Monday, March 23, 2020

Kirk Douglas's Lonely Are the Brave

Of all the films he made, Kirk Douglas listed Lonely Are the Brave (1962) as his favorite. Yet, this unusual contemporary Western was not a box office hit and rarely gets mentioned among his best movies. It has its admirers, though, to include Steven Spielberg and Kirk's son Michael.

It's easy to see what inspired Kirk to pursue adapting Edward Abbey's novel The Brave Cowboy. Its protagonist, Jack Burns, is a middle-aged cowboy who has refused to adapt with the times. He has no family, no street address, and no steady job. He prefers to live alone, converse mostly with his horse Whiskey, and sleep under the New Mexico stars. He is a good man who values independence above all else.

Jack also values friendship. He decides to take action when he learns that his best pal, Paul, has been sentenced to two years in prison for hiding illegal immigrants. Jack's solution is to get thrown into jail, so he can break out Paul. It's a flawed plan for many reasons, the most problematic being that Paul has a wife and son. The end result is that Paul stays behind and Jack becomes a hunted fugitive as he and Whiskey try to cross the mountains into Mexico.

Gene Rowlands as Jerry.
Kirk Douglas enlisted Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. The two had worked together previously with Spartacus (1960), the first film to credit, by name, the formerly blacklisted Trumbo in over a decade. The brilliance of Trumbo's screenplay for Lonely Are the Brave is the way in which it paints an in-depth portrait of its introverted protagonist. The audience learns about Jack from his scenes with Paul's wife Jerry (who knows him better than anyone else), the sheriff chasing him, and--yes--his horse Whiskey.

The film's finest scene may be Jack's farewell to Jerry (Gena Rowlands). Their love of one another, buried deeply by both, surfaces briefly when he reveals that he sometimes wishes he could have settled down with a family. It's a fleeting confession because Jack knows it's much too late to change his way of life. The relationship between Kirk Douglas and Gena Rowlands, in her first major film role, is electric. Their parting kiss is one filled with passion and regret.

Matthau as the gum-chewing sheriff.
Sheriff Morey Johnson provides an outsider's view of Jack. As the search for the fugitive continues, he develops a sort of respect for his quarry. At one point, Morey even admits to himself that he wishes the "cowboy" would escape. It's a perfect role for Walter Matthau, whose lawman bares more than a passing resemblance to the transit authority police officer he'd play in the later Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Finally, there's Jack's horse Whiskey, a young frisky mare who accompanies him on his trek over the hills. Jack's periodic conversations with Whiskey allow the cowboy to voice his inner thoughts for the audience. It's a clever narrative device, though Kirk Douglas once said that Whiskey also stole the film!
Jack talking with Whiskey the horse.
The supporting cast includes a bunch of familiar faces: George Kennedy as a sadistic police officer, William Schallert as Morey's deputy, Bill Bixby as a helicopter pilot, Carroll O'Connor as a truck driver, and Bill Raisch, who has a violent barroom brawl with Douglas. (Raisch achieved fame later as the true killer of Dr. Kimble's wife in The Fugitive). With its impressive cast, breathtaking B&W outdoor photography and Jerry Goldsmith's superb score, Lonely Are the Brave stands out as a unique, compelling film that deserves far more recognition.

9 comments:

  1. A beautifully made film, but a heartbreaker.

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  2. I love this film, and it is my favorite Kirk Douglas movie... except for the last two minutes.

    Jerry Goldsmith's score for this film is in my top five scores for all time. It is simply perfect.

    Great to read about this movie here!

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    1. I had forgotten how lovely the music score was...shame on me!

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  3. Just bookmarked on Amazon Prime Video. Love Douglas and very sad he left us recently - although, he lived a long and very full life.

    Hope that the Print and Transfer is good on Amazon - it is only available to rent or buy. As much as I love Amazon, often these older films are just poor quality digital transfers from poor quality DVDs - many of which, themselves, were made from bad prints.

    I will take the risk, though, based on this excellent recommendation.

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    1. Let me know about the quality of the print, in case there are others interesting in watching it on Prime.

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  4. What a great film this is. But the ending has to be one of the saddest ever. The look on Douglas's face....

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    1. I agree! The foreshadowing makes it even worse. We see Whiskey hesitate to cross a highway earlier in the film. And there's a reason why we keep seeing Carroll O'Connor's truck driver.

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  5. It couldn't have ended any other way. Shane suffers the same fate.

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  6. I saw this film once, several years ago, and haven't forgotten it. I like Kirk Douglas in everything, but I especially enjoy his performance here.

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