Even in my younger days, as I remember them, my favorite Westerns were always the films that dealt with the passing of the West. I’ve always been drawn to stories of cowboys who struggle to come to terms with a time and place that no longer seem to have time or place for them or their values. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and – more subtly – The Searchers are classic examples of this kind of tale.
The one that has really stuck with me, though, is a film that distills that theme to its essence. Its star still cites it as one of his favorite performances. It helped launch the career of one of film’s greatest composers. And it might just be my favorite Western.
It was directed by David Miller, and written by Dalton Trumbo (from a novel by Edward Abbey), but if you know Lonely Are the Brave, you probably think of it as a Kirk Douglas film first. He was the star (having brought Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy to Universal as a potential vehicle for himself), and his production company put the cast and crew together. More than that, the story touches on one of Douglas’s favorite themes, one that you’ll find recurring throughout his career. Like Spartacus and Paths of Glory and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (yes, Douglas starred in the play on Broadway, and held the rights to the novel before passing them on to his son), Lonely Are the Brave addresses the struggle of the individual to maintain his self, to be true to his identity and ideals.
In this film, the individual is Jack Burns (Douglas, of course), a cowboy living in a world where prairies and horses have given way to highways and trucks. Burns isn’t oblivious to the world around him so much as he refuses to participate in it. He has his horse, and he has his freedom, and like the poster says, “Life can never cage a man like this.”
Needless to say, life does try, and Burns’ inevitable conflict with the law soon finds him on the run. He’s alone (save for that horse, Whiskey), and he knows the land – he’s in his element. But his element has changed, and he can only deny that for so long…
“Daring” may not be the first word to come to mind when you consider the idea of a Western set in the early 1960s. But there is a certain daring about it, a subversion of what we expect of the genre. And yet, for all of that, Lonely Are the Brave still looks like a Western, thanks to Philip H. Lathrop’s beautiful cinematography. It sounds like one, thanks to an inspired early score by Jerry Goldsmith (then an up-and-coming television composer, recommended to the production by no less than Alfred Newman). And it feels like one, thanks to the performances.
Douglas is right about his performance. In his hands Jack Burns becomes a classic [anti]hero – defiant, passionate, ultimately tragic. And the cast surrounding him is just as good, including Gena Rowlands, as one of the few people on earth capable of understanding Burns, and Walter Matthau, as the sheriff who first pursues Burns, then comes to respect and even sympathize with him (in some ways, he’s a forerunner to Tommy Lee Jones’s Sam Gerard). Supporting them, and Douglas, are great character actors like George Kennedy, William Schallert, Bill Raisch (who, a year later, would become a television icon as The Fugitive‘s original One-Armed Man), and Carroll O’Connor.
Cast and crew alike excel, and all in service of a classic story, one that finds the universal in the specific. The odyssey of Jack Burns is the odyssey of anyone who has ever fought for a place in the world, anyone who has tried to remain an individual in the face of crushing societal pressures. Lonely Are the Brave, like its protagonist, at once exists in and transcends its time. It’s just a great film.
Again, I hope you enjoyed my musings – if they’ve inspired you to see Lonely Are the Brave, it’s available on DVD and on Netflix’s instant lineup (though, if you’re an aspect-ratio purist, I’d go with the DVD, as the Netflix version is rather shamefully cropped for 4:3 TVs). Hope you like this movie as much as I love it.
Thanks as always for your support, and “be seeing you…”