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Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, a loner cowboy who was born a century too late in Lonely Are the Brave (Joel Productions & Universal-International)

"Lonely Are the Brave is my favorite movie.  I love the theme that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you…I pleaded with Universal not to release Lonely Are the Brave like a cheap little Western, which is how they saw it…" (Ragman's Son 339, 341)

The late 1950s and early 1960's saw an explosion of experimental films made by young French directors like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Claude Chabrol.  This French "New Wave" movement won international acclaim while also earning big bucks at the U.S. box office.  New art house venues were thriving and Americans were developing a hearty appetite for European art cinema.  It was against this industrial climate that Kirk Douglas became interested in producing a new American western, one that would challenge the stronghold of the international avant-garde and remind American audiences that Hollywood craftsmanship can compete with foreign films. "I got tired of hearing people rave about the 'artistry' of European films," he told one reporter.  "We can make just as fine films in America—and I decided to prove it." ("Kirk Douglas Film Has Odd Career")

Based on Edward Abbey's novel "The Brave Cowboy," and adapted as a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Lonely Are the Brave follows the story of a free-spirited cowboy named Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) who struggles to live as an individual among the encroaching world of modern civilization.  After coming to the aid of a friend (Michael Kane) and then breaking out of jail, Burns is chased on horseback through the perilous 2-mile high cliffs of the Sandia mountain range in Central New Mexico, fighting off helicopters and the forces of law and modernity.  He is patiently pursued by the mild-mannered Sherrif Johnson (Walter Matthau), who secretly hopes that the cowboy makes it over the border to safety.

Lonely are the Brave was not only Kirk Douglas's favorite film, but it was also a source of pride for the team who made it. Executive Producer Edward Lewis notes that the film tested extremely well with audiences but "for me, more important, is the fact that I love it—I can truthfully say that it's the first picture that I've made that I really like."  Cinematographer Philip Lathrop and director David Miller shared this sentiment, and script supervisor, Dick Michaels, called the work "a fine creative film" and notes that working on it "was a fortunate opportunity," a genuine compliment from a man who adds that he "is not interested in being a script supervisor much longer."

Before production even started, the script was sent to author Edward Abbey for comments, an unusual move in the industry that demonstrates the team's commitment to the story and the character development of Jack Burns. "All of us involved in this project have long admired the novel and it is for this reason that we submit the screenplay to you for your comments you may care to make on it," Lewis writes.  While "delighted" with the script, Abbey begs the producers not to use the original working title "The Last Hero," a plea that was heeded, however, not because of Abbey's insistence but because the rights could not be secured.  A five-page list of potential titles was circulated before "Lonely Are the Brave" was selected; it "tested by far the best of many we tried, primarily because it connoted 'quality.'"

Nonetheless, the script still went through the usual back-and-forth with the MPAA Production Code Administration.  Geoffrey Shurlock's concern with the scripts "crudities" demonstrates the negotiations between writers and censors in the years before the ratings system was implemented. Despite Shurlock's dogged insistence on the removal of fart jokes, wayward preachers, and extraneous "hells" and "damnits," he ultimately found the film to be "an exciting story which reveals the very heart of the American spirit."  It was proof, he said, that "outstanding films can still be made without the immortality and decadence which pervades many of today's movies."

Rogers & Cowan, Kirk Douglas's public relations firm, worked on developing a unique publicity point of view that focused on Bryna's two-fold conception of the film's themes of "realism" and "ruggedness."   The "American neo-realism" that they identify includes a "semi-documentary" feel to the filmmaking.  In sharp contrast to Spartacus, Bryna's newly released big budget epic, Lonely Are the Brave was shot in black and white and produced on a much lower budget.  In addition, they planned to pitch magazine layouts on angles that emphasized the autobiographical nature of the script and the inclusion of local people in the production (particularly the casting of an actual one-armed man, Bill Raisch, for the part of One-Arm, with whom Douglas has a barroom brawl). 

The publicity plan also notes that Edward Abbey's wife is an artist and the novel describes her paintings as decorating one of the scenes, a detail that would be incorporated in the actual film as well. It is noted that, "this will be, in effect, the greatest initial exhibition any artist ever received…Interviews and possibly a magazine layout can be done on this."  Alas, the exhibition was not a happy one for Mrs. Abbey.  "I don't quite know how to word this," Rita Abbey writes to Ed Lewis after seeing publicity stills, "but I was very distressed by the hanging of one particular painting which was a horizontal landscape—hung perpendicularly to fit the wall space.  … in the case of an abstract landscape it never works the wrong way… I'll have to close my eyes during that scene."

Despite the film's promise and positive reviews, Universal-International, the film's distributor, considered Lonely Are the Brave a flop at the box office. Douglas and others involved in the film's production were personally disappointed with the handling of the film. "What broke my heart was that they tossed the picture into a theater and let it die," Douglas later commented. ("Hollywood Flop"). Instead of opening for a first run at a Broadway theater in New York, the film opened directly on the theater circuits in the summer months of 1962. The production team worried that reviews for the film were not given the same prominence that it might have recieved if it had opened on Broadway first. "On a circuit premier you get the second-string critics normally," John Friedkin writes in a memo to Warren Cowan. "The space and position in the paper depend on which Broadway openings run the same day... Few good pix, and this is a good one, take the loss to build up prestige."

Douglas himself hoped to see the film in art houses and smaller, more intimate theaters.  "When the picture was first released, people assumed it was just another western. And it wasn't reaching the right audiences." Douglas said in an interview. "I thought this was the kind of picture people would discuss." ("Hollywood Flop") After being named one of the top 10 films of 1962 by national publications like Time, Newsweek, and The Saturday Review, Douglas finally succeeded in getting the film re-issued in early 1963 where it enjoyed a successful run in art houses like the Surf Theater in Chicago and the River Oaks Theater in Houston.

- Megan Sapnar, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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