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The More Fences There Are, The More You Hate ‘Em

July 19th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Kirk Douglas

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 poster Lonely Are the Brave 1962 dvd

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
107 minutes

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.

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 title card

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.

Lonely Are the Brave 1962

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Gena Rowlands Kirk Douglas

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Kirk Douglas

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Walter Matthau

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Kirk Douglas Michael Kane

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Kirk Douglas

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Walter Matthau

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 George Kennedy Kirk Douglas

Lonely Are the Brave 1962 Kirk Douglas

Lonely Are the Brave 1962

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?

Tags: Based on novel · Crooked officer · Cult favorite · Interrogation · Man vs. machine · Small town · Train · Western

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Jul 20, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Just watched this again recently, so much to like. That bar fight is built up so well, it makes me want to break a chair over one of those assholes’ heads. And Matthau doesn’t get too much screentime, but his character is written like he could have his own spinoff movie. I love the banter between him and the other cops. “He was just celebrating Flag Day.”

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Adam: Lonely Are the Brave just became one of my favorite movies. You can take it apart scene by scene and not find anything faulty in it. The bar fight and the domestic bits with Gena Rowlands are highlights. And I didn’t spot a single rear projection shot in the whole picture; it looked like the exteriors were all shot outdoors. For a fable, it has a texture that feels very real. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 John W. Flores // Sep 7, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    In college as a freshman at a sleepy Texas university in the late 1970s, my first English teacher assigned a paper on “Desert Solitaire” also by Abbey. I read the book at 18 without much interest. The paper was pretty awful, and the professor told me “You will never be a writer” which was what I wanted to be. It angered me, and as a result I became a writer, and a good one. I now realize I was right to reject the professor and rebel rather than conform to the bullshit society around me. I still feel that way, which is why I live in the mountains of New Mexico. Tell me something I don’t know about Jack Burns. And my favorite movie, “Lonely Are The Brave,” and favorite book, “The Brave Cowboy.” Had the professor assigned THAT book, I would have taken an interest.

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