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The Lone Ranger: Never take off the Mask


‘Who is behind the mask, the observer or the wearer?’ a question posed by milliner Stephen Jones, who created a series of masks inspired by The Lone Ranger to tie-in with the film’s release. It is an interesting idea, that we are hidden from view in a mask yet paradoxically more visible than ever. No-one knows for sure where masks came from. We can trace their existence back to man’s earliest ancestors, but for what purpose? Entertainment? Disguise? Protection? In cinema the mask has become visual shorthand for the hero, or more accurately the superhero. The Lone Ranger spins this notion on its head somewhat, because although the man in the mask, aka John Reid (Armie Hammer) is ultimately the victor, he is at first the fool.

The Lone Ranger’s mask is fashioned from the leather waistcoat worn by his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) when he was murdered – the eye holes made by the very bullets that killed him. Tonto (Johnny Depp) hands Reid the mask in much the same way as Garth the treasure hunter hands young Indy his fedora in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It represents what Reid is becoming, the pieces of lore falling into place. Reid’s mask is not created in the same way as, say, Batman or Spider-Man’s, which are part of uniforms developed to conceal identity and aid the wearer to fight crime. In effect Reid’s Lone Ranger is created because of the mask. It is a symbol of his inner pain and desire to seek justice.

The Lone Ranger_Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer hat mid_Image credit Disney Enterprises Inc

Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger wearing a classic Stetson brand hat, one of around 20 the actor tried for the film.

Again, unlike costume superheroes Batman and Spider-Man (if Batman can be termed ‘super’), The Lone Ranger is openly mocked for donning a mask. This is part of his growth in the story. Reid actually discards the mask at one point because he does not really understand its purpose. It hides his true identity, much like the Green Lantern, but in reality Reid acts more like the Green Hornet (who is related to The Lone Ranger); a bumbling buffoon with a so-called sidekick smarter and more capable than he. The mask has to look silly because although The Lone Ranger does not yet frighten bandits and outlaws, he absolutely cannot frighten ordinary members of the public. He is not a vigilante but a custodian who operates outside the law.

The creation of Armie Hammer’s mask was a complex undertaking. Costume designer Penny Rose handed this task over to make-up artist Joel Harlow, who went through 15 versions to ensure shape and fit were just right. Reid had to look like a man, albeit an exceptional one in the circumstances, the audience could sympathise with and relate to. The more of Hammer’s nose the mask covered, the more Batman-like he became. Not enough and his identity was too easily revealed, too much and he became cartoonish. In context the mask needed to look strange, just not ridiculous. It was externally constructed of leather with a base structure that allowed Hammer’s face to move comfortably underneath. The colour is black, which may seem obvious, but Clayton Moore’s mask in the original TV series was purple because the tone was more distinguishable on black and white film. For this new Lone Ranger the hue is saturated – Sam Peckinpah rather than John Ford – with colours popping to reflect changes in mood, such as the comedic brothel scene with Red Harrington (Helena Bonham-Carter) in her ‘painted lady’ make up and racy (mid-calf, even knee) saloon wear.

The Lone Ranger_Helena Bonham Carter dress lef full_Image credit Disney Enterprises Inc

Penny Rose’s costume design is muted and more or less period accurate, particularly for the gentleman. The only dramatic flashes of colour belong to Helena Bonham Carter’s brothel madam, Red Harrington.

Even though director Gore Verbinski evidently wanted to steer clear of making The Lone Ranger a Batman or Spider-Man esque superhero, the character’s motivations and reasoning for disguise are basically similar. On Tonto’s advice, Reid dons the mask to fool his brother’s murderers into thinking he is still dead. He needs to protect himself from outlaws, and yet by the close of the story he has essentially become one himself. Only a handful of people know Batman and Spider-Man’s identity because their deeds are hidden behind a mask. They are not believed to be dead because they do not exist in the first place; both men are enigmas. What they have in common with Reid is that the mask is their true face. Yet Reid would not see himself as a vigilante but more an incorruptible force for good. Ironically, without the disguise Reid can be whom he likes, with the disguise he must be perfect.

“Never take off the mask” whispers Will (Mason Cook), the little boy dressed as The Lone Ranger heeding the words of very elderly Tonto. The Lone Ranger is the mask, the culmination of John Reid the man. Without it his identity is displaced. While a mask can protect, camouflage and – in the great tradition of the costume hero’s theatricality – entertain, it can also hide the grotesque (the Phantom). The only grotesque face of John Reid is the one he was born with. Despite Armie Hammer’s leading man handsomeness, his character’s real beauty stops at the mask. Will apes The Lone Ranger because of what he stands for; the white hat, white stallion, red scarf, Ranger star and mask that come together to forge a hero. Contrary to popular opinion, such men are made not born. “Show me a hero,” said author F. Scott Fitzgerald “and I’ll write you a tragedy”.

The Lone Ranger is released on 9th August.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

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