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The Lone Ranger rides again! more or less

It's a corny way to begin, but a fact's a fact: The Lone Ranger rides again! So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when a masked crusader and his Indian pal fought for truth, justice, and the American way in the Wild West. Thanks to Universal Pictures and Hollywood's yen for nostalgia, "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" has finally made it to the wide screen.

For us who grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto as grainy figures on a black-and-white TV set, they weren't just characters, they were the stuff of a minor myth. "Who wasm that masked man?" we'd ask ourselves each week, after watching him dispatch the latest gaggle of villains. His origins, like those of Superman, were rarely referred to. I think it was a Lone Ranger comic book that first gave me the whole story of John Reid, the Texas Ranger whose buddies were killed in ambush, leaving him --down the scoundrels who did it, leaving a swath of law and order in his wake.

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Even as a kid, I wondered why he bothered with that mask. Some disguise. It was more like a neon sign, and every bad guy north of Mexico was gunning for it. But then, a man who spends his income (what income?) on silver bullets, and hollers "Hi-yo Silver!" to his horse, clearly has a flair for showmanship. And it worked: The Lone Ranger is the "legend," leaving Tonto -- anyone remember his horse's name? -- to be the "faithful sidekick."

In any case, the yarns about these two have never been forgotten since they were first dreamed up, ages ago, by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. The new movie version deals with the origins of the Lone Ranger, his childhood with Tonto's tribe, his budding legal career, the ambush in which he loses his brother and his friends, and his determination to fight the forces of evil. There's even time for a brief love affair, and a daring rescue of none other than Ulysses S. Grant.

It could have been outrageously campy, or crazy, or chaotic. But actually it's a lot of fun. The only real problem is an excess of violence, which is false to the spirit of the Lone Ranger, and false to the humane values he's supposed to represent.There's also a bit of vulgar language which seems drastically out of place, by contrast with the hero's longstanding TV image.

For the rest, it's a rollicking good show. The big question, of course, was whether to avoid the most obvious flourishes -- "Hi-yo, Silver!" and "William Tell" Overture in the background -- or go ahead and bathe in them. The filmmakers have widely chosen a middle course, saving such gestures for just the right opportunity, then letting them go for all they're worth. You have to snort when Tonto hands the Lone Ranger his first silver bullet, saying, "Try one of these -- they're more accurate," like a prairie version of Consumer Reports. But while there's a time to laugh, there's also a time to be in suspense, and to marvel at the magnificent scenery of the Western settings. It's a real movie even if Silver -- clearly the brightest quadruped since Lassie -- does upstage his human costars from time to time.

The visual beauty of the movie is no surprise, since the director -- William A. Fraker -- is one of the most brilliant cinematographers in Hollywood, and hism cinematographer -- Laszlo Kovacs -- is also a champion. But credit must be shared with the locations they have used, ranging from Nevada and New Mexico to Monument Valley in Utah, which was John Ford's favorite spot for westerns. True , the screenplay occasionally falls apart, perhaps because four writers had a hand in it, plus the "adapter" and the originators of the tale. Yet the action usually makes sense, at least until the last half hour. And I wonder if anyone could have held together a plot that puts President Grant, General Custer, Wild Bill Hickock, and Buffalo Bill into the same climax, with the whole cavalry right behind them.

If the new "Lone Ranger" raises any serious questions, they concern the myth of the Old West itself. Should we now reassess this long tradition, keeping the positive aspects, but rejecting the automatic heroism of gun-toting pioneers battling red men who were, after all, only defending their own turf -- and many of whom haven't gotten a fair deal to this day?

To explore this a bit further, I had lunch recently with Michael Horse, who plays Tonto in the film. He is a musician, sculptor, and silversmith who is new to acting. He's Indian on his mother's side and grew up in an Indian community near Los Angeles, where he watched the Lone Ranger and Tonto on TV like any other kid.

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Horse has few kind words for any Hollywood treatment of Indian life. The only satisfactory account he knows of is a TV film called "I Will Fight No More Forever," which he admires greatly. He also sees good intentions or successful moments in such movies as "The Return of a Man Called Horse" and "Little Big Man ," though the films themselves fall short, in his opinion.

What's wrong with westerns? "They show the native American as a violent person," he protests, "always ready to trade his woman for a rifle and a barrel of whiskey. But it's just not true. We are a spiritual people, with much humor and respect for life. And we have enormous respect for our women: In fact, we are a matriarchal society."

Horse acknowledges that "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" makes no great stride for the Indian image. Yet he likes the movie -- except for the violence, which surprised him when he saw the finished film -- and he feels it's a step in the right direction. "Tonto is a man of great integrity and independence," says the man who portrays him. "He joins the Lone Ranger because he was already on a similar quest himself, and because he cares deeply about law and justice, as I do. Also, the Indian way of life is shown in a positive and peaceful light. It's this way of living that inspires the Lone Ranger as a child, and points the way to what he will become."

Central to the film, in Horse's view, is the idea of law as the heart of American life. "If our laws were followed to the letter," he says, "life would be much improved for native Americans, and for all Americans. The movie carries this message. So it's a good thing, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

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