The Lone Ranger and Tonto, his faithful native American sidekick, are riding through a deep ravine when suddenly a war-band of Commanches appears in front of them. Hugely outnumbered, the pair turn about and gallop off in the opposite direction, only to find another group of Commanches coming towards them.
“Well my faithful friend,” the Lone Ranger says to Tonto. “It looks like this is goodbye. Those Injuns have us surrounded.”
Tonto replies: “What do you mean ‘us’, white man?”
It’s easy to forget (or, if you’re not old enough, not realise) how the huge part Westerns had in popular entertainment for most of the 20th century.
Westerns started out as popular fiction; it’s often claimed that The Virginian (1902) was the first real cowboy novel. Its author, Owen Wister, was a highly educated scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, and was therefore about as far as you could possibly get from anything resembling a genuine honest-to-goodness cowboy.
Westerns quickly became a staple of silent-era Hollywood, then of the talkies and radio drama, and then of TV. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Davey Crockett, The Virginian (itself based very loosely on Wister’s novel) and of course The Lone Ranger were prime-time viewing, pulling huge ratings.
The popularity of Westerns wasn’t just confined to the USA; they were eagerly consumed across the world. Anyone who was a boy in Britain between the 1930s and 1960s will tell you of hours spent playing “cowboys and indians” and the importance of owning a couple of die-cast metal six shooters.
Even the Soviet Union made its own westerns, heavy with morals about the rapacity of capitalism at the expense of native Americans.
Cultural historians and film critics can offer you all manner of explanations as to the Western’s popularity, and of its surprisingly rapid decline. The 1960s and 70s saw a backlash against the heroics, moral certainties and, above all, the sanitised, seemingly consequence-free, violence peddled by many older Westerns.
This led to a new wave of movies in which the Wild West became a place of squalor, greed, cowardice, betrayal and sickening brutality. These included Hollywood productions like, for instance, The Wild Bunch (1969), Soldier Blue (1970) or The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and of course the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, so-called because they were made by Italians.
Nothing was more symptomatic of the innocent old-school Western than The Lone Ranger. Originally a radio series, which established the characters of the masked Texas Ranger and his faithful native American assistant, Tonto, who always called him ‘Kemo Sabe’, which was supposed to mean “faithful friend” in the words of his own tribe, though what that tribe actually was is never completely clear.
It transferred to TV, with some 221 episodes filmed between 1949 and 1957. This was undemanding action-adventure, especially popular with boys, though many would grow up to be highly critical of its moral simplicities and its apparently patronising portrayal of native Americans.
Jay Silverheels (real name Harold Smith, 1912-1980), the Canadian-born Mohawk who played Tonto in the TV series, was not above sending the whole thing up himself. Many years after the TV series finished he appeared on the Tonight Show in a comedy sketch with Johnny Carson. In this, Carson plays a careers advisor, while Silverheels is now looking for a new job:
Silverheels: “I work 30 year as faithful sidekick for Kemo Sabe. Hunt, fish, make food, sew clothes, sweep up, stay awake all night, listen for enemies for Kemo Sabe, risk life for Kemo Sabe. Thirty lousy years!”
Carson: “And why did you finally leave?”
Silverheels: “Him find out what Kemo Sabe mean!”