Early in Lonely are the Brave, a cowboy named Jack Burns, Kirk Douglas, is riding back to civilization. Even though Burns and his horse “Whiskey” have been “out on the range” for weeks, this is not the old west. It’s the late 1950s. He looks up in the sky at a airliner, shimmering in the bright sun, leaving a trail of condensation, heading for Los Angeles. In the distance he sees, not a small town with a hitching post and a saloon, but a large patch of suburban sprawl along the highway. When he tries to cross the highway, Whiskey panics. Burns is stranded in the middle of the road, cars rushing by him on either side, an anachronistic symbol of an American frontier that never was.
I have not read The Brave Cowboy, the Edward Abbey novel that the blacklisted communist screen writer Dalton Trumbo adapted for the movie. But Trumbo is far too smart to buy into the myth of the rugged American individualist. Burns looks just like a Hollywood cowboy, the Marlboro Man come to life, but he’s not so much a cowboy as he is a homeless, casual ranch hand and farm laborer. He owns no property, just a horse and a rifle. He carries no identification. He’s a Korean War veteran with a history of getting thrown into the stockade for insubordination. Jack Burns is the kind of man the American ruling class used to steal the land from the Indians, to slaughter the buffalo, to herd cattle, to transform the wild North American continent into private property. He’s useless and he knows it.
That’s what makes his rebellion so inspiring.
After Burns coaxes Whiskey off the highway, he goes to the house of his friend Jerry Bondi, a young Gena Rowlands. Bondi isn’t Burns’ lover. On the contrary, she’s married to his best friend, Paul Bondi,who’s serving a two year prison sentence for aiding and abetting “illegal immigrants.” Unstated, but surely hanging over Lonely are the Brave, is Eisenhower’s mass deportation of Mexican immigrants in the 1950s, the “Operation Wetback” that began in 1954 shortly after the fall of Joseph McCarthy. Hollywood may have caught a break after Joseph Welch humiliated the Senator from Wisconsin at the Army McCarthy Hearings, but for Mexicans the horror story was only beginning. Edward Abbey was occasionally criticized in the 1980s for having problematic (even openly fascist) views on immigration. None of that is in evidence here. Burns, and Trumbo, see the United States, Mexican border as one more fence, and fences, Burns maintained, have ruined the old west. When Jerry Bondi expresses her disapproval of her husband going to jail, he accuses her of being jealous of his confinement exactly the way she’d be jealous of another woman. Helping Mexican immigrants evade the law, Abbey and Trumbo suggest, is a labor of love.
Burns decides on a plan. He will go to a local bar, get drunk, and get into a fight. The police will put him in jail with Paul Bondi, and they can both escape together. Burns succeeds in picking a fight with a one armed World War II veteran. To be more accurate, he tries his best to avoid a fight with a man who’s so bitter, so mean, so violent that the police decide to let him go with a warning. He then assaults a police office. It means a year in jail, but he doesn’t care. Obeying the law and staying out of prison isn’t freedom. On the contrary, breaking the law, then demonstrating that no jail can hold you is freedom. Paul Bondi isn’t interested in escape. He just wants to do his two years, then go back to his wife. So Burns escapes by himself. Burns, the film implies, is the last free man in the west, a true rugged individualist who’s all the more doomed because he has to take on the system all by himself.
The chase through the Sandia Mountains that closes Lonely are the Brave makes for both a great western and a great deconstruction of the western as a genre. It’s Jack Burns against not only the local police, but the national guard. He becomes, in effect, an Indian on the run from the cowboys, no longer a white settler, but a fugitive trying to make one last stand against the industrial civilization that will eventually kill him. The police have jeeps, radios, and a helicopter. All Jack Burns has is his rifle and his horse Whiskey.
It’s almost enough. Burns almost makes it across the ridge of the Sandia Mountains and almost makes it to the Mexican border. He disables the national guard’s helicopter, and beats up the police officer who tortured him in prison. While the police are blasting away behind him, he manages to ride into the thick forest with only a minor gunshot wound to his ankle. But to what end? Even if he gets out of the country, all he’s going to the same, corrupt civilization that he wants to escape in the United States in Mexico. He rides out onto the highway. Whiskey, as we have seen, panics in traffic and freezes up. Jack Burns has come to the end of the road. But at least he goes down swinging.
Final note: Jack Burns’ death takes on an added layer of irony when we realize that the man who accidentally runs him down is played by a young Carol O’Connor, Archie Bunker himself. Trumbo, great writer though he was, couldn’t have written an ending like that if he tried. He did it by accident.