpses (background at right of Lloyd in insert, and wearing his Billy Jack hat!) in LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER was his last movie appearance.

The action scenes in TLOTLR are few and far between, but we do get some impressive stunts on a couple of occasions. Terry Leonard's near fatal stagecoach stunt is worthy of a Jackie Chan movie. The accident where he nearly lost his leg (and his life) remained in the final cut. 

The opening is suitably brutal, but bad acting and the ridiculous, intrusive narration derail whatever seriousness the filmmakers were going for. There's another, totally separate, and equally silly voiceover that crops up just as the end credits begin that also threaten a sequel that never materialized. There is a funny Custer in-joke, though. The finale is nicely edited and fairly exciting, making good use of the classic William Tell Overture. Other than that, there's not much else good to say about this Legendary Lone Ranger disaster.

***The images for this review come from a widescreen version that aired on Showtime Extreme a few years ago. The 2008 US DVD release utilizes a fullscreen version. A region 2 DVD contains a widescreen version.***

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