|Rating: The Good – 75.7
Duration: 107 mins
Director: David Miller
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau
When Jack “W” Burns learns that his friend has been arrested, he orchestrates his own arrest so that he can help his friend break out of prison from the inside. Things don’t go altogether as planned and he ends up fleeing back to the open terrain on his own with a posse of marshals after him and a 5 year jail sentence hanging over his head for escaping. Lonely Are the Brave is a thoughtful work which captures much of the spirit of the US cultural revolution of the 1960’s & 70’s but from the seemingly counter-intuitive and old fashioned perspective of an open ranging cowboy whose life of freedom has been reigned in by the expansion of the modern world and the laws and restrictions that go with it. Kirk Douglas is that cowboy and as usual, he presents us with a charming character who represents an ideology not entirely fashionable for its time.
To say that Lonely Are the Brave defies expectations as a film is an understatement. The film opens with a shot of Douglas’ cowboy resting with his horse, a shot which could have introduced any western of its time. However, this shot is startlingly interrupted by passing fighter jets. A fleshed out story of friendship then threatens to blossom but before we know it, the film takes another couple of turns before a manhunt through mountainous terrain emerges as Burns is pursued by George Kennedy’s nasty prison guard (who had assaulted him while in jail) and Walter Matthau’s decent but determined Sheriff. Sound familiar? It should because it’s First Blood! In all fairness, it must be pointed out that the latter Stallone vehicle brings a lot of its own ideas to the table (some of which are even better than those addressed here) and goes its own way in character construction and overall plot.
David Miller brings a very soft and calm momentum to the film. This is surprising because with so many plot turns, one would assume he would be in a hurry to get to the most exciting part of the film. But he is not. Each segment to the story’s progression is respected and given all the time it needs. This is a refreshing touch and it makes Lonely Are the Brave a uniquely satisfying watch. When he does ramp up the tension, he does so in admirable fashion for the final 30 minutes are gripping to say the least. However, he still manages to remain respectful of Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay and Edward Abbey’s original novel while doing so. Burns remains the same character he was at the beginning and a pleasing sense of authenticity is felt as the chase relentlessly continues.
Douglas is not as intense as he often is and seems content for his character to play the hand dealt by the script. There seems to be a genuine admiration for his character’s way of life and there’s a lot of charm to it but it’s not as memorable as some of his other turns. Kennedy is suitably boo-hissable as the mean prison guard and adds a really interesting layer of veiled cowardice to his character (this idea would be further tapped and built on to brilliant effect in the later First Blood). Matthau isn’t really given enough to do but he provides some welcome comic relief to the pursuit. And let’s not forget Gena Rowlands who steals the show in a scene and a half as the wife of the Burns’ friend. In fact, the sub-plot between Burns and her offers as much interest as the one the film ultimately builds around.
Lonely Are the Brave is an originally written and directed film and it’s finely acted. It offered much to the jaded western genre before Sergio Leone was to revitalise it five years later. Traditional western themes are analysed softly within the narrative and there’s a strong retrospective tone to the piece. As many filmmakers were arguing in various films throughout the 1960’s, from The Wild Bunch to The Professionals to Once Upon a Time in the West, there was a real sense that the genre’s time was passing into history in the same way the era itself did. Lonely Are the Brave is definitely putting that idea out there and far earlier than the those other better remembered pictures did. Just another reason, this little gem deserves to be seen.