Lonely Are the Brave is the story of a powerful and captivating struggle, embodied by Kirk Douglas, between freedom and the greatness of nature on the one hand, and modernity and law enforcement on the other hand.
In the 1960s, John W. Burns, or Jack (Kirk Douglas), is a solitary cowboy travelling on the back of his stubborn but faithful mare Whiskey. After hearing his old friend Paul (Michael Kane) is in jail, Jack comes back to Albuquerque. He goes to see Jerry (Gena Rowland), Paul’s wife, who, it seems, was once his lover. Jack decides to get arrested to reach Paul and get him out of prison. It takes him only a few hours to provoke a fight, find his friend and break free by sawing their cell’s barrels. But he will have to escape alone: Paul no longer wants to take risks because his wife and son are waiting for him.
This marks the beginning of a perilous journey through New Mexico towards the Manzano Mountains where Jack plans to spend a peaceful life. However, the outlaw hero will be pursued by Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau) and his crew, which includes the cruel Gutierrez (George Kennedy), and even the Air Force. The manhunt is interspersed with scenes showing the journey of truck driver Hunton (Carroll O’ Connor), who, despite appearances, has a major role in the story.
David Miller’s movie is an adaptation from Edward Alley’s novel The Brave Cowboy (1956). This project was made thanks to Kirk Douglas, whose mind and heart were caught by the reading. He gathered Universal and his own production company, and met up again with blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo whom he knew from Kubrick’s Spartacus.
From the opening scene, it is clear this will be a David versus Goliath battle; except David is Jack and Goliath is modernity (rather than Johnson). This modernity is represented by cars, jets and fences which all symbolize the end of the old West. Nevertheless, the loner, who still lives as in the 19th century, gets rid of every obstacle by force or by ruse, by cutting barbed wire fences or by provoking authorities.
The movie is not all action, it is also tinged with humor and emotion, as when Jack goes out for a drink and gets into a messy fight, or each time you see Sheriff Johnson’s acolytes. Jerry is a strong woman who is not afraid of criticizing men openly. Her feminist discourse goes along with more serious themes: Paul is unfairly put in jail because he helped illegal immigrants, and Jack meets a one-armed man who symbolizes war trauma.
The Panavision format does not make the movie less attracting. The Sandia Mountains still look impressing and dangerous. The narrative structure respects a balanced rhythm, which is supported, when needed, by Jerry Goldsmith’s subtle music. The principal actors’ performances fit their characters: while Matthau manages to personify authority and humanity at the same time, Rowlands is moving and bold. Regarding Douglas, his talent stands out when he talks to the other actors, to his mare, and even when he remains mute.
At the end you cannot but ask yourself: would you rather comply with society and live a ‘common’ life, or just follow your instinct and live the life you have always dreamt of? It seems that, in both cases, there is a price to pay.
Lonely Are the Brave was Douglas’ favorite movie and one of his best works. Released in May 1962, it got overshadowed by a plethora of westerns and did not obtain the success it deserved. Still, it is an excellent contemporary western that has earned its place among classics.
Directed by David Miller
Produced by Joel Production
Screenplay by Donald Trumbo
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Released year: 1962
Running time: 107 minutes
Kirk Douglas…..John W. « Jack » Burns
Gena Rowlands…..Jerry Bondi
Walter Matthau…..Sheriff Morey Johnson
Michael Kane…..Paul Bondi
Carroll O’Connor…..Truck Driver
William Schallert…..Harry (Johnson’s deputy)
George Kennedy…..Gutierrez (sadistic deputy)
Karl Swenson…..Rev. Hoskins (prison inmate)
Dan Sheridan…..Deputy Glynn
Bill Raisch…..the one-armed man