115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tonto as Reshaper of How the West Was Won

Suzanne Arakawa, California State University, San Bernardino

A character narrator is seldom needed in Hollywood blockbusters. I will examine the role of Tonto as storyteller in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013) and how by amending the visuality of the Old West, Tonto reshapes how it was won in this neo-Western blockbuster.


     Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013) employs a dual protagonist formula with John Reid and Tonto as partners. John Reid’s arc highlights his transformation from an official hero to a vigilante hero. In the end, John chooses not to take off the Lone Ranger mask, for he learns about justice in the West: The rule of law cannot protect the innocent from ruthless hegemonic forces.

     Tonto (the younger) wants revenge against the rapacious brother duo that has killed his tribe, but he channels his rage into rescuing and then joining forces with John. I will look at the dynamics of their partnership in my analysis of the elderly Tonto’s role as framer of their tale – the storyteller who narrates his and John’s adventures for a boy visitor at a 1933 San Francisco carnival side show of Old West relics, of which Tonto is one on display. A character narrator is seldom needed in Hollywood blockbusters, which commonly feature narration as “the organization of a set of cues for the construction of a story” (Bordwell).  However, my paper will explore how narrator Tonto is connected to the objective correlatives in his storytelling to enhance his story’s veracity and to engage the boy’s sympathies.

     T.S. Eliot explains that the objective correlative can be “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” The objective correlative can be seen in cinema as “an external object that represents a character or a state of mind” (Hal Ackerman). I will examine how the cinematic use of objective correlatives in The Lone Ranger (2013) - the dead crow worn on Tonto’s headdress and the pocket watch to name a few -  are deployed to evoke emotion and underscore thematic meaning in the movie.

     The West in The Lone Ranger is visualized by the filmmakers as part homage to John Ford scenery, part comedy and part tragedy. The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks interrupted by the present day questions from the S.F. boy. The boy visualizes the American West through the eyes of an Old West relic (Tonto, who himself becomes an objective correlative at film’s end). The objective correlatives in Tonto’s story guide the boy toward a new way of seeing the American frontier and how to envision that the duo’s brand of justice needs to be kept alive (the boy too puts on the mask at film’s end). The sensory experience described to the boy (and shown to the audience) prompts an emotional response to what has seldom been posited in most Hollywood Westerns – the roots of genocidal cruelty. The resplendent visuality of the West is evoked in the film and then amended by Tonto whose pivotal role as the film’s damaged conscience reshapes the story about how the Old West was won in this neo-Western blockbuster.