Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) - The End of 1950s Conformity

Kirk Douglas at his Finest in "Lonely are the Brave"

 Lonely are the Brave Kirk Douglas 1962
"Lonely Are the Brave" (1962).

"Lonely are the Brave" (1962), directed by David Miller, is an absolutely terrific drama that captivated me, taking me by surprise. I wasn't expecting much, but seeing Kirk Douglas plays the loner Jack Burns and delivers the performance of his career, a spellbinding tour de force of acting genius, was enthralling.

 Lonely are the Brave Kirk Douglas 1962
Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) must fight a one-armed man to retain his honor.

"Lonely are the Brave" is a small film directed by the little-known David Miller but written by the talented and notorious . Kirk Douglas rehabilitated Trumbo by giving him credit for "Spartacus," and here Trumbo returns the favor. Trumbo wrote Douglas' "Spartacus" while a victim of the famous "Hollywood blacklist" of the 1950s - now he could appear under his own name only because Douglas demanded that he receive proper credit in "Spartacus." Through his personal experiences, Trumbo would have understood individuals fighting the system, and that is what "Lonely are the Brave" is about. There aren't a lot of fireworks, explosions or gunfire in "Lonely are the Brave," though there is a little of each thrown in here and there. "Lonely are the Brave" is just about a man riding his horse ("Whiskey") through a barren landscape which mirrors his lack of attachments to normal society. He creates his own reality and pursues his own agenda, in complete defiance of the conformists around him. It is a "modern Western" because it isn't about a cowboy doing cowboy things, but about a Western man fighting against the system. In this way, it is similar to Steve McQueen's naturalist Western "Tom Horn," Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock," and Dustin Hoffman's "Little Big Man." In each, a loner challenges orthodoxy and gets away with it for a while, some with more success than others.

Walter  Matthau  Lonely are the Brave Kirk Douglas 1962
Walter Matthau plays the low-key sheriff to perfection.

Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns as a man who simply wants to avoid being ensnared in the coils of society and modern life, and assumes that others feel the same way. Living in his own self-created world, Burns doesn't comprehend how different he is. To Burns, it is not a question of flouting convention, rather it's about choosing to live the way he wishes without regard to others and how they want him to live. That, of course, make him the most dangerous man in the territory, and one who must be stamped out by an overly controlling society regardless of the cost.

Kirk Douglas  Lonely are the Brave Kirk Douglas 1962
Jack just wants to enjoy his life - but fate intervenes.

So, Kirk's character Jack Burns tries to help out his friend Paul (Michael Kane). When that doesn't work out because Paul doesn't see the world the same way Burns does, Burns becomes a man on the run. Paul's wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) helps Burns, but there is little she can do except try to understand Burns. What happens next shows the limits of social oppression but also the danger of being too alone. It is all very philosophical and metaphorical, not really meant to be taken literally but rather as a running commentary on the limits of personal freedom and liberty.

Kirk Douglas Gena Rowlands  Lonely are the Brave Kirk Douglas 1962
Gena Rowlands as Jack's friend's wife.

Walter Matthau is superb as Sheriff Johnson, the man leading the manhunt. No "The Fugitive" heroics for him, Sheriff Johnson realizes that he is chasing a free spirit for no real purpose, not because Burns poses any kind of threat to society. By hunting down Burns, Johnson realizes that he is hunting down himself and every other man who hates his job and his place in the pecking order. You can't miss the admiration for Burns in Sheriff Johnson's voice at the same time that he expresses frustration at being unable to capture him. Sheriff Johnson plays out his role mechanically, knowing deep inside that it is the wrong thing to do but inescapable. He has to conform, so he numbs his own doubts and proceeds with the pointless manhunt. In doing so, he must expend vastly greater resources than the situation reasonably warrants, to the extent that "Lonely are the Brave" becomes a meditation on how important to 1950s America it was to snuff out true individualists.

Jack Burns helicopter Lonely are the Brave Kirk Douglas 1962
The scenery is striking throughout "Lonely are the Brave."

The ultimate unintentional irony of the film is the identity of the actor playing the fateful truck driver, Hinton. You can almost see the conformist 1950s finally swing into the free-wheeling 1970s in that one characterization. Of course, not long after this film, many people really did break out and started growing their hair long and ignoring authority. And then along came Archie Bunker on TV and social conformity went completely out of fashion, hitting the opposite extreme. So, Trumbo in "Lonely Are the Brave" was really expressing hidden but growing social undercurrent that ultimately broke loose about a decade later. And not a second too soon, for sure.

"Lonely are the Brave" is a wonderful, deep film with gorgeous scenery. Highly recommended, especially for Kirk Douglas fans.


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