Lonely Are the Brave; or, Hearting/Hating That Brave Cowboy Thing

by cowboylands

Another movie for the Iranian president to see, or any other person who yearns to be a movie-type cowboy instead of a real one.

Lonely Are the Brave, filmed in 1962 with Kirk Douglas as the drifter rejecting the modern West, and the great Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau as his costars.

It was based on The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, written over twelve years before Desert Solitaire. In its pages his unsentimentality about the West and humanity’s cherished dreams crashes into pretty-sunset-cowboy-romance pictures with forty tons of steel and the shriek of air brakes, literally two short pages before the last line.

The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, cover illustration by Roy Gifford, Pocket Books, 1957. from the collection of E. Smith

The book begins like most other mid-fifties western novels, with a cowboy drifter in the mountains, at peace with himself and his surroundings. “He was sitting his heels in the cold light of dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass,” Abbey writes, letting the drifter then enjoy a smoke under a juniper, scour his pan with sand, and then cajole and outsmart his horse, Whiskey, “the bitch”–a pastoral of the human as one with the wilderness. But the book ends with this elemental being struck from the face of the earth, as “…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands–the fury of men and women immured in engines.” Damn that Abbey. If it weren’t such a good book, I would’ve sank into depression the size of Hells Canyon, Idaho.

Blowing through the text is a deep ambivalence about humans’ place in the wilderness and the movie kept that uneasy love/hate relationship with the mythic cowboy.

Although Jack Burns (Douglas) boldly proclaims his manifesto…

A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them…. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?

…he’s fully aware (okay, okay, the scriptwriter is aware) that that drifty thing comes with a steep price:

Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you. Because he couldn’t love you, not the way you are loved.

(Note that “you” was Gena Rowlands–honestly, I would hang up my spurs for her. That Burns guy was nuts.)

So there’s a movie for the Human Beings Versus the West and the West Wins Category.

BTW, it’s not a movie from the fifties though; if you want one of those, check out *Wild Western Web newflash50 Westerns from the Fifties, which promises to reveal plenty of undervalued gems.

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2 Comments to “Lonely Are the Brave; or, Hearting/Hating That Brave Cowboy Thing”

  1. oh my gawd he sounds like sooo many of my former boyfriends!

  2. He is the ur-former boyfriend.

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