Currently streaming on MUBI, Lonely Are the Brave is one of the Westerns I’ve always wanted to watch because of its reputation as a form of contemporary Western. I have also been intrigued by a short piece by Colin McArthur in the Media Education Journal No. 58 (Winter 2015/16), analysing the opening of the film in terms of mise en scène and the seemingly obvious use of binary oppositions to introduce its narrative. McArthur’s aim was to discuss issues related to the development of structuralist ideas in film studies in the early 1970s, but I’m not going to pursue that argument here. Instead I want to discuss the film in terms of various issues about genre in the 1960s and specifically the Western. Before I forget though, the opening titles tell us this is a ‘contemporary Western’, simply by the typography and graphic design.
Lonely Are the Brave is a ‘Twilight Western’ – a film which deals with the death of the culture and mythology associated with the Western ‘frontier’ in American history. Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, introduced to us as a cowboy resting on a hillside with his horse Whisky. He looks up and sees the vapour trails of military jets across the sky. This is one of the oppositions ‘over-emphasised’ in the opening scene. When he rises and re-mounts, Jack discovers a wire fence and beyond it the outskirts of a town in New Mexico. He cuts the wire and symbolically moves from the open range into the modern world. He’s come to find Paul (Michael Kane), a friend who shares his ideas about individual freedoms. But when he meets Paul’s wife Gerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role after several years in TV) he discovers is serving time in gaol for helping Mexican migrants. Jack decides to pick several fights and land himself in the same gaol and break out with his friend. But here comes the important ‘Twilight’ convention. While Jack cannot settle down to conventional 1960s suburban life, his friend has a wife and child he wishes to return to and he refuses to leave his cell. Jack breaks out anyway and sets off South to the Mexican border, but with several police and military forces chasing him, the odds on his survival are long.
Kirk Douglas is as good as you expect him to be in a role for which he seems well suited. The film looks good in black and white 2.35:1 thanks to Philip Lathrop who came late to the full cinematographer role but who had worked on the TV series Rawhide in the late 1950s. Lathrop is able to represent the Sandia Mountains and other New Mexico locations as beautiful but dangerous open country where a resourceful man (and his horse) might be able to escape the law. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, another TV Westerns series graduate. It is recognisably his work with a military march motif but it becomes a little overpowering for me when Jack and his horse Whisky are attempting to climb a mountain. The supporting cast includes Walter Matthau as the sheriff who must pursue Jack. Matthau was yet to make the move to lead roles but his later star persona is already in place here – the grouchy figure with a sardonic wit and a weary despair about the intelligence of his men. George Kennedy takes a familiar role as a heavy – in this case a violent police officer who takes pleasure in attacking Jack.
The script is by Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the ‘Hollywood 10’ black-listed after the HUAC hearings. Trumbo was now able to take credit for his work, especially after the success of Spartacus in 1960 when support from Kirk Douglas was crucial. The director of Lonely Are the Brave was David Miller, an experienced studio director who would work again on Trumbo’s script Executive Action (1973) a thriller about the John F. Kennedy assassination, described on IMdB as ‘speculative agitprop’.
It’s not difficult to see what attracted Douglas and Trumbo to the story of Jack Burns which Douglas discovered in a novel by Edward Abbey, The Brave Cowboy (1956). Douglas bought the rights and produced the film himself. He then blamed the distributor, Universal, for releasing the film wide without promotion as a genre Western. Douglas believed it should have been ‘platformed’ first (though I doubt he used that term) and treated like an art film. He had a point at the time, but it isn’t really an art film, but instead an interesting genre hybrid.
Abbey was an unusual writer who had won a Fulbright scholarship at Edinburgh University. He was an anarchist and early environmentalist with a range of interests which eventually led him towards ‘direct action’ and he became a celebrity figure for the activist environmentalist groups. The original novel includes important narrative elements that are there in the film but perhaps not as prominently as in the novels. I use the plural because Jack as a character appears to be in other novels by Abbey. It’s worth considering the intertextual aspects of Lonely Are the Brave. I’ve quoted the twilight Western and there are a couple of sequences when the film, consciously or not, seems to quote John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Both feature Jack with Gerri. How do they feel about each other? Is there a repressed attraction? When Jack first arrives at his friend’s house, Gerri offers to wash his shirt and when he returns after breaking out of prison she offers him the clean shirt. Unlike the Ford film, the dialogue in Lonely Are the Brave spells out everything. In The Searchers (and in Brokeback Mountain) we have two characters who can’t speak about their love. It’s all in looks and gestures. But when Jack rides away from Gerri’s house we are offered the classic Fordian shot in reverse. We see Jack slowly disappearing into the the open country, just as we saw John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards riding towards the isolated ranch house where Martha is watching his progress.
There are other possible genre links as well. The image of a modern criminal being hunted down in remote places dates back to at least High Sierra (1941) and the deserts and mountains of the South West and the journey to Mexico (in itself another element of the twilight Western) recalls films like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker (1953). Abbey’s books reveal his concerns about the ways in which the open country of the South West has been used for various forms of development, including building military air bases. This appears in the film as a battle between Jack, hiding in the rocks and the helicopter attempting to find him. I was reminded of my childhood viewing of the TV series Whirlybirds (Desilu 1957-60) in which the helicopter pilots were the good guys. This film posits the possibility that they might be if not the ‘bad guys’ at least the over-confident and ‘gung-ho’ guys who might end up in Vietnam. This last thought also makes me think of the way that the cowboy loner has been translated into the lone survivalist in films like the first Rambo film, First Blood (1982).
When I looked at two of my Western reference books I discovered that both Phil Hardy in his Enyclopedia of the Western and Julian Petley with his contribution to the BFI Companion to the Western find Lonely Are the Brave to be too self conscious and ponderous in spelling out its ideas rather than letting the audience discover themes for themselves. This marks a significant difference to The Last Picture Show in my previous post which is another twilight Western that doesn’t need to explain anything. However, on IMdB, Lonely Are the Brave has a high score of 7.6 and a reputation to match. I agree broadly with the critics about the dialogue. Jack has a long speech in which he explains to Gerri what it means to be a loner. But I can forgive the film that speech because the struggle of man and horse up the mountain is thrilling. There must have been a wrangler who worked hard but I did wonder about how some shots were achieved without putting the horse at risk. I’m not sure I can be equally forgiving about the film’s ending which is signalled so clearly in the first 10 minutes. Even so, the film is certainly worth a watch if you have MUBI in the UK.