The early Eighties saw a slew of Westerns greenlit by studios, many hoping to ride on the coat-tails of the anticipated success of Heaven's Gate (who knew it would become a by-word for box-office disaster?) - The Long Riders, Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Barbarosa and this attempt by Lew Grade's ITC to start a new screen franchise. On paper it wasn't without promise. Legendary cinematographer William A. Fraker had directed the excellent Lee Marvin-Jack Palance Western Monte Walsh, while co-writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts had written a number of James Cagney films (including the classic White Heat) and William Roberts had written the wonderful comic Western The Sheepman as well as contributing to The Magnificent Seven. It even boasted a John Barry score.
The result was a massive and critically reviled box-office disaster in its day - it ran a single week in a handful of UK cinemas - not least because of one of the greatest PR fiascos in film history when the producers outraged America by taking out a court order to stop original Lone Ranger star Clayton Moore from wearing his mask at charity events. The stink was so great that even the same producers' Raise the Titanic grossed more. So, a quarter century on, is this little-seen, never revived Western really that bad?
Not exactly: it's just not very good, slow and pedestrian for much of its running time. It takes nearly an hour of drawn-out backstory for John Reid to don his mask and become the Lone Ranger, and once he does, he doesn't exactly do much. Indeed, there's little action in the film - a stagecoach robbery at the beginning, a good canyon shootout in the middle and a lot of explosions at the end. Unfortunately, it doesn't find that much interesting to fill in the gaps with.
Part of this is down to the leads. Klinton Spilsbury is inoffensive but defiantly unmemorable as The Lone Ranger - I've got furniture with more personality - while Michael Horse's Tonto fares little better. Jason Robards phones in his performance as Ulysses S. Grant, the great Richard Farnsworth has nothing to do as Wild Bill Hickok and Juanin Clay's romantic interest is dropped no sooner than she is established. Only a restrained Christopher Lloyd makes an impression as the evil Butch Cavendish.
Today the film is more interesting for its very obvious influence on the plot of the so very much better The Mask of Zorro - as in Martin Campbell's film, the hero adopts a mask and a disguise to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of a disgraced officer who plans to turn his province into a small country. There's even a scene between the Lone Ranger, disguised as a priest, and his romantic interest in a church confessional, a la Zorro. But what's missing here is the panache: everything is workmanlike and uninvolving. Even John Barry's score, hampered by Merle Haggard's unfortunate title song and some persistent rhyming narration, seems to be just going through the motions when the film really needs the kind of zest an Elmer Bernstein could give it to kick some life into it, while Lazlo Kovacs' cinematography seems equally underwhelmingly murky when it should be spectacular.
It's watchable and it's certainly not the war crime contemporary critics made it out to be, but it's still a missed opportunity.
On the plus side, though listed as 4:3 fullscreen, Prism's original UK DVD release is actually letterboxed in the full original 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. No extras, but the reasonable price and the decent widescreen transfer helps compensate. The DVD reissue from Network films, also 2.35:1 widescreen, at least includes the trailer and a stills gallery. The US NTSC DVD is fullframe.