Friday, September 25, 2009

Lonely Are the Brave

This image is a still-frame from Lonely Are the Brave, a 1962 film starring Kirk Douglas, which was filmed in and around Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains. (It's set in "Duke City, New Mexico," which of course is a thinly veiled reference to Albuquerque [a/k/a "the Duke City"], and is based on Edward Abbey's novel Brave Cowboy.) The film recently came out on DVD for the first time in the U.S., and of course I had to buy it. Douglas plays Jack Burns, one of the last of a dying breed of loner cowboys, someone who carries no ID, rides his horse cross-country to get from place to place, and has little regard for civil authority. Burns, after visiting with his good friend's wife (played by Gena Rowlands -- see photo), for whom he harbors a mutually felt, but unrealized romantic love, gets himself arrested (following a disturbing, unprovoked fight with a vicious one-armed man in a nearby cantina) so that he can visit with his friend in the county jail, hoping to convince him to escape. The friend has been sentenced to two years in the state pen for assisting and concealing illegal immigrants (whom the script unabashedly refers to as "wetbacks" -- the mere idea of anyone's serving that kind of time for such a mundane offense seems laughable these days); however, the friend, not wishing to jeopardize his freedom (and his family's financial situation) further, refuses to break out with Burns, leaving the latter to flee by himself. The rest of the movie concerns itself with Burns's efforts to escape up and over the Sandia Mountains and down into Mexico. (The geography is a little out of whack, since hiking up and over the Sandias from Albuquerque takes one east, not south -- not to mention the fact that a couple hundred miles of increasingly hot desert would still separate him from Mexico -- but, hey, it's Hollywood.)

Walter Matthau, playing the local sheriff, organizes a pursuit but seems privately to hope Burns escapes. Burns, refusing to abandon his horse as he scrambles up steep, rocky terrain, barely makes it to the rim of the Sandias and into the forest on the other side, receiving a bullet wound to the lower leg in the process. However, the movie ends abruptly and inconclusively when Carroll O'Connor (who later would become famous in his role as Archie Bunker in the 70s sitcom All In the Family), hauling a truckload of toilets to Duke City, hits Burns and his skittish horse as they attempt to cross Route 66. The horse is euthanized and Burns is hauled off to hospital; we don't know whether he survives or dies, but it doesn't seem to matter either way, inasmuch as his way of life dies symbolically with the horse.

The movie was shot in black and white, but the cinematography, with its clarity and wide variety of tones, is outstanding in any case. The camera work in the Sandias is generally limited to (a) the lower part of the mountain in the Juan Tabo Canyon area, and (b) the upper part of the mountain near Sandia Crest (and the upper terminus of the La Luz [i.e., Crest Spur] Trail);
however, the editing creates the effect that the mountain is alternately taller, and shorter, than it really is, which seems a little disorienting for someone who's familiar with the topography. It's fascinating to see what those areas looked like in 1962, when I was two or three years old. I do know that the crew constructed a trail for some of the lower-elevation shots, which is now known as the "Movie Trail" and has been extended up to a rock formation known as the "Prow," although that whole area is closed for much of the year, ostensibly to benefit nesting raptors.

Lonely Are the Brave was perhaps Kirk Douglas's favorite of the films he made, and I have to say that I like it a lot, too, if for slightly different reasons.