Sunday, 14 February 2021

Movie Review: Lonely Are The Brave (1962)

A contemporary western eulogy, Lonely Are The Brave explores the loss of a way of life through the story of a good-natured cowboy playing by the old rules.

In New Mexico, Korean War veteran Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) and his horse Whiskey still crave the open frontier cowboy lifestyle. Jack laments the fences, property lines and roads infringing on his freedom to move wherever he pleases. When he learns his buddy Paul (Michael Kane) is in prison for helping illegal immigrants, he visits Paul's wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and commits to help.

Jack: Have you ever noticed how many fences there're getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead!

Jack welcomes a bar fight then instigates a scuffle with police to get himself arrested and thrown into the same cell as Paul. He tangles with prison guard Gutierrez (George Kennedy) before offering Paul an opportunity to escape by sawing through the prison bars. But while Paul has a wife and child to consider, Jack lives for himself and for today, and with Whiskey makes a run for the mountains. Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) organizes a pursuit.

Desk sergeant: Look, cowboy, you can't go around with no identification. It's against the law. How are people going to know who you are?
Jack: I don't need a card to figure out who I am. I already know.

A lyrical western, Lonely Are The Brave carries honest intentions and a clear-eyed distinction between past and present. Dalton Trumbo's script sets out to bid a fond farewell to men like Jack, and despite the bittersweet sense of loss, even Jack is under no illusions. He knows his time has come and gone, and so does everyone else, but nothing will stop him from trying to wind the clock back.

The other men have moved on and are now more circumspect than freewheeling. Jack's good buddy and rival for Jerry's heart Paul is no longer interested in jail break escapades. Sheriff Johnson brings a resigned approach to his job, recognizing men like Jack are capable of disappearing into the wilderness, and maybe that's not a bad outcome. Meanwhile Jerry is exasperated not just with Jack's carefree attitude, but with men's general dense-headed and cavalier disregard towards the benefits of domesticity. 

Jerry: Believe you me, if it didn't take men to make babies I wouldn't have anything to do with any of you!

David Miller directs with a relaxed stance, the black and white cinematography harkening back to an earlier era where only mountain ranges interrupted the landscape. And Kirk Douglas brings his impish smile and an open, approachable demeanour to the fore, convinced every fence can be cut and every problem has a straightforward common-sense solution.

Jerry: Maybe you'd be better off if they caught you.
Jack: Maybe, but I'd like to put it off for as long as possible.

Jack's escape destination is a mountain ridge easiest to cross alone and on foot, but his tradition demands a man look after his horse, despite Whiskey's intransigence. Some of the scenes featuring the horse being forced up the steep terrain make for difficult viewing, but the old west was not for the faint of heart. Of course on the other side of the mountain is another barrier, even more difficult for Jack and Whiskey. No matter, they will carry on, intent on finding a sunset now obscured by the headlights of busy traffic.

Jerry: Jack, I'm going to tell you something. The world that you and Paul live in doesn't exist. Maybe it never did. Out there is a real world. And it's got real borders and real fences, real laws and real trouble. And you either go by the rules or you lose. You lose everything.
Jack: You can always keep something.


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