Lonely Are the Brave Review

When the man who played Spartacus, Chuck Tatum, and Col. Dax repeatedly cites his role in Lonely Are the Brave as John W. Burns, Jack for short, as his favorite performance, maybe it's worth paying some attention. The film, long absent on DVD in the UK, has finally debuted in R1. It stands as entirely out of its time or, for that matter, any time. Like its protagonist Burns, Lonely Are the Brave exists beyond traditional ideas or comparisons. A modern setting and antihero lead, a decade before the latter became fashionable, further the disorienting nature of the film. One need only look to the opening, depicting a relaxed Burns with his horse but otherwise alone in the middle of a large expanse as we hear and see a jet airplane roar past overhead, to immediately understand what the film has in mind. Adapted by Dalton Trumbo from Edward Abbey's novel The Brave Cowboy, this is that rare breed - the modern or contemporary western. Only a handful of such pictures with any merit exist, namely Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men and Peckinpah's Junior Bonner, though both are centered around the rodeo and Lonely Are the Brave more specifically addresses the yearning for a bygone era absent fences and barbed wire. A recent attempt at some of these same ideas can be found in the Edward Norton starrer Down in the Valley, a further modernized, partial plagiarism of this movie.

Following the initial jet flyby, Burns rides into fast moving automobile traffic, cementing the extreme polarization between his character and modern reality and foreshadowing, even if the viewer doesn't realize it at the time, things to come later in the film. There's also a great shot here where we see Burns on his horse - in the middle of the road - in the large rear view mirror of a truck driver. Director David Miller and cinematographer Philip Lathrop might take a backseat to Douglas and Trumbo when dividing up the plaudits, but I'd classify Lonely Are the Brave as the best film Miller ever made and one of Lathrop's three or four finest too. The necessary balance Miller achieves in presenting Burns for who he is without ruining the subtlety or making it too obscure is impressive. By the time Gena Rowlands is introduced as the wife of Burns' childhood friend (who's now behind bars for helping an illegal immigrant), there's already so much curious and unexplained backstory about our main character that he becomes something of an enigma, a label you could really pin to him from start to finish.

It seems that he hasn't seen Rowlands' character and her husband for a couple of years, and as Burns casually rides up to her home, there's still an immediate warmth and connection between her and him. Clearly, something has existed beyond just her being his best friend's spouse. The two performances, in all of their early '60s Hollywood glory, clarify and mystify this, and though we come back to it later, nothing is ever made entirely clear beyond some feelings at least once having been there and perhaps still lingering. Without giving it much thought, as though it were the obvious reaction, Burns plans to get himself arrested in order to join Rowlands' husband in jail and then break the two of them out. There are certainly a few flaws in this idea, but it really goes along with how he not only wishes for but truly reacts to a different society than what the modern world has produced. The accepting calmness Douglas gives Burns in the bar scene is an extraordinary inhabiting of this character which contradicts the forcefulness Douglas often preferred in his other performances. He's still a bit over the rainbow in terms of being divorced from reality, but it just works in the context of this film.

The conflict we get from Douglas' characterization is truly amazing. While it's obvious that Burns is a little off, unwilling to accept contemporary society and almost immune to the predictable actions of others, the total commitment he has is so compelling, so true and somehow right that it's close to impossible to not sympathize with him. Few characters in the history of film, and this isn't hyperbole on my part, manage to evoke such a degree of confusion and total questioning of these clashing realities as Douglas' John W. Burns. The brilliance in this performance lies with just how willing Douglas is to back his character no matter the situation. The audience cannot doubt Burns entirely because we cannot doubt Douglas. He's some sort of smiling idiot, brawling his way to jail and punching a police officer before facing a beatdown at the hands of a particularly sadistic officer (George Kennedy). But when the man hunt ensues, taking up most of the second half of the film, we're behind him. Burns' actions may not be entirely worth supporting or even understanding. The character's oddness informs much of the overall tone of the picture, and this might very well be part of the reason Lonely Are the Brave has never achieved the bona fide classic status it deserves despite maintaining a small group of faithful admirers. Bluntly, it's a weird picture with a weird main character in a society that doesn't necessarily value our weirdos quite as much as maybe we should.

The central ideas of the film are actually limited, for the most part, to the first half since afterward Burns is basically just being pursued following his escape. His potential captors, aside from the sheriff played by Walter Matthau (who nearly steals the entire film), are portrayed as lacking. An institutional ineptitude persists throughout Lonely Are the Brave as a minor but deliberate secondary idea intended to stand beside the main theme. Trumbo gets his wish, but that whole frustration has become quite the easy target over the years. Regardless, this portion is sharp in its clarity and it manages to further the viewer's knowledge and appreciation of Burns. The set-up is akin to Bogart being hunted amid the western hills of High Sierra, but the emotional payoff is significantly different. Burns is tracked by military men in a helicopter, state cops and Matthau's local sheriff who's joined by the partial comedy relief of William Schallert. And, yet, he escapes them. He's smarter than they are. He is, at least in this one instance, superior.

Throughout the film, in a somewhat bold move actually, a truck driver hauling bathroom materials played by Carroll O'Connor is seen, essentially tracked, for no apparent reason. You do, of course, eventually find out exactly what his purpose is, but it's previously cryptic. This slow, deliberate end to the picture turns into just about the saddest conclusion imaginable. These are basic violations of how Burns views his own life and his own purpose. Just as he had won the battle against modern methods before, here he quite clearly loses, plain and simple. This iconoclast who'd wanted to shrug off modern society and ideas he didn't agree with while causing very little harm overall is transformed into a failure (to a point). If society is indeed the vicious machine it's sometimes labeled as, Burns is eaten by it. I don't think Lonely Are the Brave quite approaches perfection, but I do believe there's an impact there which resolutely matters. This is a film that does deserve an audience, which should be considered and which realizes how difficult it can be to shake while still encouraging an approach of honesty over romanticism. It's one of the great variations on the western theme.

The Disc

How much power does Steven Spielberg have in Hollywood? Apparently, it's almost immeasurable. A featurette on this disc gives the distinct impression that it was Spielberg, after an attempt to add some clips from Lonely Are the Brave to a highlight reel for Kirk Douglas when he was honored by the Shoah Foundation in 2008, who got the film released on DVD. Regardless of your opinion on his work, the idea that Spielberg has that kind of pull is at once amazing and heartening when it comes to specific instances like this one.

The beautiful black and white anamorphic widescreen images of Lonely Are the Brave are preserved on this dual-layered disc's 2.35:1 transfer. It's progressive and top-notch. A few speckles pop up in the opening scenes, but there's just nothing worthy of complaint here. Grain is visible without being overwhelming. Detail sparkles. The contrast is about as good as one could reasonably hope for, and any minuscule imperfections pale against the main idea that this film is finally available in an official edition from Universal.

Audio gets the expected Dolby Digital English mono track, divided into two channels. Jerry Goldsmith's lonely score makes an impression amid the dialogue. I do wish the dialogue was a bit more consistent and stronger in the track, but it's a minor issue. Everything is audible and without any major hiss or crackle. This is a western with very little action on the soundtrack so you're mostly dependent on dialogue, atmospheric sounds and the score, all of which come through without much hesitation. Subtitles, white in color, are optional and available in Spanish, French and English for the hearing impaired.

The first of two featurettes, "Lonely are the Brave: A Tribute" (19:13) includes that Spielberg information I already mentioned. In addition to Spielberg, we also hear from Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands and Michael Douglas in new interviews. Keep in mind that the elder Douglas is in his nineties and is a stroke survivor. His contribution is brief but just having him on here is a symbolic gesture of goodwill. The whole piece is somewhat fluffy (typical of producer Laurent Bouzereau) and more lightweight in tone than the film. It's still welcomed and, realistically, an above average featurette for a major studio release. Though Douglas is not difficult to understood at all, the included subtitles are a thoughtful addition.

The other extra is on the film's score, which was done by the late Jerry Goldsmith, and is appropriately called "The Music of Lonely are the Brave" (9:46). Robert Townson, identified as a soundtrack producer and friend of Goldsmith's, is interviewed and discusses various cues from the film. There are even clips of unused pieces Goldsmith did for the final few scenes which are played over the corresponding portions of the film.

Even if it barely concerns the release in terms of recommending or not, I do feel it's appropriate to bring up how cheap the case used by Universal is. It's not as bad as the cases with actual cut-out parts we've recently seen from studios, but the flimsiness of the whole thing reeks more of cost-cutting than environmental consciousness. There surely must be better ways to help the Earth than producing plastic DVD cases which make consumers feel less important than they ever have before.

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