Among the many instances of the “Precession of Simulacra” noted by Jean Baudrillard in his essay under that title in the 1981 volume Simulacra and Simulation, the author ruminates upon the American Indian, or Indians, an entire tribal culture that had to be eliminated in order to form a more perfect union of white men organized in more progressive polity and more profitable rigor, complete with a false history in which Indians not only disappear as a result of their own primal, retrograde tribal character but magically reappear in sanitized, fully bleached form, in the mythology of American history, literature, and cinema and also in “real life,” even more numerous than before, if there were any such thing as “real life.” Thus the advent of the original Tonto, stoic side-kick of the Lone Ranger, first on radio and then in the first generation TV series known to all Americans of the twentieth century raised and trained in the era of Hollywood's simulacra and silver screens.
Practically voiceless, save for occasional deep-throated and abbreviated utterances, the original TV Tonto, played by Jay Silverheels, a so-called “real” Mohawk Indian, performed serviceably as the Lone Ranger’s back-up, messenger, delivery boy, and assistant, without ever stealing a single scene (Indians were thought to steal, of course, but Tonto never did). It was noticeable that his hair was always perfectly coiffed and his buckskin impeccably clean and well pressed. Neither did he yell, use face paint, or dabble in curious pantheistic rites. He was a well-mannered Indian in all respects; a good Indian; in fact, he is cited by Ward Churchill, in Fantasies of the Master Race, as the very exemplum of the “good Indian” in film, tireless in obsequious service to the white master. Moreover, one might say, he was also figuratively a “dead Indian,” complicit in his own death by virtue of near perfect obedience, passivity, and non-entity. In Baudrillard’s schema he is a mere simulacrum of the second order: ”it masks and denatures a profound reality.”
But according to Baudrillard, simulacra do not stand still; rather, they “precess,” or evolve in the direction of the imaginary. Ultimately, they take the place of the reality that they originally misrepresent, like the pod-clones in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, becoming a reality themselves, supplanting and even forgetting that first reality and relegating it forever to the mythical-historical dustbin. This task has been accomplished, in the case of Hollywood's Tonto, by the inimitable Johnny Depp, creator of the newest Tonto in the recent film of 2013 known, both aptly and ironically, as The Lone Ranger.
This new Tonto, who many theater-goers believed to be either a resurrection or a maladroit parody of Hollywood's “noble savage” (an epithet which actually appears in the film on the museum sign denoting the narrator) actually does have a heroic function: not to rectify or justify the character of the reverenced and/or despised and now extinct American Indian but in fact to put him to rest once and for all, to mummify him and to allow him, as a comic figure, to deliver his own eulogy, to re-enact his own demise and to protest it, and to comment overtly on the crass stupidity and brazen corruption of the white men who have deceived him and murdered his tribe. Former tribe, that is, since he himself became an outcast unwittingly as a boy, when he showed the white men where the silver lay, at the head of a sacred river. This Tonto is a simulacrum of the fourth order in Baudrillard’s paradigm: “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”
Tonto and the Hollywood Indian
A “pure simulacrum” as defined by Baudrillard may be completely devoid of exact relation to any reality, but it is certainly not unrelated to preceding simulacra. It will, therefore, be of interest to limn briefly the stereotypes of the so-called “Hollywood Indian” that seem to have set the stage for Johnny Depp’s peculiar and penultimate Tonto. There are, I would allege, three basic figures, well defined in the history of cinema, that feed into Depp’s Tonto: 1) the noble savage, a profile traceable back to James Fenimore Cooper and his Romantic Age contemporaries and adopted in twentieth century film in many early productions before and including the westerns of John Ford and even in the later so-called “liberal” westerns aspiring to a more sophisticated Indian image, as described in Edward Buscombe’s replete analysis of the genre in his study ’Injuns!’ Native Americans in the Movies, chapter II, “The Liberal Western”; 2) the inscrutable shaman, a wise man of the spirit path and practitioner of pan-daemonic arts, a character seldom at the center of cowboy westerns and curiously unexplored by cinema historians to date but often present in a support role; and 3) the sly, bestial, or ignoble savage, a shameless cozener who uses his Native American identity as a façade to dupe witless, vulnerable, or even competent whites, and other Indians as well.
These types are variants of the Hollywood Indian, a field of surreal images loosely based on Plains warriors of the Midwest and made to satisfy the white audience and to justify the erstwhile racist and sometime genocidal agenda of American culture to date. In Ward Churchill’s words, again from Fantasies of the Master Race, “We [Indians] serve as both the simulacra and the simulacrum by which Euroamerica has been best able to hide the truth of itself from itself in order that it can continue to do what it does in ‘all good conscience.’”
Depp’s Tonto is an amalgam of these three types, yet he is more, being both a parody and a negation of them. He bears no relation to actual Native Americans, either historical or especially contemporary, as presented in literature and film by such artists as Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Hanay Geiogamah, whose modern Native Americans struggle to survive and to find their identity somehow in the capitalist wasteland as culturally alienated descendants of their tragic nineteenth century forbears.
The noble savage, the essential traditional model, is noble by virtue of his natural innocence; he is a child of nature, not of corrupt civilization. He is honest, courageous, dignified, and exotically handsome. He is trustworthy, and he is trusting, which is often his undoing. To him, nature is not to be defiled, owned as property, or wantonly destroyed. This latter orientation puts him at odds with white civilization from the get-go, and his path is that of “defiance and defeat,” not “acceptance and assimilation,” as Buscombe in ‘Injuns!’ asserts are the only options. Depp’s Tonto displays all of these features. His exaggerated hauteur and wide-eyed expressions of astonishment and self-righteous posturing reflect the dignity and bearing of the noble savage, as does his fierce appearance, derived from the fictive portrait I Am Crow, his Plains Indian imago. Here we have the Stoic warrior in all his native pride, who will not bow to the crassness of encroaching white culture or accept the harsh treatment he has been dealt. Indeed, this Tonto lives up to the code of the noble savage as a determined fighter against injustice and evil, even when he knows the odds are against him.
But Deppian Tonto also traffics in time travel and in the enigmas of the spirit world. It is the shaman in him that shuttles objects from present to past and vice versa and that declares nature to be “out of balance” due, we are to understand, to the white man’s intrusion into the magical arena of the pristine forest, the grandfather mountain, the sacred river, and the vital earth itself. As a self-appointed shaman he also believes in “evil Windigos,” and he introduces the Lone Ranger to a white spirit horse - a horse that can fly and perch in trees. He is also a practitioner of peculiar desert sorcery; how, for instance, does he transport the unconscious LR to a platform atop a lofty ritual tower in the badlands? The Old Tonto in the carnival, Deppian Tonto in his dotage, reflects the shaman figure in his mysterious storytelling, his hocus-pocus with the crow headdress, and his gift of the magic silver bullet, a talisman of justice, to a small boy. However, we cannot really tell whether Tonto, young or old, is a religious genius or a madman, as the other Comanches see him in the film. That he walks this line is perhaps an indication that he is both, in a modern world that has no use for either.
Finally, Depp’s Tonto is a sham, a show-off, a liar, a clown, a “bad Indian” who at times belies all that he seems to stand for. One of the saloon girls (i.e., prostitutes) in the bar scene greets him familiarly (“Hi, Tonto!” she gaily shouts), revealing that he is a regular “customer” in the Shakespearean sense, and his humorous remark about the allegedly spoiled pickles, “Unrefrigerated!” is an amusing facetious intrusion, a transposition from modernity on behalf of an obvious canard. His clever and devious escape from irons in the opening action scene on a train informs us that he has mastered the art of the narrow getaway, no doubt from repeated experience, and his combat acrobatics are not as heroic as they are rapscallian, like the absurd antics of a certain comical pirate. It is also the ignoble savage that cautions the Lone Ranger to “always wear the mask” (literally, the mask of a bandit; figuratively, the mask of the fugitive soul) as they develop the identity of the famous duo. When the two of them team up to rob a bank, they flounder ridiculously in the role of bank robbers and then proceed to shoot up the place and make the heist. In fact, Tonto’s whole noble savage ID is, like his shaman self, as illusory as it is real, and it is only the ignoble savage who is aware of the ruse.
Thus Depp’s new Hollywood Tonto inculcates features of at least these three stereotypes from cinematic history. But as I have argued, he is more than the sum of these models. He goes beyond them to become a prophet and a spirit of death representing and announcing the demise of real Native Americans and real Native American culture. He is a pure simulacrum of a lost people, an indignant ghost, a homeless spirit not unlike Old Hamlet, come to inveigh against murder most foul and the theft of a kingdom and to incite and foment revenge against an evil foe.
The new Tonto has many fatal precursors in Western films (and indeed even in nineteenth century American paintings, as Buscombe vividly illustrates in chapter one of ‘Injuns!’ “The Formation of a Genre,” who bear contrast and comparison with him; one who stands out in both ways is the figure Lost Bird from the oft televised 1960 feature film The Unforgiven, directed by John Huston, a film styled by Ward Churchill “the most venomously racist of all Hollywood’s treatments of Native American people.” Lost Bird seeks recovery of his sister, Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn), who was stolen from his Kiowa village as an infant during a massacre. The story turns on the question of whether her true identity is Indian or Caucasian, since she was “rescued” and raised by a white family. Lost Bird, played by Carlos Rivas, is every inch the noble savage, appearing in battle armor and feathers and equipped with typical sparse and halting English speech. He is absolutely humorless, lacks any sense of irony, and possesses no magic; thus he is powerless, unlike Depp’s Tonto, to seek his cause in any way other than direct violence.
Lost Bird attacks the Zachary homestead with a contingent of warriors but is finally shot to death by none other than Rachel herself, who thus decides once and for all where her loyalty lies. He is an admirable but tragic figure, doomed along with practically all of his fellow Hollywood warriors simply by the fact that he is, essentially and existentially, an Indian, a “savage” whose culture is condemned to extinction under the verdict of “stinking Injun” and “red-hide n----r,” phrases that are actually uttered by white characters in the film. Such gutter racism reflects sourly upon the entrenched prejudice of frontier whites, but the film’s ending endorses the inevitable erasure of Indian culture as Rachel’s lover/stepbrother Ben Zachary (the indefatigable Burt Lancaster) and family claim her, lock, stock, and cinders, after the concluding incendiary attack on their homestead.
It matters little that Rachel had found herself attracted not only to her “Lost Bird” brother but also to one of the ranch hands who happened to be an Indian, a miraculous tamer of horses whom Ben had to intimidate in order to separate him from Rachel. Thus Tonto’s noble savage predecessors, skilled and handsome though they may be, always display the hallmark quality that keeps them from being truly formidable: they cling to some sort of lost reality; they fight to the death but not beyond it; they cannot partner themselves, as Depp’s Tonto does, to the irony of a universal justice that does not exist, this being the symbolic significance of the revised Lone Ranger. They exemplify the death of primal Native American culture, but they cannot in any way protest it, much less avenge it.
Tonto’s Story: Persevering in the Imaginary
It is all too obvious, from the outset of the Johnny Depp The Lone Ranger, that there are no real Indians left. The tale is framed by the old, fuzzy, demented, and deteriorating Tonto who works in a tawdry carnival in San Francisco in 1933 as an exhibit, an Indian impersonating a statue of an Indian (parody of simulacrum). Tonto tells his story to a wide-eyed young boy, to whom he trades a dead mouse for a bag of peanuts. The museumification of octogenarian Tonto seals the meaning of the Indian in the film. He has been imprisoned in the dingy and artificial confines of the dusty history of the “Wild West,” a fiction so palpably bogus as to test even the credulity of a small boy.
The trade, supposedly an iconic Indian custom, recurs often in the film, and the peanut bag turns up on the chest of a dead Ranger following the ambush of the Texas Rangers, as the young Tonto prepares them for burial. Thus is the real past exchanged for a hopeless future, the theft of truth being disguised humorously as a “trade,” the same way that Indians traded with and were duped by white men in so many instances, such as the treaty that cost the Comanche their land, their autonomy, and finally their lives. In the end, his tale being told, Old Tonto packs up his bag and leaves, but not before flipping the boy a silver bullet that belonged to the Lone Ranger, ostensibly to kill evil Windigos. Even the other Indians laugh at Tonto for believing in evil Windigos, because they live in Baudrillard’s “desert of the real” where “the phantom of religion floats over a world now long desacralized“; but in the context of Tonto’s otherworldly vision, Windigos are “real,” and so is the crow spirit on Tonto’s head.
Depp’s Tonto is a visual simulacrum of another simulacrum: a painting entitled I Am Crow of an imaginary Indian by a contemporary American painter, Kirby Sattler. Crow wears deathly pale face paint, with two vertical black lines on each side of his face, and a crow headdress, which Tonto regularly feeds at its lifeless beak with dried corn. Crow/Tonto is every male Indian that ever lived, or more precisely he is the mummy of every “real” Indian that ever lived; a talking mummy bent on revenge against the two varlets that tricked him into revealing the secret of the silver by offering a deadly trade: a cheap pocket watch from Sears and Roebuck. What better symbol of white civilization than a pocket watch, the better to hypnotize the unwary native and to signify the passage of time out of nature and into industrial modernity?
Among the climactic moments of the film, one that stands out occurs at the silver mine when the Lone Ranger, one John Reid, played by Armie Hammer, declines to use his silver bullet to kill the certifiably evil bandit Butch Cavendish, who had gunned down Reid’s brother and eaten his heart in the desert. The Lone Ranger lectures Tonto, as the original LR might have done, on the superiority of civilized justice and implies that Tonto cannot understand it because he is no more than a savage; Tonto’s retort strikes deeply, as he rudely tells the faltering LR, “And you...you are not a man.” The Lone Ranger is not a lawman because he refuses to kill a dangerous, even outrageous, outlaw, but he is “not a man” because he has alienated his sense of justice to a flawed and venal society run by villains. Never would the original Tonto have confronted the LR in such a manner. In this one moment, more than in any other, the relationship between the two heroes is absolutely reversed, as Tonto assumes the mantle of moral and efficient authority.
This pivotal moment parallels another confrontation, when the cavalry officer, who is the absolute spitting simulacrum of the infamous George Armstrong Custer, a mere captain in this incarnation in 1869, with flowing yellow hair and silky mustache, kills the Comanche chief with his sword as they meet during the attack on the train, an attack in which all the Comanche braves are killed. This moment, held in dramatic frieze as Custer, here yclept Captain Fuller, and the old chief eye each other, defines the historical relationship of the white man and the Indian: white man kills Indian, annihilates Indian, in the name of Progress, or in this case, Profit, since Custer/Fuller has decided to serve the interests of the railroad rather than those of the US government - though in the end they are the same. We are invited to reflect, though, that by killing off the Indian, the white man also inadvertently sentences himself to a well-earned death, literally and metaphorically, as we all know what eventually happened to the real Lieutenant Colonel Custer in the “desert of the real” known as the Little Bighorn seven years later, in 1876.
Custer/Fuller does not learn, but in the end, the Lone Ranger learns, as he comes to realize that government and commercial interests rule together by corruption, a combine that President Eisenhower would christen “the military-industrial complex,” embodied in the film by the master culprit Latham Cole, who plots to take over the railroad, the lovely widow, and little son of the Texas Ranger whose murder he orders, and the army itself, via the blockheaded Custer/Fuller. One cannot help but think of Dick Cheney and Halliburton. The MIC, of course, is still the ruling establishment of modern America, where as Tonto observes, “Nature is out of balance.” We know that nature is out of balance in this movie because Latham Cole and Company (or should I say evil Windigos?) have stolen silver from the earth (shades of the Rhinegold and its many covetous and power-hungry seekers), massacred whole Indian villages and a posse of Texas Rangers, and impersonated Indians raiding white settlements (again, parody of simulacra), and now there are killer rabbits in the desert that eat flesh, even other rabbits.
The time is out of joint, and only the outcast tandem of Tonto the deranged Indian and the disillusioned Lone Ranger can set it right, if only they could. At least, they try. They rob a bank to secure explosives to blow up the railroad trestle bridge to foil Latham Cole’s scheme to steal the silver. They save Rebecca and her little boy from Cole’s damnably luxurious passenger car on the inevitable military-industrial train. And they fight Cole, Cavendish, and Custer/Fuller above, below, in, and around the furiously out-of-control train, a compelling kinetic and mechanistic image of Capital as adumbrated in Baudrillard’s chapter on “The Spiraling Cadaver.” And predictably, they win! But we know that the victory is fleeting, even illusory, for it occurs on the vast darkling plain of the hyperreal, where, in Baudrillard’s words: "We are simulators, we are simulacra (not in the classical sense of 'appearance'), we are concave mirrors radiated by the social, a radiation without a light source, power without origin, without distance, and it is in this tactical universe of the simulacrum that one will need to fight - without hope, hope is a weak value, but in defiance and fascination."
Another remarkable simulacrum in the film is worthy of mention, that belonging to the madam and proprietor of the local saloon, one Red Harrington (played by Helena Bonham Carter, queen of weird sisters and reincarnation of Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke, and then some) who was a ballerina until the notorious Butch Cavendish cut off and right naturally cannibalized her starboard leg. Red has replaced the “real” leg with the most fabulous simulacrum imaginable, an ivory leg adorned with scrimshaw, hinged at the knee and fitted with a hidden double-barreled shotgun which she fires twice in the story: once when a rowdy customer becomes rather too handy with one of the girls and later, as we now know to anticipate, when the clueless and ridiculously amorous Custer/Fuller runs his hand up that ivory leg, to explode a wagonload of dynamite, initiating the climactic chase culminating in the defeat of Windigos high and low and the apocalyptic train wreck that both ends and restores (theoretically) the natural world - but, alas, without any Indians left in it.
One would be remiss not to mention the fabulous musical score of this movie, which features a host of Western and Indian songs and also a melodramatically extended and much elaborated version of the finale of Rossini’s famous overture from the opera William Tell. Again the film reprises the TV and radio versions of The Lone Ranger, which used shorter excerpts from this iconic piece; but in this case the famous galloping sequences are repeated over and over again, transposed, diminished, slipped into curious modes and snatches to accommodate the seemingly endless chase and the comic battles that comprise the film’s climactic action, when the silver train literally spirals like Baudrillard’s cadaver over the blown-out bridge and hurtles into the depths of a great canyon and a deep river. Hyperbolic simulacrum of apocalypse, obliteration of wealth and villains, return of silver to the watery chasm as in the ending of The Ring Cycle, the Rhinegold must return to the Rhine. Rossini himself would have to be impressed, no doubt fascinated by the mechanical rhythm of the locomotive and astonished by the migration of his music into a scenario of the American West. Musical simulacrum: we Americans cannot now hear that tumultuous theme (ta-da dump, ta-da dump, ta-da dump dump dump) without thinking automatically of the Lone Ranger.
Tonto’s Elegiac Role
At the conclusion of this epic film, the day has been saved, but the Lone Ranger and Tonto have become outlaw vigilantes (because we cannot trust the system), lady love Rebecca has been left behind (yet more evidence that the LR is not a man), the Comanche tribe has been decimated beyond recovery, the silver has gone back to the earth whence it came, the last chord of the William Tell overture has been struck and held, and the mask as well as the silver bullet have been passed down to the next Lone Ranger, who will perhaps find another Tonto of his own day and time. But that is not all. For those who stay to watch the credits run, there is a post-script. It is the Old Museum Tonto, walking away from us through the desert, to the haunting strains of some Western lyric, receding into the distance at a weary but determined pace, marching toward nowhere and into non-being and leaving behind a world where there are no more real Indians and where, as the young Tonto had insisted, “Nature is out of balance.” This Hollywood Indian, in the name of all of them, hikes away in nostalgic certitude, never to return.
It should come as no surprise that Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto has excited polar disagreement between traditionalists, such as UCLA professor Hanay Geiogamah, NPR Code Switch, July 2, 2013, who decry the lack of authenticity of this and every possible Tonto (especially one played by a white actor) and liberal revisionists, such as Illinois University professor LeAnne Howe, The News-Gazette online, July 14, 2013, who think that the new Tonto at least modifies and improves the Native American cinematic image. Perhaps the fittest comment on Depp’s Tonto comes from Chris Knight, who opines, National Post online, July 2, 2013, that Tonto “is first and foremost so deeply, weirdly Deppian that his Comanche warrior is more enigma than insult. He’s probably as offensive to modern Native Americans as Captain Jack Sparrow is to actual pirates.” It seems to me, however, that these assessments, however relevant to the court of public opinion, sail wide of the crucial aesthetic and critical target.
As Baudrillard observes, the end result of the precession of simulacra is none other than the total erasure of the original, the real, in this case of a tribal, communal culture, which was also the objective, whether understood or not, Baudrillard insists, of the Vietnam War, an objective sought by both sides in that conflict even as they fought desperately, intimidating, bombing, napalming, occupying, slaughtering, and demolishing Vietnamese villages, to overcome each other. This result is rendered ineluctably visible in the film on two occasions: when the boy Tonto, and all we as witnesses, wander into his massacred village, and again when Tonto, and we all, observe the shields and regalia of the dead Comanche warriors floating downriver after their heroic suicidal assault on the cavalry. These scenes stand out as epic mordant testaments and visual obituaries, silhouetting the fate of Indian culture and thus forming the core of the film’s message. It is a message that many Hollywood films have offered up, sometimes nostalgically and sometimes as a consummation devoutly to be wished, in “all good conscience.” But here it stands as a statement of cold fatality, a morbid fait accompli.
Modern cinema cannot, however, do justice to the lost reality of Indian culture any more than modern history or literature can, though all three media have tried. Ironically, their best efforts serve only to process the simulacra. Ultimately the mythology will be, and perhaps already is, shaped by the simulacra that displace the original, the actual reality, and that finally forget that it ever existed. What, if anything, does this film contribute to that mythology? Probably nothing other than the aura and spectacle of its strange characters, the reminder that modern civilization is hopelessly corrupt and fatally vicious, and the awareness that real Indian culture is no longer extant, in a world where “nature is out of balance” and humanity is evolving toward mere virtual, perhaps inorganic techno-consciousness.
It does not matter that Tonto is not a “real Indian,” because we do not know and can no longer imagine real Indians. They were all buried symbolically, along with the violated dead, at Wounded Knee and dispossessed, before and since, via countless forced marches, buffalo kills, village massacres, abandoned treaties, dubious epidemics, raw deals, clandestine homicides, sterile reservations, historical tomes, and cinematic simulacra. Their descendants have been tamed, converted, assimilated, homogenized, interviewed, amalgamated, recognized, recorded, re-educated, urbanized, photo-shopped, transmogrified, and dissolved into the desert world of Capital, assigned to inhabit lonely suburbs, ghostly powwows, lumbering RVs, and garish casinos, and denied resources save those of the profane imaginary and the fictive hyperreal. And even the Lone Ranger, with a silver bullet, cannot change all that. Whether Native Americans desire to resurrect themselves, as essential Indians, is now the real Indian question.
From guest contributor Neil H. Wright, Professor of Humanities, Eastern Kentucky University