Classic Review: Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Kirk Douglas, being a successful star since the late 1940s, probably didn’t need to start his own production company in 1955. He did, of course, going on to produce some of his greatest films. By 1962, when David Miller directed him in this gritty Western, the company had already produced several classics. Was Douglas, we may ask, in love with the craft itself? If independent production is a sign of a free, liberating spirit, then no movie reinforces this more than Lonely are the Brave.

It is, in a sense, quite an idiosyncratic film. Douglas plays a lone ranger who is, in the film’s contemporary setting of industrial towns and endless roads, more of a vagrant than a wandering man. We are introduced to him cutting through wire fences; he rides everywhere by horse, and the concept of owning a house is ludicrous to him. He finds these things not so much detestable as incomprehensible.

His character is unalterably nostalgic for the lifestyle of the wild west, meaning that he becomes a lone ranger in terms of chronology as well as his worldview. Films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch display the tensions between Western gunslingers and the encroachment of modernity, but Lonely are the Brave alternates between that film’s tragedy and a kind of fish-out-of-water absurdity, bookending its unique narrative with scenes of Douglas’s horse attempting to cross a busy highway. These jarring images epitomise what is so special about the film: its brutal vision of a man whose only reaction to institutions is to subvert them. 

Douglas, as John W. Burns, or Jack, is charming but also fearsome in his dedication to a world without borders. He is almost more of an icon than a man: a set of immovable ideals that, as one character reminds him, may never have existed in the first place. Despite this, he is charismatic, honest, and resourceful. Like his characters in Paths of Glory and Spartacus, our admiration for him stems from his dedication to justice, even if this concept presents itself in a rather unconventional way. Douglas’s vitality and charm almost always makes both his heroic and his villainous roles eminently watchable, and this film, with its ambiguous, strange protagonist, is no different.

Interestingly, Western heroes are often seen as being representative of conservative values and precepts, but Jack’s attempts to save a friend are partially spurred by his inability to recognise what his friend has been doing – helping immigrants who have illegally crossed the border – as a crime. The notion of borders, including the prison walls he enters to save his old companion, violently and irredeemably contrast with his own philosophy. When he is arrested, we briefly find ourselves in a prison movie, yet Jack escapes without the man that he came to save. Crucially, the latter’s justification for not leaving is that he has too much to lose if he is captured. Jack has nothing but his principles; this is his tragedy.

After breaking out of jail with relative ease, Jack goes on-the-run with his (questionably) trusty steed, Whiskey. I had, from this point on, an almost constant level of anxiety for the animal’s safety, as the rest of the movie sees the duo attempting to evade a police force by traversing incredibly rough and mountainous terrain. Philip H. Lathrop, who assisted Russell Metty on Touch of Evil and bears the cinematographer credit for Point Blank, shoots this film in his sharp and visceral style.

The widescreen compositions of the film capture the prison environment in an impressively bleak and striking way, but it is in the natural world that Lathrop’s images really shine. We are treated to many vast and angular vistas of cliff faces, with the stark use of black-and-white emphasising the rugged and textured features of these great masses of rural landscape.

The screenplay was written by the legendary blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and there are plenty of witty and poetic quips throughout the film, particularly from Walter Matthau’s Sheriff Johnson, a character who is singularly noble in comparison to the stereotypically lazy, incompetent, and often brutal police characters. His detachment and weary recognition of Jack’s fate anchors the movie’s uncompromising poles of modern institutions and the free, lawless man. It is still an imperfect piece of work, however, and a certain plot device that is repeatedly cut back to feels rather heavy-handed and absurd. Yet, perhaps the very symbolic and heightened sense of dread and eradication that this element provides is more important that any notions of realism or plausibility in cinema.

It is strange, this year, to think of the immortality of Kirk Douglas, both as a man and a performer. He would have been in his mid-forties when this film, his favourite, was made; and he recently celebrated his 103rd birthday. Despite the illustrious and long-lasting career of its star, Lonely are the Brave is a mournful film. Commendably, it does not belie the contradictions of its characters. Like its complexly rendered protagonist, it is uncompromising and intelligent; and we owe this to Douglas in terms of his performance, but also in his drive to produce the film.

In contrast to the arid desert landscape that is Jack’s home, the movie reaches its conclusion in a dimly lit world of grit and rain, with Jack’s injured face shot uncomfortably close to the camera. He is obscured by slashes of water, surrounded by the oppressive clamour of crowds. As he sinks through the grainy aura of mud and downpour, we sense that the earth can no longer sustain him.


Popular Posts