'This was the longest and hardest production that anybody on the crew said they had ever undertaken," Armie Hammer says of his nine months in Utah and Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Colorado working opposite Johnny Depp in the Gore Verbinski-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced The Lone Ranger.

And this from the same folks who had toiled with Verbinski and Bruckheimer - and Depp - on the Pirates of the Caribbean pics, not exactly a walk in the park. (But sometimes a walk off the plank.)

"Even the guys who did Pirates 2 and 3 at the same time were, like, 'This is the hardest shoot I've ever done in my life,' " Hammer says. At various points, cast and crew had to deal with winds that hit 70 m.p.h., rain, snow, scorching heat, and even a few wildfires.

"But at the end of the day, we'd finish off with a great big bonfire" - not when there were wildfires, we hope - "and a bunch of cold beer and maybe some karaoke. And then start again the next morning."


"No one made it out unscathed," Hammer says. "I was a Charlie Daniels man myself. It got real ugly out there in the desert."

Hammer has the title role in The Lone Ranger, an exhilarating Wild West romp that recounts how an earnest, idealistic lawyer from back East arrives in 1869 Texas and is transformed into a masked avenger with a Commanche sidekick.

Depp plays said Indian, Tonto. He wears black stripes on his face, a black crow on his head, and communes with spirits, and now and then with the proprietress of a brothel (Helena Bonham-Carter). With a reported budget of $250 million, The Lone Ranger (opening Wednesday) has to make an awful lot of money to become a hit. But then the guy who's played Jack Sparrow in four Pirates of the Caribbeans (with a fifth planned) has shown a talent for drawing crowds.

"Johnny is so much more normal and relatable than you'd ever assume," Hammer says of his co-star, whom he hadn't met before signing on to the project. "He's just a good dude from Kentucky who works hard and loves his job and has a good time."

The Lone Ranger, like 2003's inaugural Pirates, manages a tone that is at once comic and suspenseful, action-packed, a bit grisly and dark at times, but also determinedly odd.

"There were a lot of conversations on set about maintaining that balance," Hammer says. "But Gore is such a master of tone that he had it all figured out in his head. So, it was more about just getting everybody on the same page."

Part of the process of getting everyone on the same page required many in the cast, Hammer included, to hone their riding and shooting skills - through three weeks spent at boot camp. Cowboy boot camp.

"I had ridden before - in a much safer capacity," Hammer says. "Never while firing two pistols at the same time, or riding through a moving train. But yes, I'd trail-ridden and stuff like that . . . .

"They basically took us out to a working horse ranch in New Mexico and kicked us out of the van, and said they'd come back when they beat the city out of you. . . .

"We all came back covered in blisters and calling ourselves cowboys."

Verbinski's The Lone Ranger - based on the character introduced in the '30s radio serial, who then segued over to television in the 1950s - shows a certain postmodern inclination. It's a little meta, a little mocking. But then the action moves to Monument Valley, the horses gallop, and the guns blaze, and it can't help but hark back to the era of the classic Hollywood Western.

"You see the extra effort that it took to get to some of these locations where you weren't even allowed to use cars," Hammer notes. "Guys would have to hand-carry in all the equipment to these remote spots. . . .

"And then we would get to some of the most picturesque places we've ever seen - mesas and red rocks and these endless vistas, and then find out, 'Oh, this is called John Ford Point.'

"Of course it is."


The Lone Ranger

Opens Wednesday in area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.