Lonely Are the Brave

Lonely Are the Brave ★★★★★

Lonely Are The Brave takes the viewer by surprise in that it is decidedly steeped in traditions of Old Hollywood while dipping into the thematic landscape of counterculture that characterized the latter part of the 1960s. It really wastes no time in doing so by opening with a stunning wide shot of the desolate plains of what looks like the Old West before scaling back down to focus on a rugged-looking fellow napping on the ground, with a cowboy hat covering his eyes. And then we hear a booming noise that to a contemporary ear is unmistakable. The cowboy looks up and – lo and behold – he sees a jet plane cutting through the air and leaving a thin white trail behind it. Thus, we are informed that we are not in The Old West but in contemporary times, which lays the necessary groundwork for the what will become the central conflict of the entire film – the grinding interface between the world of old values and the brave new world of technological advancement.

That’s how we meet John W. Burns (Kirk Douglas), a man who – as we learn shortly thereafter – is a self-avowed outcast who refuses to play by the rules of the modern world and chooses to live a life of a vagabond whose bedroom is where he lays his blanket and who dines in the buffet served by Mother Nature. In a way, this setup makes Lonely Are The Brave a rather interesting companion piece to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider which came out just a short seven years later. However, the approach of David Miller and Dalton Trumbo differs from the hippie rebellious ideology Hopper’s film openly espoused, even though both films are about freedom and standing up to institutionalized oppression exerted by the ever-intrusive state.

The film offers a perspective that’s a bit more nuanced than meets the eye. It isn’t just a hollow shouting exercise aimed at giving the audiences a little shake, but a romantic epitaph for the times gone by. Burns isn’t a rebel for the sake of rebelling. He isn’t trying to stand out; he wants to be left alone to live the way he sees fit. Unfortunately, this is where things get complicated because the world at large has other plans. In society’s eyes, his way of life is tantamount to vagrancy, which turns out to be a criminal offence. Not having any identification papers or a home address is also frowned upon, just as is the simple fact that – despite Burns’s wishes – the world has been divided up between nation states with artificial lines in the sand, the undocumented crossing of which also constitutes a crime.

Hence, as the story progresses and Burns finds himself on the receiving end of the state abuse of power which eventually leads him to break out of a county jail, Lonely Are The Brave transforms subtly into an early protoplast of Cool Hand Luke and Frist Blood and becomes a blood-curdlingly suspenseful chase movie with Burns and his trusted horse desperately trying to evade the long arm of the law and cross over to Mexico while the police with the help of the army are trying to capture him. This absolutely fantastic sequence spanning nearly half of the entire movie also works on a metaphorical level as an illustration to the violent way in which modernity has encroached upon our lives and successfully constrained our existence to the point where any resistance – admirable as it may be – will be crushed.

Interestingly however, while this suspenseful action involving bar fights, jailbreaks, chases and shootouts is taking place, life simply goes on and the film briefly pays attention to this fact by contrasting Burns’s rebellious character with that of his old flame portrayed by Gena Rowlands. When he is busy getting himself arrested and trying to convince his old friend to break out of jail with him, she has other problems to take care of. She has to take care of the house and make sure her young son goes to school and grows up to become a responsible adult. She has no time for the romance of freedom between the multitude of chores and responsibilities of what we know as normal adulthood. This juxtaposition gives the film a critical tint akin to the one found in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar; it actually works on some level as an indictment of this type of escapist lifestyle, as it suggests that perhaps real men do the right thing, even if it means serving time in prison, while children spend their lives playing cowboys and Indians.

I find it utterly fascinating that such a simple narrative can hold so much thematic content while also providing the viewer with entertainment of the highest calibre. Thus, I choose to see Lonely Are The Brave as a highly intelligent anti-western drawing from Nicholas Ray and the rebellious themes found in Benedek’s The Wild One while heralding the imminent arrival of such counterculture classics as Easy Rider, Bonnie And Clyde, Five Easy Pieces and Cool Hand Luke. It is a fascinating piece of cinema.

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