Johnny Depp characterising critics as all-powerful movie slayers is pure delusion

With newspapers laying off arts writers, the suggestion The Lone Ranger has been ruined by dishonest reviewers seems paradoxical. Perhaps there are other reasons behind the blockbuster's US flop?

Actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer complained publicly this week that a slew of poor (and, they allege, dishonest) reviews killed their new movie The Lone Ranger on its US release in July. As many commentators were quick to point out on Twitter, this is poppycock. “I blame the studio that couldn’t help the filmmakers locate the fun, less-convoluted 100-minute film that's struggling to get out,” said Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine and the Guardian’s box-office analyst. Jonathan Dean of the Sunday Times observed correctly: “It’s one of [Depp’s] poorer arguments. Critics hated the last THREE Pirates movies and they did so well they’re making another.”

I enjoyed parts of The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski (who made the first three Pirates of the Caribbean instalments), but it’s not a massively audience-friendly film. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, with an uncertain tone that veers wildly between slapstick, action-adventure and the outright macabre, it is less like a summer tentpole release than a vaudeville show or a student revue (albeit one on a budget so large that Disney had to step in to halt production and prune the costs). It is absolutely the filmmakers’ right to make the movie they wanted to make, and if the studio is willing to trust them on their judgements, however eccentric, then they are luckier than most in the current straitened climate.

But to then whinge at critics because that big-budget gamble didn’t pay off is somewhat undignified. Hammer even suggested that US critics only came after The Lone Ranger because their attempts to savage another beleaguered production—World War Z, which also suffered off-screen setbacks—were frustrated when that movie went on to become a moderate hit. “This is the deal with American critics: they’ve been gunning for our movie since it was shut down the first time,” the actor said. “That’s when most of the critics wrote their initial reviews… They tried to do the same thing with World War Z. It didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”

This idea of critics as serial killers prowling the multiplexes with the smell of blood in their nostrils is simultaneously quaintly amusing and entirely whacko. It bears no relation to reality. A tiny release playing on a handful of screens can be buried by a bad review from an influential writer, or lifted out of obscurity for a few days by a positive one. But a blockbuster rarely dies unless there are extenuating circumstances: if the audience wasn’t put off by the pre-release whiff of perceived trouble on The Lone Ranger, perhaps the picture fell foul of the curse of the western, an especially difficult genre to market to modern audiences. So far the film has taken $175m on a $215m budget—bad news indeed. It’s too early to say what its total gross will be but from the outside it resembles the Will Smith flop Wild Wild West all over again (old TV show adaptation lacking any modern-day currency of familiarity; major box-office star; western theme). That took $222m on a $170m budget, another poor result.

Contrary to what Depp and his compadres believe, the critical fraternity is in a more vulnerable position than ever. In the past few years, the Village Voice disgraced itself by sacking some of the finest film writers in the US—including J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim—while here in the UK the latest cull was at the Independent on Sunday, which has exhibited the grossest philistinism in cutting loose its entire team of arts critics from September. I haven’t read the Village Voice since Hoberman was pushed, and I can’t think of a reason to buy a national newspaper like the IoS when it places such paltry value on brilliant and informed critical writing. But the situation is hardly helped by wealthy and powerful Hollywood titans suggesting that any bad reviews must be motivated by spite, collusion or conspiracy. The same critics, presumably, who gave rave reviews to earlier Verbinski comedies like the hugely inventive Mousehunt and Rango, or who praised Depp’s idiosyncratic turns in the Pirates movies. Or were those different, cuddlier critics?

The Lone Ranger is released on Friday.

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times