Traditional Westerns were once a staple of Hollywood film-making and enjoyed a Golden Era between the 1930s and 1960s on both the big- and small-screen.
But the genre started going out of fashion when political correctness gripped the 1970s. “The Lone Ranger” suffered from some of the same problems. Indian groups protested Depp’s portrayal of Tonto, a Comanche Indian who didn’t look anything like a storied 19th century tribe member.
The film opened in 3,904 theaters and drew poorly throughout the four-day holiday weekend, according to deadline.com.
Top Grossing Westerns Since 1979 (Dom) No. Film Gross $ Release
1 Dances with Wolves $184M 11/9/90 2 True Grit $171M 12/22/10 3 Django Unchained $163M 12/25/12 4 Rango (Ana). $123M 3/4/11 5 Wild Wild West $114M 6/30/99 6 Maverick $102M 5/20/94 7 Unforgiven $101M 8/7/92 8 Cowboys & Aliens $100M 7/29/11 9 Back to Future 2 $88M 5/25/90 10 Brokeback Mountain $83M 12/9/05 Source: BoxOffice Mojo
The film grossed $49 million domestically and another $30 million, or so, overseas for gross of around $73 million, reportedly not enough to recoup its estimated $215 million to $250 million production budget.
Has Hollywood lost its touch when it comes to making Westerns that people want to see?
“The Lone Ranger” is the exception rather than the rule. Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer and Director Gore Verbinski took a storied Western tale and remade it as a saddle-and-spurs “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It lacked a moral center and never established a consistent feel.
Just when it started building dramatic tension, Depp’s slapstick broke up the pacing and confused audiences. Was it a drama? A comedy? Not even the screenwriters could make up their minds. Say what you will about Depp’s star power, he’s had as many flops as successes.
Which is not to say, offbeat Westerns won’t work at the box office. Quentin Tarantino pulled one off with “Django Unchained,” which has grossed $424 million worldwide. Films that stay true to the genre’s traditional themes also appeal to modern audiences.
Kevin Costner’s 2004 film “Open Range,” with Robert Duvall and Annette Bening contains all the of the classic Western elements, from its notions about freedom, independence and frontier justice, to the ruggedness of its characters. Some consider it Costner’s best work. He directed and starred and is an old hand at the genre.
His classic 1990 film “Dances With Wolves,” is the antithesis of “The Lone Ranger,” in its accurate portrayal of the looming clash between Native Americans and white settlers. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and is credited with rekindling Hollywood’s interest in Westerns.
Moreover, it grossed $424 million worldwide against a $22 million production budget, making it the best performing western movie in the last 30 years, according to boxofficemojo.
The Coen brothers remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, “True Grit,” is evidence that even old-fashioned “horse operas” still appeal to modern audiences. It’s the second highest grossing Western since 1979, pulling in $252 million against a $38 million budget.
The 2011 film starred Jeff Bridges as one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Wayne won a Best Actor Oscar for the role; the Coen’s film was nominated for ten Oscars, although it didn’t win any.
Other top 21st-century westerns would have to include the 2007 remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale. It was also a top film when it was released in 1957 starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” director Andrew Dominik’s take on the death of Frank Howard was haunting and lyrical, with out-sized performances by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. It’s the anti-western with its slow melodic pacing, yet it’s a captivating character study and a meditation on celebrity.
As such, “The Lone Ranger” will go down as another bust for both Depp and Disney. But it didn’t have to be that way, and hopefully won’t kill the genre.