Editor’s note: Scout Tafoya’s latest edition of “The Unloved” might be my favorite installment to date, and not just because it breaks from the usual format and considers two films rather than concentrating on just one. It is an exercise in discovery, challenging conventional wisdom in the gentlest way. I like both “Heaven’s Gate” and “The Lone Ranger” a more than most critics (the last one somewhat notoriously more; follow the link and you’ll see that I’m still getting angry comments about my very positive review!), and I tend to like Westerns, or at least find them interesting, even if parts of them really don’t work. But I’d never considered the similarities that they share until I watched this video. There are a lot. And I mean a lot.
On a superficial level, both films represented immense commercial and artistic gambles. The commercial climate for Westerns was only slightly more hospitable in 1981, when “Heaven’s Gate” came out, than in 2013, when director Gore Verbinski tried to revive the legend of the Masked Man. Both directors expended nearly unfathomable resources on films whose styles audiences generally found confusing or irritating. “Heaven’s Gate” was written off by critics and the handful of viewers who saw it as as an overlong, pompous, politically and dramatically incoherent example of ’70s auteurism at its most indulgent. “The Lone Ranger” was rapped for its tonal clashes (dark violence plus broad physical comedy, with flashes of satire), and for casting Verbinski regular Johnny Depp, whose claims of Native American ancestry have been disputed, as the Lone Ranger’s Apache friend and mentor, Tonto.
But I always thought there was substance to the admittedly grandiose gestures of Cimino’s epic, and I fell in love with (some might say fell for) “The Lone Ranger” as well. Even as a pre-film-literate middle schooler, I was fascinated by “Heaven’s Gate” because it didn’t look, feel or move like any Western I’d seen. It was long and slow and intensely physical (Cimino notoriously built entire towns with functioning interiors and exteriors, an indulgence that would’t be permitted again until HBO bankrolled “Deadwood”). Also notable: the film was largely devoid of traditional gunfighter-movie cliches. It told the story of assimilated European whites oppressing more recent immigrants, which was something few American films had shown us (on this scale, anyway), and tried to get at how the myth of Manifest Destiny was made real through sweat, blood and misery, mainly in the name of commerce, an expansion undertaken for the benefit of bankers, railway and mining companies, and the hired goons known as the Pinkertons (the Blackwater mercenaries of their day), and at the expense of marginalized groups, including the recent immigrants who suffered so much in Cimino’s film.
As Scout’s video points out, “The Lone Ranger” has a heck of a lot of similarities to “Heaven’s Gate,” including a narrative of Manifest Destiny as capitalist nightmare (but with Native Americans rather than European immigrants being trampled upon). Its style is altogether more daring than Cimino’s, which functioned mainly in a single mode (lavish tragedy). Verbinski’s film starts out as a “Heaven’s Gate” type exercise in myth-puncturing, with an aged Tonto relating the “real” story of the American west to a credulous 20th century boy in a Lone Ranger outfit, but because the entire thing is presented as the Native American’s flashback, it all seems less a refutation of lies than a counter-myth (to use Oliver Stone’s great phrase).
And it’s as wild as any cantankerous old man’s yarn about his youth. The tale and the telling are both quite elastic. We’ll watch an outlaw cut a man’s heart out of his chest or hear a harrowing story of a massacre, and accept the horror at face value, but these scenes will be nestled next to examples of classically styled Hollywood spectacle (Verbinski knowingly stages some key scenes in Monument Valley, John Ford’s old stomping grounds) or outrageous slapstick (the final locomotive chase is modeled on Buster Keaton’s silent comedy “The General,” and Helena Bonham Carter shows up as a frontier madam with a Gatling gun for a leg). Ford and Clint Eastwood are in here, and so are Sergio Leone, Sam Raimi and the Three Stooges. You could say it’s all too much, and that a lot of it doesn’t work, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But as was the case with Cimino’s movie, “The Lone Ranger” recombined all its old elements into something ungainly yet undeniably fresh. Nobody with honest eyes could look at it and say, “Oh, no, not another one of these; I am so sick of films like this.”
Nor was it possible to claim that either film had nothing in its head, or on its mind. Nestled inside the sooty nimbus of “Heaven’s Gate” and the cartoon campfire glow of “The Lone Ranger” you’ll discover a pair of pained laments. As Scout puts it, “The films concern America’s shameful treatment of immigrants and indigenous people, respectively. They couch their bloody histories in almost stifling artistry: a painter’s grandiose vision of a land claimed for those apparently destined to have it. Both films fear the future, because with the brutality of an edit, happiness and progress become distant memories. Those who had it in them to make a difference were denied the chance by reality.”
The Unloved – The Lone Ranger & Heaven’s Gate from Scout Tafoya on Vimeo.