Lonely are the Brave

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Mar 24 09:33:43 MST 2001

When we first saw "Lonely are the Brave" in 1962, my fellow Bard College
students and I found it possible to appreciate the film on two levels. It
was similar to Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country" and other films
meditating on cowboy as beloved anachronism. This cowboy is a symbol
confronting all the new forces--the automobile, barbed-wire,
etc.--impinging on the last bastion of freedom, the old west.

In the opening scene of "Lonely are the Brave," we see Jack Burns (Kirk
Douglas) stretched out in front of a campfire with his horse by his side.
His restful contemplation of the awesome beauty of the New Mexico high
country is then interrupted by the raucous sound of a squadron of military
jets flying in formation overhead.

On another level the film seemed to evoke some of the beat generation
literature that many of us had read as high school students. In novels and
poems hearkening back to Thoreau's "Walden Pond," the beats rejected
civilization and embraced the simpler, freer and more rustic world of the
ranch hand, hobo or forest ranger. These were the sorts of characters who
cropped up in Kerouac's novels and found particular expression in the life
and work of Gary Snyder, the Buddhist poet who saw the Pacific Northwest
forests as a sanctuary from the corporate greed and mindlessness of the
Eisenhower era.

Now--nearly 40 years later--that I have learned the full story behind the
making of "Lonely are the Brave," the beat generation associations not only
become more meaningful, I also understand the importance of the film to the
radical movement since it brought together two disparate strands of the
American left: the screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, one of the greatest
blacklisted writers in Hollywood, while the screenplay itself was based on
one of Edward Abbey's anarchist/deep ecology masterpieces, "The Brave Cowboy."

The driving force behind the movie came from Kirk Douglas, who was one of
the first to challenge the blacklist by insisting that Dalton Trumbo write
the screenplay for "Spartacus" only 3 years earlier in 1958. Douglas, who
often co-starred in mindless beefcake spectacles with Burt Lancaster, was
not at all like the characters he played in films. He was the son of a
Russian Jewish ragman from the Lower East Side and a product like so many
in the entertainment industry of the vast cultural and social forces
embodied in the New Deal radicalization. While never a Communist himself,
he believed that the blacklist was evil and put his reputation on the line
by standing up for Trumbo. (Lancaster was not what he appeared as well. In
real life, he was bisexual and something of a radical.)

After a couple of years tending sheep, Jack Burns has come to town to break
his old friend Paul out of jail. Paul is a scholar about to be transferred
to a penitentiary to begin serving a two year for running a modest
underground railroad for undocumented workers from Mexico.

Since the only way he can free Paul is by becoming a prisoner himself, he
goes to town to find a saloon where booze and trouble often go together. He
is not disappointed. As soon as he takes a seat in one such establishment
to begin enjoying a bottle of whiskey with a beer chaser, a one-armed man
hurls an empty bottle at his head. In keeping with a innate sense of fair
play, Burns uses one arm to fight the man in a lusty barroom brawl that
honors the best traditions of the Western film.

After he is arrested, he finds himself in the holding pen with Paul where
he lays out his escape plan. With the two hacksaws he has smuggled inside
his boots, the two should be able to break out before morning arrives. Paul
demurs. He has a wife and a young son. The sentence for jail break in New
Mexico is 5 years. He would prefer to serve out his term and return to a
normal life. While a jail break might deliver freedom in the short run, it
also would sentence him and his family to a life on the run.

Although Jack can not persuade him to break out, he himself has no qualms.
With the assistance of Paul and other prisoners, he cuts through the bars
to the street below. He then returns to Paul's house where he has left his
horse. From there, he heads toward the mountains, beyond which Mexico and
freedom await.

>From this point, the main action of the film takes place, pitting the lone
resourceful cowboy against a posse made up of local lawmen and a helicopter
deployed by the same airforce base whose jets disturbed his peace in the
opening scene of the movie. In charge of the whole operation is Sheriff
Monty Johnson (Walter Matthau) who seems to harbor a secret desire to see
the prisoner escape. This is understandable since Johnson, and most of the
audience watching the film, probably felt trapped by American civilization
in the early 1960s. This world was described by Gary Snyder in the
following terms in the poem "Front Lines":

A bulldozer grinding and slobbering
Sideslipping and belching
The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes
In the pay of a man
>From town.

Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic
And a desert that still belongs to the Piute
And here we must draw
Our line

Although we identify with Jack Burns's bid for freedom, there is a
foreboding sense that it will not be successful. As he climbs up the
mountain with his horse in tow, we feel that he will be captured at any
moment. This climb might have reminded many college students of the Myth of
Sisyphus that Albert Camus had interpreted as a symbol of the existential
fate of modern man. In this Greek myth the hero pushes a boulder up a hill
for all eternity. Just as he is about to reach the summit and freed of his
burden, the boulder comes tumbling down on him. For Camus, this represents
the failure of 20th century man to achieve deliverance from the oppressive
social and economic forces that control him. Even ideologies like Marxism
that promised freedom only served to erect new barriers.

Although the film resonates with such overarching philosophical concerns,
you have to turn to Abbey's novel to find their full expression, especially
the scene in which Jack explains his decision to break jail to Paul's wife

"You say you’re going to hide for a few days—what does that mean? What
then? Where will you go?"

Burns ate heartily; a touch of egg adorned his beard. "I can go north, west
or south. Winters comin so I guess I’ll go south: Chihuahua or maybe
Sonora, dependin on how things look."

"What will you do down there?"

"I dunno. Just live, I guess." He swabbed his plate with a piece of bread.
"I like Mexico—it’s a good clean honest sorta country. I have friends there."

"But Jack—" Jerry hesitated. "You’ll be back, won’t you?"

"Sure. When I'm nothin but a face on the postoffice wall I’ll come
a-sneakin back. You’ll see me comin down across the mesa out there some
evening when things are peaceful."

"Don’t talk to me like that. You know you can’t go on like this—you’re in
the Twentieth Century now."

"I don’t tune my life to the numbers on a calendar."

"That’s ridiculous, Jack. You’re a social animal, whether you like it or
not. You’ve got to make some concessions—or they’ll hunt you down like a...
like a... What do people hunt down nowadays?"

"Coyotes," Burns said. "With cyanide guns." He finished his coffee and
wiped his mouth. "I better get a move on."

Another important distinction between the novel and the film is that both
Paul and Jack are self-professed anarchists in the novel. Although Jack is
not prone to discuss politics, it is clear that his political beliefs
underpin his unquenchable desire for personal freedom. His friend Paul is
much more the ideologue, who is in jail not for harboring undocumented
workers but for refusing to register with the draft in 1948. Despite having
served in the military during WWII, both Paul and Jack feel that a
peacetime draft is the first step toward militarizing American society.
They were right, of course.

Abbey's anarchistic defense of personal freedom and pristine wilderness
made him a hero to the deep ecology movement, especially the wing that used
sabotage against the bulldozers and other mechanized instruments of
"development." His 1975 novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" amounted to a
manifesto of Earth First activism. To defend the American West against a
Big Government/Big Business, a cabal of rugged individualists choose to
throw a monkey wrench into the machinery creating roads, dams, bridges and
other dubious symbols of civilization.

This movement continues to this day and makes up a substantial part of the
anti-WTO protests that reverberate out of Seattle. On reflection, the
anarchists appear to evoke certain themes found in Abbey's literature
beyond a hatred for out-of-control development. Namely, they seem to be in
love with the notion of the beautiful loser embodied in Jack Burns's
Sisyphean bid for freedom. Anarchism, unlike Marxism, seems less interested
in strategies for victory but more in dramatic gestures that evoke personal
refusal to go along with the status quo, no matter the price. For
anarchists, key historical events seem to be more about defeat than
victory. While Marxists commemorate October 1917, the anarchists are
fixated on the defeat of the Kronstadt rebellion or the Spanish Republic.
(This is something of a mystery to me since I believe that socialism must
be built on victories rather than defeat. In months to come I plan to
explore some of these questions as they relate more directly to anarchist

The other thing to keep in mind is that the deep ecology movement's pursuit
of aboriginal purity has led it to sometimes embrace dubious notions
bordering on xenophobia. While Abbey, who played a bit part as a cop in
"Lonely are the Brave", seemed to have no objection to Paul being
transformed from an anarchist draft resister into a comrade of undocumented
workers, he would eventually take an entirely different attitude toward
immigration issues. He wrote, "It would be wise for us as American citizens
to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of
hungry, ignorant, unskilled, culturally, generally impoverished people."
This kind of anarchism seems to fit in neatly with the anti-immigration
agenda of such mainstream outfits as the Sierra Club and the Worldwatch

Finally, it is worth considering how the logic of the lone rebel can be
driven to the extreme when detached from underlying questions of class.
After all, the plot of Sylvester Stallone's "First Blood" has many
similarities with "Lonely are the Brave." After Rambo breaks out of jail,
he manages not only to avoid capture by a posse, he shoots down a
helicopter in a scene that is practically stolen from the original. With
Alexander Cockburn's flirtation with the militias, these sorts of questions
take on a genuine immediacy.

Louis Proyect
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