Jul 072013

No, ‘The Lone Ranger’ isn’t PC just because the noble savage takes the central turn here. But it’s funnier and more fun, I would say, than Tarantino’s remake of Django as an avenging black man.

Steeped in Amerian lore as we have been  or maybe I should just speak for my generation of baby boomers the words “kemo sabe” have at one time or other issued from our lips.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Dr. Sawi, but I seem to recall a conversation I had with the esteemed poet and magus Cesar Ruiz Aquino, way way back in Dumaguete City, when we bandied about with the phrase. Of course I was Tonto to his Lone Ranger. But still he gave it back to me, every time I called him Kemo Sabe.

As we shall soon see, we were both quite prescient, if not entirely on the spot, with our elliptical recognition of the phrase as maybe a spin-off from the Spanish “Quien sabe?” (who knows?) or “quien no sabe” or the corrupted“qui no sabe” which roughly means “he who knows nothing.” In today’s parlance, “clueless.”

It also sounded close to “No savvy?” Even to the Chavacano “aqui sila tumba” despite its remote boast of a meaning which is “here they fall.” Yeah, sounds close; but hey, dude, no cigar.  

In the latest reincarnation onscreen of The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp as Tonto tells Armie Hammer as the Masked Man that kemo sabe means “wrong brother.”

In this Disney production, Tonto initially admires John Reid’s older brother, a Texas Ranger whom he says is a splendid warrior. But he winds up with the younger instead, as not quite the sidekick; in fact he becomes the Native American (read: noble savage) who actually leads John to his destined makeover from a stuffed shirt of a district attorney to The Lone Ranger.

Lifestyle Feature ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1

It is Depp’s Tonto who partners this wrong brother with the spirit horse that is eventually named Silver, and who hands him the black mask to go with his blinding white Stetson, so he can masquerade as the warrior-brother.

Are spoiler alerts really necessary here? I think not, for a movie that’s no suspense thriller, but one that I found nearly thoroughly entertaining with its madcap action, zany scenes and dialogue, and its obvious attempt at camp humor and parody — all bells and whistles with send-offs on the popular legend that started out as a radio series way way back.

Some critics have panned the film, claiming that it kept moving in various directions, that while for the most part it is lighthearted comedy, it still broke off now and then to take a seriously nuanced tone, especially when providing flashbacks on the early angst suffered by the central character who becomes the tribeless lone Tonto.

Yes, it’s Tonto who has the central role here. And that alone suggests, to me anyway, that even the make-believe PC curtsey to the Native American is mock-serious. Why, the Comanche chief even refers, in straight English, to a watch given the young Tonto as a cheap one from Sears & Roebuck.

Depp plays a tongue-in-cheek Tonto, in whiteface with black streaks and with a dead crow as a spiritually aligned headdress — which he feeds with grains. And he is full of claptrap about mystical elements. No flamboyant Jack Sparrow here, but wry to awry wit delivered in Depp deadpan.

I’ll agree with the observation however that Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, with whom Depp partners here again, doesn’t quite pull it off all so neatly. Some scenes tend to go on just so Tonto’s last quip sinks in before he waddles off.

Still, all the cute little tributes to LR lore, including the William Tell Overture, add up to a slambang Western with runaway locomotives, canyon ambushes, Indian war whoops and attacks on horseback that turn into epic fail.

No, it isn’t PC just because the noble savage takes the central turn here. But it’s funnier and more fun, I would say, than Tarantino’s remake of Django as an avenging black man. 

What it did was set me off on a tour of an etymological wonderland where the phrase kemo sabe romps along with the deer and the antelope. And I wasn’t surprised, while on a Google posse ride, to learn that various rappers have used “kemosabe” in their lyrics, that other musicians have it as song titles, that Khemosabi was the name of a champion Arabian horse, that an “ecosaboteur” in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang calls himself Kemosabe.

Scholars and linguists have joined the hunt for the real  meaning of kemo sabe — advancing such references as “he who peeks” or “one who sneaks” in Ojibwe (a tribe in Minnesota), or that in the Tewa dialect, “sabe” means Apache and “kema” means friend. Another scholar contends that the Yavapai in Arizona, when shown the picture of a white man, would come up with the descriptive term kinmasaba or kinmasabeh.

Humorist James Smart once observed “that the New York Public Library defines Kemo Sabe as Soggy Shrub.” Someone else claims another Native American translation as “chicken shit.” And the know-it-all advisor Cecil Adams says in response to queries for the phrase’s derivation: “In an old Gary Larson cartoon, the Lone Ranger looks in an Indian dictionary and discovers that kemosabe is ‘an Apache expression for a horse’s rear end.’”

The Lone Ranger radio series began on Detroit’s WXYZ in 1932. Writer Fran Striker spelled the phrase as “ke-mo sah-bee.” But in popular culture, the more familiar spelling became “kemo sabe” or as one word, and that is how Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary included it in 2002.

The factual origin is well-documented: that Jim Jewell, who directed the show for years, suggested the term to Fran Striker. He took it from Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee, a boys’ camp in Michigan set up by his father-in-law in 1911. Jewell himself supplies the translation as “trusty scout.” And also as “trusty friend” or “faithful friend.”

The scriptwriter’s son Fran Striker Jr. corroborates this, adding that “in many of the early radio broadcasts, the Ranger calls Tonto Kemo Sabe AND Tonto also calls the Ranger Kemo Sabe.” But as the series went on and became as similarly successful on television thence film, it has been Tonto calling The Lone Ranger “Kemo Sabe.” 

Jim Jewell also recounts that “there was an Indian storyteller at Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee who would get rowdy when drunk, leading the other Indians to call him ‘tonto’” — or what is Potawatomi for “wild one.”

The fictional character Tonto has been established, again by scholars, as of the Potawatomi tribe, that like the Ojibwe and the Ottawa had inhabited the area where Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee was established.

In the Depp remake, LR still asks Tonto (here he’s of the Comanche) towards film’s end what “Kemo Sabe” really means. And Tonto just looks at him, nearly in disgust, and maintains that it means “Wrong Brother.” To which LR finally responds, “Do you know what your name means in Spanish?”

For me, that was the best quip in this quipster movie — something that maybe not all “non-native” Americans would laugh about, except Lat-Ams and Fil-Ams.

And here, when it’s shown, many in our southern neck of the waters would probably guffaw and exclaim, “Ay, ’sus, ginoo (dugay na sa Manila), tonto pa gihapon!”

 Leave a Reply