Appellate Judge James A. Stewart knows who he is.
"A Westerner likes open country. That means he's got to hate fences, and the more fences there are, the more he hates them."—Jack Burns
In 1962, our modern world was starting to become confining, not just with fences made out of wood or barbed wire but with fences made out of laws as well. Dalton Trumbo, who penned Lonely are the Brave from a novel by Edward Abbey, knew that well. He'd spent time in the confined spaces of prison, accused of Communist activity, and the McCarthy blacklist threatened to rule out his screenwriting career as well. Thankfully, with a little urging from people like Steven Spielberg, who felt that the time was right for its message about modern life, Universal has released Lonely Are The Brave as part of their Universal Backlot Series.
Facts of the Case
If there's anything Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas, Ace in the Hole) hates more than fences, it's prison bars. Still, he considers a bar fight with a one-armed man the perfect opportunity to get into prison with a hacksaw and bust out his friend Paul, who is serving two years for helping illegal immigrants find work. Things don't go as planned: Paul doesn't want to break out, since he's got a wife and son at home, and he doesn't want them to be on the run. Moreover, a scuffle in police processing means that Jack's facing hard time, not the brief sentence a bar fight would have brought. Jack breaks out, thinking his run to freedom in Mexico will be easy, but he's not counting on pursuit by the sheriff (Walter Matthau, The Odd Couple).
While Lonely Are The Brave is a thrilling chase picture as Jack Burns rides through the mountains to escape to Mexico, there's a lot more in the details. In an anniversary feature, Michael Douglas, son of star Kirk Douglas, points out the first and most striking metaphor: Jack is first seen in a typical Western scene alone with his horse, but planes fly overhead, and he soon must cross a busy highway with his horse as drivers object. The clash with modern life continues throughout, usually coming first as a sound that interrupts some tranquil and beautiful scene, followed by the appearance of a helicopter or some other modern irritant. With the emphasis on "how difficult it is to be an individual," as Kirk Douglas notes in his comments, the theme of prisons, laws, and rules is also a constant, from the opening moments in which Jack learns that his friend went to prison for breaking what he considered an unjust law. Prisoners—and the sheriff—are seen through metal bars that confine them in some way. In the police processing scene, a man is jailed for vagrancy—the crime of simply having no place to go—as officers bring Jack in, Jack is chastised for not carrying identification even though he tells the officers that "I don't need cards to figure out who I am. I already know," and a clerk continues writing a receipt for Jack's possessions even as Jack scuffles with cops. Even the truck driver (Carroll O'Connor, All in the Family) who becomes the movie's deus ex machina is first seen through ribbons of busy highway that look like bars. It's telling that his fellow prisoners seem to admire his determination to escape but aren't brave enough to follow (although his friend Paul's unwillingness to escape is brave, since he's willing to endure prison to see his family again). It's also telling that, even as he flees the modern world, Jack restrains his horse's front legs to keep the animal from kicking them into the air; he can't abide by modern conformity, but he restrains the horse's wild impulses to protect himself and the horse. Does this, along with his friend's refusal to bust out of prison, mean that Jack knows underneath that he must ultimately conform or face consequences? Given Trumbo's experience, I got the feeling that Trumbo believed that it was the rulemakers, the ones who took away his livelihood and put him behind bars, that didn't truly know themselves or what they believed in.
Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns with what his son calls "relaxation and an ease and a grace." It creates the impression that Jack doesn't take rules that seriously. In fact, he doesn't seem to take barroom brawls, jail cells, or police chases seriously. He's not a simple cowpoke—he's thought a lot about life, as is evident in a debate with Gena Rowlands as Paul's wife early in the picture—but has no need to intellectualize. Walter Matthau as a sheriff who finds himself angrily dealing with calls about damage to the search helicopter while he's in pursuit of Jack and George Kennedy as a deputy who really wants to nail Jack stand out amid a strong supporting cast. You'll also see The Fugitive's one-armed man, Bill Raisch.
Aside from touches of flaring in the patterns of shirts, I saw no problems with the well-preserved black-and-white picture. The audio, which blends Jerry Goldsmith's score with the sounds of both nature and modern life, mixes its elements well.
There's no commentary, but Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, and others involved with the movie talk about it in "Lonely Are The Brave: A Tribute," and the comments are insightful more often than not. "The Music of Lonely Are The Brave" focuses on a score which often shifts gears to contrast the old and new. Together, they add about half an hour worth of material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
How do you like ambiguous endings? Lonely Are The Brave leaves Jack's fate up in the air. Depending on your point of view, that could be fascinating or irritating.
Lonely Are The Brave will get you thinking about freedom and modern life, and the grace with which it does so will catch the attention of anyone who studies film. If it doesn't get you thinking, better check your driver's license to make sure you are who you think you are.
Not guilty. This is one movie that shouldn't be lonely on the video store
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.