Thursday, May 13, 2021

#2,567. Lonely Are The Brave (1962) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them”.

John W. Burns (Kirk Douglas) – Jack for short – is a rare breed. He’s a cowboy in the modern world, living by his own rules... even when they’re at odds with the law. We discover in the opening scene of 1962’s Lonely are the Brave just how much Jack Burns hates fences when he ignores a warning sign, cuts through some barbed wire, hops on his horse “Whiskey”, and rides on through.

After reading in the newspaper that his good friend Paul (Michael Kane) has been arrested for giving aid to illegal immigrants, Jack pays a quick visit to Paul’s wife, Jerry (Gena Rowlands),then heads to a bar, intent on getting himself arrested so that he can break his old buddy out of jail.

Sure enough, Jack has a fight with a one-armed man (Bill Raisch), is hauled to the clink, and reunites with Paul. Using two small hacksaws he hid in his boot, Jack manages to cut through a bar in their jail cell, but Paul refuses to go with him, deciding instead to quietly do his time so that he can get back to his family (if the escape fails, it would result in five years being added to his 24-month sentence).

Once free, Jack heads back to Jerry’s house, jumps on Whiskey, and heads for a nearby mountain range, knowing that if he makes it over those hills, he’ll be a free man.

But the police, led by Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau), have no intention of letting Jack Burns slip through their fingers, and with the entire force – as well as an army helicopter - joining in the manhunt, it’s going to take more than a little luck for Jack to escape.

Shot in gorgeous black and white, Lonely are the Brave was written by Dalton Trumbo (based on a novel by Edward Abbey), whose script features plenty of sharp, witty dialogue (though he plays the character straight, Walter Matthau gets his fair share of laughs as the Sheriff) and even the odd action scene (the bar fight is exciting, as is the chase that makes up the film’s final act). 

In addition, there’s the seemingly unrelated tale of a long-distance truck driver (Carroll O’Conner) trying to meet his deadline. Trumbo smoothly weaves this side story into the main narrative, and we know it will somehow - eventually - connect to Jack Burns and his escape, even if we’re not sure how.

Yet as good as all of this is, the best scenes in Lonely Are the Brave feature Jack on the open range, talking with his horse (time and again, we sense the camaraderie between the two, and this proves to be the most poignant relationship in the entire movie). As played by Douglas, Jack Burns is an upbeat, likable guy, a man who enjoys his freedom and will do whatever is necessary to hold onto it. We root like hell for him throughout the movie, and before long even Sheriff Johnson comes to admire the man he’s trying to recapture. The supporting cast – Rowlands, Matthau, Kane, and O’Connor - is also superb, and turning up briefly are both George Kennedy (as a particularly nasty cop) and Bill Bixby (as an Army helicopter pilot).

Kirk Douglas once called Lonely Are the Brave his favorite of all his movies, and it’s easy to see why. Crisply directed (by David Miller), flawlessly written, and expertly acted, Lonely Are the Brave was a perfect storm of creativity.
Rating: 10 out of 10

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