In the month of July, I take a look at films released in my very favorite film stock and aspect ratio: black & white in anamorphic. Unless they’re being financed with credit cards, movies are rarely shot like this anymore because they’re impossible to sell to television. Yet these dreams sneak onto Turner Classic Movies every now and again …
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Directed by David Miller
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey
Produced by Edward Lewis
In contrast to the cotton candy being churned out by Universal Pictures in the 1960s featuring Rock Hudson or Doris Day, few movies then or now corral craftsmanship, social awareness and entertainment as magnificently as Lonely Are the Brave. Edward Abbey’s novel Brave Cowboy was published in 1954 and optioned by Kirk Douglas four years later. The theme of a man overcoming resistance to achieve his freedom had inspired Douglas to develop Spartacus. For a fable about modern day enslavement, the actor-producer turned again to Dalton Trumbo for an adaptation and put up the completion funds to sell Universal on the project. Dumped into theaters in May 1962, Lonely Are the Brave was ignored at the box office, but landing on the year-end top ten lists of several critics, it enjoyed a successful run in art houses like the Surf Theater in Chicago and the River Oaks Theater in Houston.
Journeyman director David Miller isn’t even a blip on the radar screens of most film scholars or movie geeks, but Lonely Are the Brave represents the Hollywood studio system at its best. The stuntwork involving Douglas and his horse is amazing, while a cantina brawl ranks as one of the most creative ever staged. Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and Carol O’Connor all show the depth and humor they’d become renowned for, while the cinematography by Philip Lathrop and musical score by Jerry Goldsmith have no equal. As with The Great Escape or Cool Hand Luke, Lonely Are the Brave begins and ends with a hero whose spirit refuses to submit even as he appears whipped by The Man. Whether interpreted as a border drama or a morality play about man seeking to retain his individuality in a fast changing world, the film remains as vital to our national debate now as it was then.
Slumbering amid the sagebrush of New Mexico, cowhand John W. Burns (Kirk Douglas) is awakened by the scream of jet aircraft overhead. Saddling up his defiant appaloosa Whiskey and steering the horse across a highway that’s been put in his way, Burns reaches the town of “Duke City”, where he drops in on Jerry Bondi (Gena Rowlands), the wife of a childhood buddy. Burns discovers that his pal has been sentenced to two years in prison for rendering aid to “wetbacks” crossing the border. Defiant of rules like the ones dictating when he can visit a friend in jail, Burns strolls into a cantina and picks a fight with a WWII veteran (Bill Raisch) who has one arm and a bad attitude. When authorities offer to drop the charges, Burns hits a deputy, earning him time to catch up with Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) behind bars.
While Paul ignores the taunts of a brutal deputy (George Kennedy), Burns tells the cop exactly where he can go and later loses a wisdom tooth for his backtalk. Once the lights go down, Burns reveals to his friend two hacksaws he’s smuggled in his boot. The men cut through a bar in their cell, but Paul elects to pay his debt to society by serving out his sentence. Burns bids farewell to his friend and then to his friend’s wife, who Burn still harbors feelings for. As Burns heads up the foothills and seeks to climb a mountain ridge that will take him into Mexico, wry Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) engages in a pursuit. The cowboy and his horse are able to evade the hapless deputies sent up the mountain and a helicopter on loan from an army base, but progress and conformity finally catch up with John W. Burns.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 226 users: 82% for Lonely Are the Brave
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
What do you say?