Maybe You'd Be Better Off If They Caught You: Lonely Are The Brave (1962)

It was not long before the inception of my entire month of westerns that I was made aware of Lonely Are The Brave, which was sold to me as being about "a cowboy trying to live in the modern world," and when I inquired whether or not it was in the same vein as Midnight Cowboy I was told that it was not a urban flick that just happened to have a guy wearing cowboy clothing, but was indeed a western that just happened to exist in the space of modern America.  It is quite coincidental on my viewing order, but terribly pertinent that Lonely Are The Brave was released in the same year as How The West Was Won, because one could make a very grounded argument as to why the former does everything in its power to reject the sort of idyllic, historical longing for the past whereas the latter, while maintaining an equal degree of cinematic scope completely dismisses and literally destroys the possibility.  Directed by David Miller, Lonely Are The Brave is a vision to behold, with its fantastic use of black and white cinematography every image constructed by Philip H. Lathrob could stand as its own singular lesson in frame composition, only made the more captivating by the jagged and chiseled figure that is Kirk Douglas.  Every person involved in this film is clearly going at it with a level of commitment and compassion that is seemingly lost, much like the figure of this narrative, in a milieu of indifference and half-assed attempts to get through whatever task they are faced with.  Despite it breaking out of one of the rather obvious constraints of the genre, Lonely Are The Brave is very much a film that adheres to Western traditionalism where a man's word is his life and the value of a horse is often higher than that of a human life, it is inconceivable to me how this film has not managed to attain a higher cultural status and be placed with the likes of its contemporaries, although it does at its very core defy a genre categorization and much like Charles Laughton's single work masterpiece Night of the Hunter spent a great length of time in obscurity only to reemerge as a one of the most important achievements in the history of cinema.  Lonely Are The Brave has that degree of power and possibility, if only it can continue to be pushed outward from the throughs of the forgotten.

Lonely Are The Brave focuses on Jack Burns (Kirk Douglass) a wandering and roaming work-for-hire ranch hand whose living off the land and travelling by horse is proving from the get go to be incongruous with modern life, evidenced by an early scene when he and his horse, Whiskey, are almost side-swiped by an oncoming car when they unsuccessfully attempt to cross the road.  It is revealed that the only reason Burns has ventured into the modern world is to visit his a friend's wife named Jerry (Gena Rowlands) as well as her son, who is at school upon his arrival.  It is while he is there that Jerry informs Burns that her husband, and his friend, Paul (Michael Kane) has been arrested for aiding illegal immigrants crossing the border, leading to a diatribe on Burns part about the absurdity of blocking people from free movement in every sense.  It is at that point that Burns vows to break into jail in order to help Paul break out a task he undertakes by going to the local bar and hoping to get booked for being drunk, however, after being forced to fight a one-armed man Burns is booked for drunken disorderly conduct, yet his apologetic ways lead the officer on duty to suggest he get a free pass.  Burns knowing that he needs to get into the jail proceeds to attack the officers until he is finally thrown in jail, where he finds Paul, as well as a particularly oppressive guard named Gutierrez (George Kennedy).  After a bout with Gutierrez, Burn and Paul, as well as other inmates proceed to file down a bar and break out, although in the last moments Paul decides to remain jailed, and ride out his sentence, as opposed to forever being a vigilante.  Frustrated, Burns still leaves and after meeting up with Jerry to confess his love takes to the hills to flee to Mexico, which leads to a pursuit by the wily and wit-filled Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau) who takes great pride in creating a unstoppable tracking force including cars and helicopters.  Burns, however, continually proves an evasive subject, even using his skills to shoot the helicopter out of the sky and trick Gutierrez with a distraction while he sneaks up behind him and knocks him unconscious.  In the end, after nearly being caught, Burns escapes into the woods and is close to the Mexican border and freedom, only needing to cross a road to make it there, yet this task proves his downfall as an oncoming truck knocks both him and Whiskey off the road.

Lonely Are The Brave by some sort of tribal magic manages to be both incredibly Western as well as decidedly anti-western.  Much of this is directly a result of the figure of Burns who viewers are quickly drawn to with his sort of endearing idealism and defined presence.  He is a figure who would win out in the most intense of classic western shootouts and would have, aside from his jail breaking actions, proved to be an excellent marshall.  Viewers assume this for that small moment when he is in the natural world and void of any threat to modernity.  The moment he steps into a world with technology however, he becomes a foolish figure, one whose idealism is deemed ignorant and misguided, especially his foolish belief that he can break a friend out of prison with little concern for its underlying problem's to both his and his friend's futures.  Similarly, he is foolish enough to assume that some code of gentleman's honor still exists that allows for him to simply ask the instigating one-armed man to stop pestering him and all will be fine, or in the same scene that since he has agreed to fight the man that he should do so with only one hand to assure it is a fair encounter, never mind, that he was not the person who started the bout.  This also emerges in the way he deals with his fleeing to Mexico, which is where the image of Burns becomes convoluted, because on one hand it is worth praising his expertise and ability to move about rocky landscape without little hesitation, even taking an expensive and impending helicopter out of the sky with a set of well place rifle shots.  In a traditional western, or a contemporary action film these acts would be praised as skillful and indicative of adept individual, although figures like this, mostly in an espionage sense, aim to kill.  This is where it becomes anti-western to a degree, because when Burns is given a clear opportunity to end the life of Gutierrez who has already been established as a threat to Burns's life and well beign, he choses to afford him a chance to live partially because of his begging to survive, as well as Burns knowing it would be against an unspoken set of rules to shoot a man from behind the back.  As it stands Lonely Are The Brave depicts the absurdity of attempting to exist between two spaces, while also reminding viewers that a person attempting to live in a liminal median will eventually meet their demise, in some cases by a literal oncoming truck.

Key Scene:  I was a sucker for the closing shot...it was a good one and made me wonder if Lonely Are The Brave was not essentially the same thing for westerns as Chinatown was for the film noir genre.

This DVD looks fantastic and is a reasonable price.  Trust me when I say grab a copy, it is worth viewing and sharing with friends.

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