Kirk Douglas passed away today at the age of 103. A legendary actor who starred in roles as diverse as Vincent Van Gogh, Doc Holliday, Spartacus, and Ulysses. He starred in multiple westerns; movies like Last Train From Gun Hill, War Wagon, The Way West, and Shootout at the OK Corral. I will always remember Kurt best for my favorite western and the movie he long claimed contained his favorite role, 1962's Lonely Are The Brave.
Jack Burns is the last of a dying breed. A roving cowboy, picking up work on any ranch that needs his help, we meet Jack coaxing his frightened horse Whiskey across a busy highway at the border of New Mexico. Jack's friend Paul is in jail, and Paul's wife Jerry tells him that Paul was imprisoned for aiding illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. Jack tells Jerry that no one should be able to tell a man where he can or can't go and what he can or can not do.
Jack starts a bar-room brawl and punches a police offer in order to get himself arrested and thrown in jail with Paul. Paul refuses to escape the jail with Jack, unwilling to risk his family and his future with such a short amount of time remaining in his sentence. Burns breaks out of his cell, returns to Jerry for his horse and some supplies, and rides towards the mountains.
Sheriff Johnson, played by Walter Matthau, sets out to capture the escaped fugitive. He learns that Burns is a veteran of the Korean War, having earned both seven months in a disciplinary training center for striking a superior officer and a Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross with oak leaf clusters for valor in battle. Jack's horse, Whiskey, is scared by the patrol helicopter and Jack takes a shot at it, hitting the rotor and causing it to make a crash landing.
A detective sees Whiskey in the distance, and is prepared to shoot the horse when Jack sneaks up and knocks the man unconscious with the butt of his rifle. With law closing in from three sides, Jack coaxes Whiskey up and over the Sandida Mountains, taking a rifle shot through the ankle. The Sheriff, who has grown to begrudgingly respect his quarry, acknowledges to his deputy that Burns has escaped.
In a heavy storm, Burns and Whiskey approach Highway 66. The rain, the sound of the traffic, and the blinding lights frighten Whiskey, and the horse and rider are hit by a truck hauling toilets. Sheriff Johnson arrives, and the truck driver asks if this is the man he heard being pursued on the radio. Johnson can't positively identify Burns, as he has never seen him up close, only from a distance. An ambulance takes Jack to the hospital while Sheriff Johnson euthanizes Whiskey.
Based on Edward Abbey's 1956 novel, The Brave Cowboy, the movie was made after Douglas convinced Universal Studios to produce it with himself in the starring role. Douglas further convinced the studio to allow Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to write the screenplay.
Any time he was asked about his long and varied career, Kirk Douglas pointed to Lonely Are The brave as his favorite role. "It happens to be a point of view I love," said Douglas. "This is what attracted me to the story – the difficulty of being an individual today." This movie was the first modern western—a movie that subverted expectations and questioned rather than glorified civilization's expanse into the West. Douglas did not want to star in the film, which shot under the working title The Last Hero. "I’m doing a picture that should have been done by only one guy. I know it—my entire company knows it. Start with the title — The Last Hero. Now whom does that fit—me? Hell, no!" Douglas wrote to his friend and fellow actor Gary Cooper. The film's director, Douglas wrote, had told him to "try and play this the way Gary Cooper would." Things were made worse when author Edward Abbey visited Douglas on set. “Fifty guys step off the plane but I spot him immediately," he explained later. "Why? He looks like Gary Cooper. To make matters worse, when I meet him, he talks like Cooper!” Gary Cooper died nine days after receiving his friend's letter. “I know now that at best I will come remotely close," Douglas had confided to his friend, "But more important—I do know also that just trying to be you will make a better me.”
A piece in the New York Times from 2012, fifty years after the release of the film, says " It’s hard to imagine a film so radical, or so pessimistic, being made today. Though a Korean War hero, Burns refuses to carry ID or listen to reason. He disrespects the power company by cutting its barbed-wire fences; the county jail, by breaking out; the sheriff, whose manhunt he eludes; the military-industrial complex, whose helicopter he shoots down; and us, the viewers, who — when the lights go up or the DVD ends — return to a life played mainly by the rules."
Most westerns don't challenge us. They don't ask us to consider the ways we harm the west. They don't suggest that our highways and our laws and our presence may be the very things that destroy the cowboy and his way of life. This story and this film did. That is the power of Edward Abbey and the strength of Kirk Douglas.