Sat 30 Apr 2016
LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. Universal Pictures, 1962. Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. Director: David Miller
Although the film languished in relative obscurity for decades, the 2009 DVD release of Lonely are the Brave likely introduced a new generation to this remarkably effective modern Western.
With a screenplay adapted from Edward Abbey’s novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956) and penned by Dalton Trumbo, the movie stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, a cowboy trying to make his way in modern industrial society. Burns is a charming anachronism, a rugged individualist who eschews automobiles for his horse and hates barbed wire fences and artificial borders.
The crux of the story is two-fold. When Burns learns that his friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) has been detained for helping illegal immigrants cross the border into New Mexico, he decides to ride – literally – to the rescue.
Complicating matters slightly are his feelings for Bondi’s wife, Jerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role). But what really gets the story moving is when Burns hatches a plan to break into jail so as to meet up with his friend Paul and help him escape. Needless to say, the plan falls apart and Jack ends up alone with his horse, a fugitive from the law.
Hot on Jack’s trail is cynical world-weary Sheriff Johnson, portrayed by future Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. It’s a near perfect role for him, one accentuated by little personality quirks and tics that simultaneously give his character both an everyman and a larger-than-life persona. Johnson has the modern world at his disposal: a plane, a helicopter, and police radio. But as it turns out, they are simply of no real use when they clash with Jack’s stubborn nineteenth-century values of individualism and self-sufficiency.
At times surprisingly humorous, Lonely are the Brave is also achingly sad. Douglas was exceptionally well cast; indeed, after watching the movie, it’s very difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part of Jack Burns. In many ways, it’s a very untraditional role for Douglas, an actor who has specialized in playing angry and intense men. His character in this film is surprisingly laid back, even more so in the face of nearly insurmountable challenges.
There is, however, one pivotal scene in which Douglas’s intensity shines through; namely, a well choreographed bar fight in which Jack Burns fights with a one-armed man. (As recounted in one of the extras on the DVD: apparently, the scene made a vivid impression one a young Steven Spielberg!)
While Lonely are the Brave will never likely achieve the same sort of canonical status as the work of auteur directors such as Budd Boetticher, John Ford, and Anthony Mann, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of such high aesthetic consideration. Indeed, the film holds up exceedingly well over fifty years after its initial cinematic release. Some may find the theme of the anachronistic cowboy to be overdone and trite, but in my estimation this generally unheralded film is able to both utilize, and build upon, this theme without falling into either pathos or cliché.