I meant to continue my look at gothic suspense writers this week, but I was feeling kind of blah yesterday. So I made myself a cup of tea and stretched out on the couch to watch some television. My choices were bleak as I scrolled through my 200 something channels, until I hit on The Lone Ranger, a feature film made in 1956 featuring the television series actors, Clayton Moor and Jay Silverheels.
It was pretty much like the television episodes, consisting of the same elements. I watched the whole movie, and paid attention. Why?
Here’s a hero, whose possibly thick black locks are always covered by a big cowboy hat, except when it falls off in a fight, at which time they are covered in dust, straw, and dirt, and stick up like a fright wig. No suave James Bond. No debonair romance hero. Half his face is covered with a mask, the other half is fairly expressionless as is his voice. He definitely has the narrow hips and wide-ish shoulders of the romance hero, but nothing out of the usual. He does wear a tight stretchy cowboy outfit, matching shirt and trousers in gray? Baby blue? The movie is in black and white, so it’s hard to tell.
He’s accompanied by a native American side kick- scout, Tonto, who was given lines like, “Me go now.” And, “Him say no war.” And one can only wonder what Jay Silverheels, (who was born Harold J. Smith and was a member of the Six Nation Tribes of Canada), thought about that.
The rest of the characters were the typical cardboard cutouts, the good, but ineffectual sheriff, the evil, powerful rancher who wants to start an war with the “Indians” because he covets the silver lode that is contained in Spirit Mountain on the reservation. In order to rile up the locals, he has his men dress up in feathers and war paint and attack his neighbors, he even sends his young daughter out so that she will be captured by the “Indians” and he will have a further excuse to gather outraged citizens for the attack. Oh, and there’s the dynamite he’s bought in another town. There was a minor subplot about Angry Deer attempting to usurp the power of the ailing chief. There wasn’t a romantic interest at all. The strongest supporting roles were played by Silver and Scout, their trusted steeds. Smart , loyal, strong.
So you’re beginning to ask, what’s the point? Why was this guy so popular? These days we expect three dimensional characters, subtle emotions, sophisticated action scenes.
True but in spite of this, I was glued to the action. In spite of the clichéd characters, the standard plot, the predictable ending, it worked. Thanks to the emotion, pacing, tension, timing and stunts.
Something I as a writer took to heart.
Watching men ride single file through a narrow pass knowing full well, the warriors were waiting to ambush them, knowing that the evil rancher knew this and had his men waiting with dynamite. The pacing was steady, the tension building and tightening, increased by the cutaways to the Ranger fighting it out with the guys with the dynamite.
Both stars did much of their own stunt work, and I have to say it was pretty impressive. I winced more than once. A lot of rolling down rocky, dusty foothills, not all of which was accomplished by dummies. And none of which was replaced by computer animation.
By the time it was over, I was rooting for the cavalry to get there in time. So with all its faults what made it appeal to me? Right winning over wrong. Good over Evil.
It reminded me how important it is to tap into those universals when telling a story. And to beware falling into two dimensional extremes while doing it.
Sometimes you need a down day, away from the strees and routines or your work day. I probably would have never have been inclined to watch an old cowboy movie. But I’m glad I did.
I’m thinking those cowboys had a special something that we can appreciate even after they’ve gone out of style. I just did a Google search and I’m amazed by the variety and number of westerns. I remember some of them, heard of others and plan to expand my knowledge. There were the Mavericks, Cheyenne, Roy Rogers, before the roast beef, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Shane . . .