By Zorianna Kit
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When the western television series "The Lone Ranger" first rode into U.S. homes in 1949, the masked man was the dashing, charming hero and the Native American Tonto his loyal sidekick.
When the movie opens in U.S. theaters on Wednesday, it will be Tonto who takes center stage. Played by Johnny Depp with the same offbeat charm as his Captain Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, Tonto is the brains of the operation.
In an opening sequence - a breakneck fight scene on a runaway train - Tonto directs an escape from outlaws while a mask-less Lone Ranger, played by Armie Hammer, is the naive one, unsure at the outset that he was even in danger.
"It's a story we've all heard, but we've never heard it from the guy who was there," the film's director Gore Verbinski, 49, told Reuters.
For the new incarnation, Verbinski wanted to update the story by making Tonto more relevant than just a sidekick. Once the idea was hatched to make him the narrator, "it opened a lot of doors" in terms of storytelling, he said.
Through Tonto's eyes, audiences get an origin tale of how former lawman John Reid, the Lone Ranger, came to fight injustice in the Old West.
"This is not history told from your radio station, your movie studio or your network," Verbinski said. "It's told from Tonto and his memory - and his memory may be questionable."
To make Tonto's point of view authentic, a Native American consultant was used on the set, Verbinski said, adding that they also spoke with various tribes to get certain details correct.
No one embraced the Tonto-centric viewpoint more than Depp, who was told from an early age that he was part Native American.
Since production on the Disney film has wrapped, the actor has gone on to strengthen his ties to the community. Last year, Depp was named honorary member of the Comanche Nation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he also served as grand marshal at the Comanche Nation Fair in Oklahoma.
CORE ELEMENTS UNTOUCHED
At Depp's request, proceeds from the film's $1,000-per-ticket gala premiere last week at Southern California's Disneyland resort last week supported the American Indian College Fund.
Fans of the "The Lone Ranger" series, which first appeared on radio in 1933, can be assured that its core elements remain. Audiences will see a man in a white hat and mask who believes in justice, a horse named Silver and the trademark silver bullets.
Its famous theme, Rossini's "William Tell" overture, makes its way in to the film and Tonto continues to affectionately refer to the Lone Ranger as "kemo sabe."
The remake boasts the same team, including Depp, Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who brought Disney the mega-blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.
The four "Pirates" films have earned some $3.7 billion in total at the global box office, according to Boxofficemojo.com.
Although there are hopes "The Lone Ranger" team can repeat past box office success, there was nothing cheap about its costs, which a person familiar with the production said was budgeted at $225 million. Other reports have pegged it closer to $250 million.
An entire Old West town was built in which to shoot the film, along with a 200-foot long train tunnel, two 250-ton trains and miles of track.
Building such ambitious sets was necessary to achieve the right "feel" for the film's biggest action scenes, Verbinski said, adding that he did not want to use cheaper computer-generated imagery or miniatures for such sequences.
"The movie is an epic tale and I didn't want it to feel overly lush and too pretty," he said. "We all know what trains and horses look like, so I wanted to shoot trains and horses and do it the old-fashioned way."
(This story has been refiled to drop extraneous "the" in the first paragraph)
(Editing by Ron Grover, Eric Kelsey and Bill Trott)