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Lonely are the Brave

Director: David Miller
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau, Gena Rowlands, Michael Kane, George Kennedy and Carroll O'Connor

(US DVD: 7 Jul 2009)

After Kirk Douglas helped break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring the well-known radical Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for 1960’s Spartacus,  Douglas teamed up again with Trumbo on Lonely Are the Brave. But that excellent film from 1962, which Trumbo adapted from Edward Abbey’s novel and stars Douglas as a cowboy who doesn’t fit in with life in modern America, has long been hard to see.


That changes with the recent release of Lonely Are the Brave on DVD as part of Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s Universal Backlot Series, along with three other adventure films. Directed by David Miller, the movie succeeds as both a suspenseful chase-adventure tale and as a character study of a man who has become an anachronism in his own time.


Lonely Are the Brave states its point of view with a brilliant opening scene: As cowboy Jack Burns (Douglas) attempts to get some sleep in a makeshift outdoor campsite, his rest is disturbed by jet planes flying overhead. And as Burns rides on horseback to visit his best friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) and Bondi’s wife (Gena Rowlands, in only her second movie role), he and his horse must get past fences marked “Closed Area” and cross a highway crowded with cars and large trucks.


In a social commentary that could have been written yesterday, Trumbo’s screenplay has Bondi locked up in the county jail for two years for aiding illegal aliens from Mexico, by helping them find work and shelter. After a warm reunion with Rowlands, with whom Burns clearly shares more than just an enduring friendship, the cowboy purposely gets himself arrested so he can see his old buddy. But when Burns finds a way to break out of jail, his friend decides to stay behind.


Here begins the second part of Lonely Are the Brave, as the local sheriff (played with deadpan wit by Walter Matthau) reluctantly goes after the escaped cowboy, using all of technology he can bring to the chase—including jeeps, police cars, mobile radios and Air Force helicopters.


In a recently made DVD documentary, Lonely Are the Brave: A Tribute, Douglas calls the film “one of my favorites”, though he says he never liked the title, preferring the far more apt “The Last Cowboy”. Douglas’ son, Michael Douglas, adds that it’s “my favorite picture that Dad has done.” Both father and son praise Trumbo’s work, with Michael Douglas saying that “Dalton Trumbo wrote a magnificent screenplay that was a great comment on society at that time.”


Stephen Spielberg is also present to praise the film, noting how the “naturalistic” acting of Douglas and Rowlands contrasts with the somewhat “artificial” performances of the modern-day authority figures such as Matthau and George Kennedy (as a brutal sheriff’s deputy). And Spielberg accurately points out that Burns’ warm relationship with his horse, Whiskey, is probably “the best since Roy Rogers and Trigger.”


Lonely Are the Brave has long had a notable reputation, but it was hard to see. Spielberg tells a story about working on a tribute to Kirk Douglas, wanting to include some scenes from Lonely Are the Brave and not being able to find any prints of the film. But the movie was discovered in Universal’s vaults and made available. And now all fans of solid acting and literate, topical screenplays can view it as well.


In addition to Lonely Are the Brave, the other movies out this week on DVD in the Universal Backlot Series are:


Beau Geste (1939): Producer/director William Wellman’s yarn is about the three adventurous Geste brothers — played by Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston (who don’t in the slightest way resemble or sound like brothers) — joining the French Foreign Legion. The story starts well and includes some suspenseful action sequences as the legionnaires battle angry Arabs — though there’s not a lot of sensitivity here, to put it mildly, as to why the Arabs might not like the French colonial troops who have occupied their land.


Despite decent performances by the three leads, and a scenery-chewing but memorable turn by Brian Donlevy as a sadistic sergeant, the film bogs down during flashbacks to the Gestes’ youthful days. Here, a teenage Donald O’Connor plays Cooper’s character as a boy — though with hindsight it would have made more symmetrical sense had the future song-and-dance man O’Connor played the character of future song-and-dance man Preston rather than that of the stoic Cooper.


The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936): Director Henry Hathaway’s romantic drama is most notable for being the first Hollywood Technicolor film to be shot largely outdoors — with California’s Big Bear Lake and Big Bear Valley subbing for the Blue Ridge Mountains — and for providing early leading roles for future stars Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray. Sylvia Sidney provides the love interest in a romantic triangle involving feuding families and the construction of a railroad.


Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944): This Technicolor tale, directed by Arthur Lubin, reunites the stars of 1942’s “Arabian Nights” — Maria Montez (aka the Caribbean Cyclone) and Jon Hall — for another dubious adventure filled with intrigue, treachery and mistaken identities, and American, Latino and European actors portraying Arabs. (Can you imagine Andy Devine as Abdullah?) Hall plays Ali Baba, a man on a mission seeking revenge for the death of his father and the loss of his rightful crown, while also trying to rescue the lovely Amara (Montez) from the bad guys.


Fans of Jeff Garlin, who plays the oft-put upon manager of Larry David on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm have reason to rejoice this week. Garlin’s first comedy special, Young & Handsome: A Night With Jeff Garlin is being released on DVD prior to its airing on Comedy Central this fall.


Recorded about a year ago at Chicago’s Second City Theatre, the show finds Garlin telling very funny stories about his wife, caulking the bathtub, working as a security guard at rock concerts, buying cookies and other mundane matters of everyday life. Except that Garlin’s life, or his recounting of incidents from his life, is funnier than yours and mine.

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