In “Lonely Are The Brave” by David Miller, Freedom is the Most Important Thing

Edited by M. Nero Nava. Leggi in Italiano

Western cinema encompasses many things; parables on life, our place in the world, an in-depth study of freedom and the lengths one will go to in order to achieve it, preserve it, or snatch it.

For John W. “Jack” Burns, the main character in David Miller’s 1962 film Lonely Are The Brave, freedom is the most important thing, and he chooses to live like he owns it, by not letting a changing world around him establish his boundaries.

For the film, the Edward Abbey novel The Brave Cowboy was reimagined by a Dalton Trumbo screenplay, and brought to life by Kirk Douglas’ performance as cowboy John W. Burns.  

Kirk Douglas as John W. "Jack" Burns in Lonely Are the Brave by David Miller
Kirk Douglas as John W. “Jack” Burns in Lonely Are the Brave by David Miller.

“Jack” is one of the last roaming ranch hands in an increasingly “civilized” West, an anarchist cowboy who lives by his personal code of ethics, a fascinating anti-modern hero who refuses to join modern society.  Despite his distrust of technology, his refusal to carry any I.D., a habit of cutting down any fence he comes across, and a resistance towards authority and modern life — Jack is often playful and never aggressive. He possesses nothing and wants very little. He is exclusively and whole-heartedly devoted to his friends, his vivacious brown mare Whisky, and, again, his idea of freedom. 

“Jack”, the anti-authority cowboy, gets himself intentionally arrested in order to break his friend Paul Bondi out of county jail. But Bondi is unwilling to become an escaped con (due to release date right around the corner), which leads Jack to escape alone in the night. In the process, he ends-up freeing the two Indians who shared his prison cell. Ultimately, this results in “Jack” being hunted down by sheriff Morey Johnson, played by Walter Matthau (in one of his best roles). Burns makes his way up the top of the Sandia Mountains with his horse in a breathtaking climb against all odds, against the end of his era, against the law that’s catching up with him.

Being John W. Burns takes true awareness, stubbornness and grit. Is he a hero, or is he insane? He is a dreamer, but does he know his dreams are doomed? To find the answers, we’ll look into the lives of the authors and performers who brought us his story. At the time of its release almost sixty years ago, Lonely Are The Brave was seen as a parable of the individual’s hopeless fight against the powers that be: a fight that Edward Abbey, Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas had personally experienced and managed to survive.

Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns riding a horse on the highway in "Lonely Are The Brave"
Kirk Douglas as John W. Burns: “Is he insane?”

Edward Abbey, born in Pennsylvania in 1927, wrote the 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy from which the David Miller film was adapted. After high school graduation in 1945, he left for an exploratory trip of the American Southwest before being drafted into the military, and serving as a military police officer in Italy for two years. He was twice promoted and demoted due to his opposition to military authority, which he illustrated in a letter to his family: ”There’s no denying it, we often act like Nazis”. Abbey was honorably discharged, but left with a profound distrust of the military and of large institutions in general.

During his undergraduate studies in New Mexico, Abbey wrote an article titled “Some Implications of Anarchy”, his first effort in a life-long exploration of anarchy as an alternative form of government. The FBI opened a file on him soon after, stemming from a letter he wrote to the students of his university, in which he urged the student body to rid themselves of their draft cards. Undeterred, he continued to sound the alarm against the dangers of a totalitarian techno-industrial state and its reckless exploitation of natural resources.

While working as a ranger for the United States National Park Service, he penned numerous novels and essays articulating this point of view. His writing style and ideals are mirrored in the personality of The Brave Cowboy’s  caustic and controversial protagonist John W. Burns. Abbey was once quoted saying he couldn’t “stay serious for more than half a page at a time”, despite conscientiously writing in a provocative style in order to “wake up people”. 

Abbey’s views differed in many ways from contemporary mainstream environmentalist organizations. His 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang encouraged the use of sabotage as a means of protest against industrial pollution. This act of defiance has been considered a source of inspiration by the radical environmental advocacy group Earth First! with whom he personally protested alongside on several occasions.

Edward Abbey in the desert
Edward Abbey in the desert.

Dalton Trumbo adapted the screenplay for the aforementioned movie. He was born in Colorado in 1905. He started working as a reporter during high school and moved to Los Angeles after college, where he worked the night shift at a bakery for nine years. During this time he also attended UCLA and wrote several books and over eighty short stories. His first novel (Eclipse) wasn’t published until 1935; tumultuous success followed. 

Trumbo became one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, but in 1946 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee due to his membership in the Communist party. He was asked whether Communist agents and sympathizers had surreptitiously planted propaganda in U.S. films; he refused to testify and was condemned to eleven months in prison, as well as being added to the Hollywood blacklist for fifteen years. During this time he continued working under other author’s names or pseudonyms. Perhaps his most celebrated work is the screenplay for Roman Holiday, which even won him an uncredited Academy Award for Best Story in 1953. 

However, in the early 60’s, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas openly supported and promoted Trumbo’s work as a screenwriter, namely on landmark films Exodus, Spartacus and Lonely Are the Brave. This cache helped Trumbo break from the blacklist and even reinstated him back into the Writers Guild of America. 

Trumbo’s screenplay for Lonely Are The Brave was originally titled The Last Hero, and followed Abbey’s original story closely, only changing one crucial detail. While in the novel Paul Bondi is in jail for refusing to register for military draft, which would have been unacceptable on screen at the time, in the movie Paul has offered help to illegal immigrants that crossed the border from Mexico – thus making the movie much more relevant to our times than the book originally was.

Dalton Trumbo at work in his bathtub.

Kirk Douglas completely embodied the character of John W. Burns and contributed to making him immortal through his glorious interpretation in Lonely Are The Brave. While his actual role in breaking the blacklist has been under debate recently on the press, there is no doubt that he supported Trumbo in the time of need – and like his character Burns, he was strong-willed and impulsive, and determined to get his way in life. 

As detailed in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916 from a family of Jewish immigrants who lived in extreme poverty after relocating from the Russian Empire to Amsterdam, NY. Growing up as Izzy Demsky, he delivered newspapers and sold snacks to mill workers, and worked more than forty jobs as a youth. He ultimately obtained a loan that allowed him to enroll at St. Lawrence University in New York, with plans to study acting. He continued to work a variety of odd jobs to sustain himself. Douglas graduated in 1939, and received a scholarship from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, which allowed him the acting elite, and even to meet future co-star and friend Lauren Bacall. 

Danielovitch, now known as ”Kirk Douglas” (a name he adopted before joining the Navy during World War II), broke into the film world with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers through the help of Lauren Bacall. Next he starred alongside Robert Mitchum and Kathie Moffat in Jacques Torneur’s fabulous noir Out Of The Past, where Douglas stole scenes as shady businessman Whit Sterling.

In the following decades, Douglas starred in countless movies. Westerns musicals, dramas and epic and iconic historical classics like Spartacus. However, he always considered the role of Jack Burns in Lonely Are The Brave as his personal favorite.

His unfaltering resolve and incredible talent brought him immense and well-deserved success throughout his long career. He was admired for his discipline and his sense of humour, and infamous for his aggressiveness  – much unlike his character Jack Burns. His closest friends and family attributed this trait to the hard times he endured in childhood, but also acknowledged that his “monstrous drive” was born out of his desire to achieve recognition from his alcoholic, neglectful father. And, to escape his dismal background. As for Douglas, he was aware of his flaws, and had come to terms with them: “I’m probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood. And I feel pretty good about it. Because that’s me…I was born aggressive, and I guess I’ll die aggressive”, he said to a biographer in the late Eighties. 

Kirk Douglas and Yul Brenner on set for Cast a Giant Shadow in 1966.
Kirk Douglas (left) with Yul Brenner, on set near the Jerusalem Hills for Cast a Giant Shadow in 1966.

Abbey, Trumbo and Douglas channeled their lives and ideals through the character of Jack Burns, bringing to a life a character without compromise. A counter culture character, who stood clearly against what we recognize as immoral and misguided trends in our society. The three men developed an authentic anti-hero, fueled by an innate angst: this angst is still alive, attractive and relevant nowadays. But the chance of fulfilling that dream may seem more elusive than ever. 

Most of us were born in a promising era of prosperity and hope, but grew up in an atmosphere of progressive disillusionment, mass disengagement and apathy. We, now, rather jadedly and wearily keep watching as history repeats itself, down to the dreadful details of the past. An apathy that threatens to shatter any leftover hope of witnessing meaningful progress in society during our lifetime. 

People deal with this awareness in different ways. Some say that life is in perpetual change, that its pace is accelerating at a maddening speed and we cannot possibly keep up with it without facing setbacks and missteps; others may be more inclined to think that time is a circle and we are bound to repeat our mistakes over and over again. H.P. Lovecraft may still speak for some of us with his words: “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far”. 

In fact, besides some very uplifting and underreported good news, in many ways we haven’t traveled far from the Old West: we still nurture racist feelings, we still let greed and self-interest guide our actions. We still conquer territories that do not belong to us and wipe out entire populations if they get in our way. We still insult, disrespect and abuse each other and especially the weak by any means. And, like supporting characters in Western movies usually do; we passively look the other way when abuse and injustice happens in front of our eyes. 

Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns in Lonely Are The Brave, lying on the ground
Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns in Lonely Are The Brave.

So, we find ourselves on the brink of yet another apocalyptic era for mankind, brought upon us by the characteristic forgetfulness and shortsightedness of our species, and made worse by the awareness of the fact that it’s very hard to do good without inadvertently but inescapably participating in the evil to some extent intertwined within. It would look like earth is no longer a hospitable planet for people like John W. Burns, Paul Bondi, or even Sheriff Morey Johnson. 

Maybe it never was the right place for rigorous, respectful and compassionate people, gifted with a steadfast resolve to pursue good will. In the words of Paul Bondi’s wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands): “The world in which you and Paul live doesn’t exist. Maybe it never did… and you either go by the rules or you lose. You lose everything.” 

Jack Burns’ seemingly anticlimactic answer to Jerry actually tells us everything we need to know to understand his worldview: “You can always keep something”.  
Jack knows he cannot possibly prevent modernity from making its way through society, but he can still embody those values of the past he holds dear, contributing to their survival way into the future: isn’t that the power of his character, still today?

Gena Rowlands and Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are The Brave.

There are still many in our days who, much like Jack Burns, choose not to surrender to the circumstances they find themselves in. People who choose to shape their environment through their actions and never give up on their vision, even if it means breaking written and unwritten rules and paying a high price for their audacity.

One may think of them as “dreamers”, but they are fully aware that the outcomes they’re striving for are, given the current state of the world, unlikely to be realized. They also know, however, that they can contribute to changing the current state of the world – thus bringing their ideals in some measure closer to realization. Their action in the present invigorates their vision of the future.

May their lives, spent in the unrelenting and uncompromising fight for self-determination, inspire us in our quest of this same kind of freedom: the freedom to give new life, today, to our (partly broken) dreams for tomorrow. 

Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, climbing up a mountain with his horse
Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns in Lonely Are The Brave: up he goes.

Lonely Are The Brave can be rented online on in Germany and Italy, and on Netflix in the US.

Header image: Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns in Lonely Are the Brave by David Miller, 1962.