Monday, January 18, 2010

"Him find out what Kemosabe mean." or "What you mean 'we,' paleface?"

THE KICKER - Tonto, the Faithful Indian Companion of… you know what? It can be really hard to write about the sidekick before the boss, especially in the 1940s, when the description is pretty much just “Faithful [Ethnicity] Companion.” Anyway, it’s the 40s, so you know that Indian means Native American, because the other kind didn’t exist then. You also know pretty much his entire personality, because in those days, Indians didn’t have anything better to do than follow white people around and do tracking and healing while fawning over the white guys in broken English, talking about bear spirits and shit. By the way, “Tonto” is Spanish for “idiot” and not any Native American language for anything. He is said to be a prince of the Powotomi tribe, but since they live in the Northeast, it’s anyone’s guess why he was wandering around Texas. So who’s the lucky whitey?

WHO THEY’RE KICKING - John Reid, a.k.a. The Lone Ranger. John was part of a gang of Texas Rangers, including his father and brother, who were attacked by bandits and left for dead. But the bullet that was meant for John’s heart was stopped by his badge (I think this was a late entry to the legend, but I like it, so I'm sayin' it.). Tonto just happens to be passing by, and helps John give the others a proper burial. They decide to become roving do-gooders, with a home base in a silver mine, from which John mines silver not only to fund their exploits, but also to make silver bullets to leave as calling cards. Also his horse was named Silver. Guy’s got a theme. I don’t know the name of Tonto’s horse, and if you want to know the name of John’s nephew’s horse, you’d have to ask Darren McGavin. The Wikipedia entry states, and I quote: “Together, they seem to be capable of righting almost any wrong within the half-hour time frame.”

(No, I have no idea. I think it was an attempt at a TV series on The WB, but I'm really not sure.)

WHAT THEY BRING - Healing and tracking" Frankly, Tonto gets shafted pretty hard. The Lone Ranger wears a mask and gets a code name, but Tonto just has to be Tonto, hanging around in the back moping. He doesn’t even get a gun in the earlier versions. His major role seems to be to give the Ranger someone to talk to, since a radio show of a guy riding a horse around saying “Hmmm,” probably wouldn’t move a lot of Ovaltine.

WHERE’S THE RESPECT? - Like Kato after him, Tonto was a brave and intelligent minority hero who had the misfortune of being written in the 1930s. There’s not much good in being a positive role model if the theme song calls you an “Injun”. Subsequent versions enhanced his role in the story. While the pidgin English remained, the 1938 serial made Tonto the one who saved Reid from the ambush, rather than just some passerby. The TV series codified the origins given above, which had been somewhat ambiguous on the radio show, frequently going to a “White guy saves minority’s life, minority follows him slavishly” trope used in such varied media as Star Wars, Star Wars Episode 1, and probably some other stuff. The horrible 1981 movie “Legend of the Lone Ranger” made Tonto the guy that trained the rookie Reid in shooting and such. (By the way, I MEAN horrible. The lead actor, Klinton Spilsbury, never did another movie again. And with a matinee idol name like that, how could you go wrong?) This all lead up to the current comic book series, where Tonto saved Reid’s life, and is shown to be his equal or superior in nearly every field. Reid is just a bit better at analysis, and is the one who actually wants to help people. Tonto portrayed as close to an equal partner, joining Reid out of an almost grudging respect for his passion for justice. They also played with his look, making him muscular and about a foot taller than the Ranger. The series gives an explanation for his name (“It‘s what they used to call me,”), his dubious ethnicity (He’s an outcast from his tribe, which he refuses to identify,), and a love interest (The widow of the Ranger’s brother.). Yup, everything’s coming up Tonto.

Of course, Disney’s developing a new Lone Ranger movie, and has Johnny Depp playing Tonto. On the one hand, Depp is one quarter Cherokee at best, thus making him actually more racially inappropriate for the character than past actors, which is rare in cases like this. On the other hand, they cast Tonto before the Ranger, and got the A-listiest of A-listers to play him, so there’s some respect there. And that’s nice.