Monday, December 14, 2009

Review – Lonely are the Brave

December 15, 2009

Lonely are the Brave – U.S., 1962

The Wild West is dead. Where vast fields used to stretch for hundreds of miles, metal fences now divide the land among private owners. Whereas a cowboy used to be able to gallop for miles in a straight line, he must now compete with automated vehicles and highways. Thus, the age of the cowboy has probably passed. However, if that is true, Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) didn’t get the memo. In the opening scene of David Miller’s excellent 1962 film Lonely are the Brave, Burns is seen stretched out in the desert sleeping, his horse close by, his cowboy hat draped over his face to block out any light from the morning sun. For a moment, viewers are drawn into that world most commonly seen in westerns – the world of settlers, Native Americans, westward expansion, and self-sustainability. The sound of jets flying above Burns immediately shakes us from these images. Moments later, we see him riding through desert plains on horseback. In other films, the plains would be full of fellow cowboys and opportunities for adventure. In Miller’s film, the plains have been deserted, and Burns’ journey is a rather lonely one. Times have certainly changed.

Burns eventually arrives at the home of his long-time friend Paul Bondi (Michale Kane), who has just been sentences to two and a half years in jail for aiding illegal aliens. There, he is greeted rather warmly by Bondi’s wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands). They chat for a while, Burns tries to explain to her how people like he and Paul view the world (“Westerners hate fences,” he tells her.), and then after a bath and a change of clothes, he heads to a local tavern for a drink. With a tall glass of beer in one hand and a shot glass and a bottle of strong ale in the another, he intentionally picks a fight with a one-armed man. Just why does he do this? The answer is simple. If he is going to break his friend out of jail, he first has to break into jail.

Lonely are the Brave has two acts. In the first one, Burns breaks in and out of jail; in the second, he attempts to make it to safety as Matthau’s Sheriff Johnson and his deputies pursue him. It’s interesting that Burns’ ability to escape may well rest on his ability to reach the very fences and boundaries that he earlier proclaimed his dislike for. There’s also a subplot of a truck driver (a very young Carroll O’Connor) tasked with delivering a load of toilets. Throughout the film, Miller cuts back to this character, yet never explains how his story is connected with Burns’. And then there’s Jerry Bondi, a woman who chose safety over uncertainty when she married Paul Bondi, despite the fact that her heart belonged to Jack Burns. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Whiskey, Burns’ trusty horse, who comes very close to stealing the film.

One of the delights of Lonely are the Brave is the eccentric, slightly off-kilter nature of the film’s supporting characters – the one-armed man (Bill Raisch) unable to calm down and let bygones by bygones, the sheriff (Walter Matthau) who delights in watching a neighborhood dog from his office window and matches important days in Burns’ biography with their corresponding holidays as if that information somehow provided clues to understanding Burns’ actions, and the radio operator who issues statements with rising tones, thus making acknowledgements sound like questions, a quirk that never ceases to get on the sheriff’s nerves. In addition, there’s Deputy Sheriff Gutierrez (George Kennedy), a man who seems intent on picking fights with prisoners under his watch just so he can have an excuse to rough them up. Burns’ habit of using politeness to get under someone’s skin puts him directly in Gutierrez’s line of fire.

Kirk Douglas has called Jack Burns one of his favorite roles, and it’s easy to see why. Burns is essentially a good man in a world that no longer operates the way it used to. We sympathize with him, for in his eyes we see the world as if used to be and we see just what that world has meant to him. The deputies pursuing him – with the exception of Gutierrez – are not like the villains we are used to seeing in westerns, for they are doing their job, in spite of any empathy they may feel for Burns. After all, Burns did help several other criminals escape, and who knows if they are as good-natured as he is.

Lonely are the Brave works on all levels, as a romance, as an action film, and as a representation of the changes that statehood and modernization brought to what had once been open and free land. Kirk Douglas is impressive as always, and Rowlands, Matthau, and Kane give great performances as well. Lonely are the Brave deserves to be rediscovered and recognized as the first-rate film that is it. (on DVD)

4 and a half stars

*I would like to thank Barrie Maxwell at for introducing me to this film.

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