Wednesday, November 4, 2009


During his long career, Kirk Douglas has often presented himself as a rebel against repressive authority, a persona that probably comes close to his own self-image. Spartacus may be his best-known rebel role, but the type turns up in his ill-fated Broadway version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and he came back to it decades later like a tongue to a loose tooth in his TV-movie Amos, which was Cuckoo's Nest set in an old-folks home. David Miller's modern-day Western, which Douglas produced, is said to be his own favorite of his movies, and may be the purest expression of his rebel persona.

Objects in the rear view mirror may appear larger than life later in the picture.

Douglas plays John W. "Jack" Burns, a cowboy somewhat in decline, reduced to sheep herding as the film opens. He lives off the grid, carrying no forms of i.d., claiming no permanent residence and asking the question "Occupation?" with "Yes." Riding his horse Whiskey through auto traffic into town, he learns that a friend of his has been jailed for assisting illegal immigrants. Deeming that unjust, Burns resolves to "break into jail" by getting arrested so he can break his friend out. He arranges this by visiting a bar on the wrong side of town and getting into a brawl with a one-armed man -- the one-armed man of Fugitive fame, in fact. When the police fail to consider that jail-worthy he picks a fight with them and is told that he can expect a year in jail for his trouble. In the lockup he learns that his friend is prepared to do his time (two years) and unwilling to risk more time by escaping. Burns asks him to think of his wife (Gena Rowlands) and kid, but the friend says he is, and that escaping and becoming a fugitive would ruin their lives as well as his. Burns takes this rebuff with his customary good grace and sets about escaping on his own. He stops back in town to tell Rowlands what's up, then heads into the mountains High Sierra style, expecting to thwart all pursuers and make it to Mexico. It begins to look like a good bet when he manages to shoot down an Army helicopter by blasting its tail rotor, but at the same time the film's been telling us all the way through that Burns's defeat is just a matter of time....

By 1962 the end of the West was becoming a more frequent theme in generic Westerns like Ride the High Country, but Lonely Are the Brave argues that the West was still ending in that very year. Something has changed (or definitively ended) since then, which may explain why Douglas's performance doesn't seem to ring true at first glance. John W. Burns seems too nice, too glib. A modern audience might expect such a character to be more alienated, more taciturn, possibly more ruthless. They might envision Tommy Lee Jones rather than Kirk Douglas, and they might be more inclined to believe that something must be wrong with Burns to explain his aversion to modernity. Some may see Lonely Are the Brave through the prism of First Blood, as the makers of that film may have when they invited Douglas to play Col. Trautmann -- a part he reportedly rejected when the writers changed the script from the novel's ending and spared Rambo's life. John W. Burns seems too good to be true in his apparent incapacity for anger and his unwillingness to kill his pursuers. We're told that he shoots the tail rotor exactly so the copter will have a soft landing that the pilots can survive. Given an opportunity for revenge against a guard who abused him (George Kennedy with a weird, half-Hispanic, half-Transylvanian accent), he does no more than the minimum necessary to subdue him, and doesn't even grab the guard's guns.

During his odyssey of escape, Kirk Douglas faces such epic adversaries as a helicopter (above) and George Kennedy (below), in no particular order of epic-ness.

It becomes apparent that Douglas and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo have conceived Burns as a Romantic version of the cowboy. As Douglas himself says on the new DVD, Burns is a "good guy," and that's probably what distinguishes him from the Burns we might envision in a theoretical remake. He isn't about alienation or anti-sociability or any other hangup. For Douglas, Trumbo and Miller Burns embodies nothing but freedom. Douglas says that he wanted to call the movie The Last Cowboy (the source novel by Edward Abbey is called The Lonely Cowboy), but you could just as easily have called it The Noble Savage. Burns is a natural man and naturally good, one for whom the modern world's regulations are superfluous. This understanding of the character explains why the movie starts out far more light-hearted than I expected. The comedy persists as Walter Matthau's sheriff copes sardonically with his idiot deputies and the oppressive assistance of the military. But the comedy only sets us up for an ending out of a Seventies movie in its sudden, crushing defeat.

Actually, it's not too sudden if by that you mean unanticipated. One major weakness of the screenplay is its introduction of Carroll O'Connor as a truck driver hauling a load of "privies." Trumbo strives briefly for satire in asking why someone needs to ship privies to New Mexico from hundreds of miles away, but beyond raising the question O'Connor has absolutely nothing else to do, yet Miller keeps cutting back to him. His activities advance the plot in no way whatsoever until it sinks in, probably well in advance of the actual event, that there's only one way he can intersect with the main action of the movie. His truck is like the proverbial gun on the theater stage; if you show it, it has to be used. It's a crude plot device that, were the film itself consistently crude, might make a perfect metaphor for anything as heavyhanded that so obviously telegraphs the finish of a film.

But as it turns out, the predictability of the climax doesn't dent its devastating power. A beautifully filmed finale on a rainy roadside transforms a gently satirical comedy-drama into a kind of tragedy. O'Connor justifies the film's attention to him with his horrified reaction to the disaster he creates, while the once-glib Douglas is reduced to ruined muteness. Lonely Are the Brave leaves it open whether John W. Burns lives or dies from his adventure, but he experiences an indisputable symbolic death that marks the end of a kind of American dream or his own personal fantasy of the cowboy life. The ending transforms him from a fugitive noble savage to something more like Don Quixote, a knight out of time who almost won, but probably never could have. It darkens and elevates the entire film.

A movie like this is going to rise and fall on its location work, and Miller found a photogenic mountain to work on. He works on a scale that allows him to cut from the helicopter pilot observing Burns from high above to Matthau observing the helicopter from far away. Douglas, his stuntman and the horse do great physical work on the mountain and Miller captures it effectively. Douglas himself gives Trumbo more credit than Miller, suggesting that once the great script was written Miller had it kind of easy,but the director definitely deserves credit for his contribution to one of the great years for Hollywood. The actors, Kennedy excepted, are all good, with Matthau still biding his time waiting for the breakout role that would come a few years later and Rowlands probably overqualified for her relatively small role. I wouldn't rank Lonely Are the Brave too highly in the exalted class of 1962 but it's further proof of what a good year than was for American movies.

Somehow Universal couldn't include a trailer on its fancy Backlot Collection DVD, but here it is, taken from TCM and uploaded to YouTube by foxter65.


Dave said...

Haven't seen this one, but what I have read is similar to your reaction here... good in spots, but certainly not a great movie.

John said...

Samuel – Terrific analysis! I have not seen this film in many, many years. I believe it was on Saturday Night at the Movies when I did. At the time, I remember being very impressed with the film and the image of Douglas’ character. I always saw the film, or at least remember it as a story of a man whose time has past him by. The modern world was encroaching on him and his space. This is a film I have been meaning to tryand catch again. Glad to know it is on DVD.