I am sure that it has happened before, but I am very much aware of the fact that when I stumble across a great film like this one, and it IS great, film fans reading my review may well end up rolling their eyes and muttering "well . . . duh." But here I go anyway.
Kirk Douglas is John W. "Jack" Burns, a cowboy in a world in which very few cowboys are left. We first see him sorting out his horse as an airplane flies overhead, a jarring juxtaposition of two very different worlds. Jack is a tough, independent guy, and when he hears that an old friend has been placed in prison he gets himself put in there alongside him, ready to plan an escape. The friend, however, doesn't want to spend his life on the run. Jack doesn't mind though. He'll keep moving anyway.
Directed by David Miller, Lonely Are The Brave is an adaptation of an Edward Abbey novel brought to the screen by Dalton Trumbo. While I am not familiar with Miller, his work behind the camera here is pretty spot on, and he's able to make the most of the superb script and winning performance from Douglas. This isn't necessarily saying that the world still needs men like Douglas in it, but it does question why so many feel threatened by him, and what he represents, and it shows how much more there is to the man than just a figure on a horse.
As the man hanging on to a "lost" way of life, Douglas is at his very best here. He's tough, charming, frustratingly obstinate, and believable. These qualities frustrate Jerry Bondi (Gena Rowlands), aggravate Deputy Sheriff Gutierrez (George Kennedy) when Jack is residing in his prison, intrigues Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) when Jack is attempting to evade capture, and makes him a very memorable character to spend time with. And all of those other people I have just mentioned give equally great performances, in different ways. Rowlands has an air of worry and slight exasperation about her, Kennedy is a sonofabitch, and Matthau gives yet another one of his weary and pragmatic turns.
One of many films to show a fading American dream, Lonely Are The Brave stands out because of how it makes use of the archetypal cowboy figure. That's interesting enough, yet it's even more interesting to view this nowadays and see how much it feels like a template for a certain other movie about someone strong and self-sufficient returning to a small town and butting heads with authority figures. Yes, I'd happily suggest that First Blood owes more than a small debt to this, and maybe it was in the back of David Morrell's mind as he worked on the novel that would be released a decade after this movie.
There are just one or two minor omissions here that hold it back from being perfect, a step from the middle section to the third act that leaves it feeling a bit less strongly structured as it could be, but I could easily see myself bumping this score up in the future. Part of me wants to rewatch it already, and I just finished it less than an hour ago.
I'm not even going to link to a poor disc copy here. This NEEDS better treatment.