Saturday, December 31, 2011

THE LONE RANGER AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD (1958)





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*

CITY (which I deem the best abbreviation for the movie's long-winded title) was the last outing for the Lone Ranger of the 1950s following the conclusion of the series.  It was also the last official performance of Clayton Moore as the character, though the actor continued to make public appearances in costume and, according to imdb, never again portrayed any non-Ranger-related role.  In 1979 the company that owned rights to the Ranger character sued to block Moore from such unsanctioned activities, but relented when the suit netted them nothing but bad publicity.

Still, had Moore never again been able to play the masked man, CITY would have made a good if not exceptional film with which to conclude.  Directed by Lesley Selander, a specialist in horse operas, and scripted by a writing-team that had already collaborated on various TV-show episodes, CITY has a strong sociological theme relating to the fate of the "red man" at the hands of white culture, and a minor metaphysical theme that alludes to the subject of Indian beliefs about deific forces.

The latter theme is constituted almost entirely in terms of an Indian legend related to Tonto and the Ranger.  Back in the time of the conquistadors, a tribe stood in danger of being wiped out by the superior firepower of Coronado's troops as the soldiers searched for the fabled "SevenCities of Gold."  The night before the conquistadors' attack, a "fire from heaven" crashes down upon the conquistador camp and wipes out the enemies of the Indians.  Being a rational fellow, the Lone Ranger deduces that the Spaniards were wiped out by a falling meteor, but Tonto's demurral-- that the Indians believe the fire came from God-- is supported by the thrust of the story as a whole, which concerns the Indians of a particular tribe getting back their own from the white man.

The story proper begins with the heroes coming to the rescue when a band of hooded outlaws ambush an Indian's wagon, killing him but leaving behind his infant son.  Tonto and the Ranger take the child to a local mission, whereupon they learn that the same outlaws have been repeatedly attacking many Indians in recent months, always despoiling them of jewelry or related trinkets.  While the heroes investigate, Selander reveals the villain as a rare female antagonist: a ranch-owning widow named Fran Henderson.  Aided by her foreman Brady, Fran is the secret boss of the hooded outlaws.  Her goal is to regain the separated pieces of a medallion which, when assembled, will lead its possessor to one of the fabulous "seven cities of gold." At the conclusion we'll learn that the "city"-- actually a city-like expanse of golden stalactites-- resides beneath the ground where the meteor of legend crashed, which doesn't make a lot of sense but allows for a good emotional payoff.

In addition to coveting ancient Indian treasure, Fran-- though she's plainly keeping Brady loyal with displays of affection-- shows some interest in the town's local doctor, James Rolfe.  Unbeknownst to her and to the town-- dominated by a bigoted sheriff-- Rolfe is a half-breed, who has concealed his Indian heritage in the hope of earning enough money from the whites in order to build a mission hospital to help his people.  His true love is the full-blooded Indian squaw Paviva, who works at the mission and desires to adopt the orphaned child.  This causes her to put pressure on Rolfe to reveal himself as an Indian so that he can marry her, implying that the white commmunity of the town would have taken a dim view of a white guy marrying red.  At the same time, Rolfe is justifiably concerned that if he comes out of the closet, he'll be ostracized from the town, short-circuiting his plans for improving his people's lot.  Though the Rolfe-Paviva story is clearly the "B-story" beside the main storyline of the Ranger's pursuit of murderous outlaws, the two complement each other quite well.  Eventually, after Tonto has a violent encounter with the bigoted sheriff, Rolfe does the right thing and reveals his nature to the people, who rather quickly renounce both their own bigotry and the sheriff's.

The upshot is that, following a few more encounters with the outlaws, Tonto and the Ranger unmask the villainess, moments after she kills her foreman in a fairly grisly scene for what must have been sold as a "family western."  They recover the medallion's sections from her, which leads them to the sunken "city."  Because the gold is on Indian land, it's assured that now the doctor will have the necessary funds to build his hospital, and for once a western ends with the unequivocal triumph of the "red men."

Some reviews speak of the meteor's role as propelling the film into the realm of science fiction.  But though the meteor accrues some symbolism as a possible manifestation of the "Hand of God," the meteor has no marvelous properties, though it might be deemed a mark of the uncanny.  However, as noted elsewhere the mere fact that the main hero wears a mask alone qualifies the film within that phenomenality, under the "outre outfits" trope.

2 comments:

  1. I saw this in the theater as a very young child (accompanied by my sister) and loved it. A few weeks ago it was shown in some obscure movie channel and I caught the last half, thoroughly enjoyed it. Tonto's finding of rhe Lost City was exactly as I remember it from fifty plus years ago.

    One thing that occurred to me afterward, and it took a while (I watch a lot of old TV shows and movies) is a possible connection (and I know this is a stretch) between the movie's lost city and the western legend of the fabled Lost Dutchman mine, so famous that nearly evert TV western series of the 50s featured at least one episode loosely based on it, nearly always under another name. Sometimes it turned out okay in the episode, in some cases it was a curse; and occasionally it was a kind of mirage, an illusion, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow sort of thing.

    Given your mythology (anthropolofical?) orientation, I'm curious if you have any thoughts on this. As I went over the topic in my mind the John Huston Treasure Of the Sierra Madre came to mind as a kind of more modern, naturalistic version of same, albeit on a more modest scale and with no "legend", just a bunch of Americans digging for gold, with tragic consequences. That the story was set in Mexico does not "disqualify" it, as I've done a little research and there are "Lost Dutchman mine" legends that went south of the border, into Mexico, thus there could be a connection.

    BTW, in Sierra Madre, as in the Lone Ranger picture, the land (and in the latter's case the gold) ultimately belongs to the humble natives/Indians, essentially reverts to them in the end.

    Sincerely, John (aka on the CHFB as Telegonus)

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  2. Thanks, John. I think you're right; it seems to me that I too was always seeing TV-takes on the Lost Dutchman. Mythically one might say that for westerners it took the place of conquistador legends like El Dorado. One of these days I want to review MACKENNA'S GOLD, which gets a really weird vibe out of the quest-for-lost-gold story.

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