A new big-screen version of The Lone Ranger comes out this weekend, starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow as Tonto. It looks less like a faithful adaptation of the Western saga that thrilled your great-great-grandfather as a little boy in front of the magic sound box, and more a vehicle for Johnny Depp to act goofy and the delight the fuck out of everybody once again. That’s because rebooting The Lone Ranger, which premiered on radio in 1933 and TV in 1949, is a hard sell. Yeah, Hollywood is reboot crazy these days, but they tend to go after known entities from the last 20 years or so (Man of Steel is a rare exception, but that’s SUPERMAN, you guys).
Here are 10 other movies that paved the way for Disney’s cautious attempt at a modern, big-screen update of a popular franchise that began in radio, comics, film serials, or pulp novels in the early 20th century.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger
Clayton Moore was deeply associated with the role of John Reid/the Lone Ranger from his years playing the character in over 200 episodes of the TV version of The Lone Ranger in the ‘50s. Moore continued wearing the mask and hat at public appearances around the country well into the ‘70s. When a new Lone Ranger move was put into production for release in 1981, Moore was sued to get him to stop wearing the mask in public—the studio feared people would think the elderly Moore was starring in the movie. Moore wore wraparound sunglasses instead; maybe he should have been in the movie. Starring an actor named Klinton Spilsbury, with his lines dubbed in by another actor, The Legend of the Lone Ranger made $12 million at the box office and won three Razzies. Spilsbury never acted again.
In the wake of the massive, somewhat surprising success of the soap opera Star Wars in 1977, came this reboot of another space opera. Flash Gordon was about an all-American football stud who goes into space to fight the evil Ming the Merciless. Pure pulpy goodness, filmmakers played up the pulp and the camp in the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. It did pretty well at the box office, despite Star Wars significantly raising the bar on what a sci-fi movie could and should look like. (Excellent soundtrack by Queen, though.)
Some projects just work for a specific medium. The Shadow did best as a radio serial, where it was totally spooky and plausible that a hero could get shit done by “clouding men’s minds.” That’s a little hard to pull off in the visual, and this became another nail in the coffin of Alec Baldwin’s inexplicably middling film career.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan
After film serials and B-movies starring Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan was pretty passé, and pretty campy – guy in loincloth talk in few words, grab Jane, swing on vine. Bunga bunga. But 1984’s Greystoke was an attempt at a thoughtful, artsy film. A predecessor of projects like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Greystoke took Tarzan seriously and realistically. It didn’t really work, because Tarzan doesn’t need to be that reverently handled, but solid effort, guys.
Brooke Shields actually can act – she’s good in small roles on sitcoms and such, like on Friends, and The Middle. This movie, a full-length take on pre-war super-reporter Brenda Starr (not to be confused with Brenda K. Starr, her daughter who waged an unnecessary war in Iraq and recorded “I Still Believe”) was filmed in 1986, but since the filmmakers didn’t quite have the rights to the character, it was dumped onto video in 1992.
Paramount Pictures severely overestimated the box office appeal of a pre-Titanic Billy Zane in a weird purple jumpsuit wandering around the 1930s African bush.
Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ groundbreaking if not genre defining sic-fi novels dating to the 1910s, it’s kind of fun that they made a super-high-budget movie out of what is, in all positive, glorious senses of the word, pulp. The movie was ambitious and a love letter to the books, if not early sic-fi, and doesn’t really deserve to be lumped in with other notorious money-losing flops conceived in cynicism.
The Mask of Zorro
Zorro dates back to dime-store novels in the 1910s, but the mix of adventure, humor, and sex appeal mean this was the role Antonio Banderas was inevitably going to play some day.
Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze
One of America’s first true pop culture heroes was intrepid adventurer Doc Savage. While immensely popular across a number of media in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, he was ignored for a generation while several big-screen attempts never materialized. This troubled 1975 production would have been, in a perfect world, the beginning of a whole new franchise.
“Here’s my pitch. Sin City, but in the old timey days, and I think everybody’s kidding?”